December 2007: I get a call from a casting guy in Los Angeles. Top Gear, the most awesome automotive TV show ever made, is coming to the United States – again. They want to talk to me. I pack my bags for L.A. quicker than you can jam a star into a reasonably priced car.
I have an on-camera interview at the BBC offices, and frankly it doesn’t go that well. I pitch them an idea or two – one host takes evasive driving lessons, another takes a police pursuit course, then they’re let loose on a track in Dodge Chargers for a hot pursuit – but get a rather cool response. Later, I talk to Dan Neil from the L.A. Times, who was also called to audition, and ask him how his interview went. He says they asked him about Jeremy Clarkson, the linchpin of British Top Gear, and he replied, “Jeremy Clarkson is a well-known pedophile and the ugliest man in Britain.” Clearly, Neil’s interview tactics were slightly different from mine.
Encouragingly, Neil makes the cut. I do not, as I learn that the other two hosts are Adam Carolla and drifter/rally racer Tanner Foust. Things seem set to proceed until NBC makes the perplexing – in retrospect, foreboding – decision to replace Neil, the only guy whose roots, like Clarkson’s, lie in journalism.
I’m in Japan when I get an e-mail from another casting person. Now that there’s a spot open, they want me back at the BBC offices. I fly from Tokyo to Boston, then turn around a day later and fly back to L.A. This time, my meeting goes rather well, I think. Except that the BBC people make it clear that they’re trying to copy the British version right down to the hosts’ personalities, and they’re thinking of me for the thoughtful, contrarian James May role. May is known as Captain Slow, and his disdain for the macho antics of the other two helps fuel the show’s comedy. May is also unapologetic about his hopeless driving skills. So basically, I’m in a room full of people telling me that I have a shot at fame and treasure, if only I’ll agree that I’m a bad driver.
The intellectual side of my brain is screaming for me to say things like, “What’s an apex again, now?” and, “Why would anyone need anything faster than a ?” but I can’t do it. My ego overrides my ambition, and I blurt, “Actually, I’m a pretty good driver. I held my own against Dale Earnhardt, Jr., in a Corvette Z06 on a short road course. I picked things up pretty quickly at rally school. I once rented a car and drove to the Nürburgring to try to do laps during a layover in Frankfurt. I like to go fast.” I can see by their faces that these are the wrong answers.
They end up casting a guy who drives a Hybrid and is one of People magazine’s “Sexiest Men Alive,” a distinction that is not on my résumé. By all accounts, the pilot turns out quite well. The show is rumored for the fall 2008 schedule, then as a spring replacement. Ultimately, NBC announces that it won’t be making the show. On his radio program, Carolla likens the situation to a rich guy who commissions an expensive portrait of his wife, sees it executed exactly as he wishes, then stashes it in the basement, never to be seen again. Meanwhile, NBC airs Howie Mandel’s Howie Do It.
So Top Gear in America is in limbo once again. There are lots of theories as to why it keeps running aground, but I suspect that the issue is larger than casting decisions or which broadcasting entity is calling the shots. The bigger problem is TV’s marginalization of cars in general. Millions of people read car magazines, and millions of people love cars. And yet, judging by TV programming, you’d think cars were some esoteric topic on the plane of, say, speargun hunting. (Actually, it’s easier to find a show about speargun hunting – Speargun Hunter, on the Outdoor Channel.) Based on a perusal of the local TV listings, you’d think that everyone owns a bass boat and nobody has a car.
There’s a broadcasting vacuum when it comes to cars. They seem fundamentally misunderstood. Cars are not Knight Rider, nor Pimp My Ride, nor Overhaulin’. Cars are a basic underpinning of modern life – whether you own one or not – and as such can be a premise for a smart show that can use the concept of mobility as a springboard for all sorts of clever ideas. That’s what Top Gear understands and, so far, no other show in the U.S. really does. Absent Top Gear, there’s room for something to fill that vacuum. I’m going to keep trying.