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Top Gear America Behind the Scenes: Trucks Totaled, Obstacles Overcome

It’s hard enough making a TV show—then the pandemic hit.

We're somewhere east of Flagstaff, Arizona, in the Coconino National Forest. A bustling film crew crunches back and forth over shifty piles of ancient lava rock. There's no one around for miles; cellphone service is nonexistent. One car has stubbornly conked out halfway up a steep hill. We're losing light, and fast.

In any other situation, this would be a recipe for disaster. But on Top Gear America, this unexpected turn of events is par for the course. And as a producer on the show, I'm seeing it all occur in real time.

For the past 28 seasons and counting, the U.K. version of Top Gear has been the gold standard of high-quality automotive content. Originally a straightforward review series, it underwent a dramatic transformation in 2002. Although the show was as informative as ever, it was also now wildly entertaining to boot, topped off by epic filmmaking.

But Top Gear's real draw was the iconic trio of Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond as the hosts. They were collaborators. Conspirators. They were brilliant, funny, and as talented in front of the camera as they were behind the wheel.

So when BBC and MotorTrend joined forces to develop Top Gear America, "finding the right cast was the top priority," says Travis Shakespeare, executive producer of the show for BBC. "There are things we can do as producers to stack the deck to make the best show possible, but if you don't have that essential lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry, it doesn't matter how great the production really is, because it just won't land."

In other words, they knew that recruiting "car guys" wouldn't be good enough. This trio had to be downright captivating.

Just Find the Perfect Hosts—No Problem

Dax Shepard's name was on the list from the very start. A car guy through and through, Dax grew up in Detroit to parents who both worked in the automotive industry. While other kids were content with having a license and a car at 16, Dax was roaring around Michigan International Speedway in Corvettes.

And Dax can drive.

"Generally on a film set I'm asked to slow down," he says. "But on Top Gear America, I'm encouraged to drive like I did in high school. Sometimes I'm even applauded for doing so."

If Dax was born with the car gene, Rob Corddry has been sequencing it in a lab. Famous for his work on The Daily Show and creator of the comedy Children's Hospital, Rob's obsession with cars was just in need of the right outlet.

"I represent the car enthusiast viewer who, like me, has never done these things they've longed to do," he says. "Because I don't have the pedigree of the other two hosts, I have to put a lot of work into my choices. If I can be so bold, I think I'm pretty good at it."

Jethro Bovingdon hails from a prolific background in automotive journalism. His career started pretty much right after college, when he landed an apprenticeship at Evo magazine in the U.K. So although I personally spent that same summer working at Pottery Barn, Jethro was learning how to drift, driving a new car every week, and honing his writing skills—all on the magazine's dime. And once he was in that world, he never left. "I guess it's why I've always done this job," he says.

Dax agrees. "Jethro is an expert, Rob is the funniest, and I'm the tallest," he says. "There's a lot of love and support between us, as well as some maniacal competitiveness."

"It felt special before it had even begun," Rob says. "Given our comedy and improv backgrounds, Dax and I were destined to fall in love." And as for Jethro? "He has the best giggle. I love making him giggle."

So does their chemistry work? In a word, yes.

"I think what's amazing about making this first season has been watching the hosts—who didn't know each other previously—become fast friends," says head writer Joe Berry, who hails from the U.K. He cut his teeth working on The Grand Tour. "I came from a world where the hosts were constantly bickering and fighting, leaving each other in the dirt when their cars broke down and things like that. And then it became very apparent on day one of shooting Top Gear America that these three hosts were never going to be like that. They are really supportive and caring about one another."

The rest of the crew is equally as tight. As you might expect, a fairly high percentage of the team loves cars, as well. It's apparent in what they drive, the language they use, the way they spend their free time going on canyon drives together and sharing endless auto-classified links.

Detailed Planning, Unscripted Banter

Even with all of this essential knowledge, perhaps the hardest part of making Top Gear America is explaining exactly what the show is about. Is it a buddy show that just happens to feature cars? Or is it a car show with humans as supporting characters? It's unscripted but follows a rigorous outline. You have to know the objective but stay open to the unexpected.

Top Gear's philosophy is full of contradictions that somehow work, and the show's simplicity belies the complexity which lurks beneath.

"Things are going to happen whether you plan for them or not, and it's generally the things you don't plan for that makes the best episode," co-executive producer Joe Coleman says. And it all has to be faithfully captured in a narrow window of time.

Each episode is shot in only four days. There's the "beauties" day, when the camera crew spends daylight hours visually caressing the cars with cameras. These images are always shot in advance just in case a vehicle doesn't survive during the main episode filming. During those latter two shoot days, the story plays out in real time—what happens here is what goes into the film.

Finally, there are the car reviews, shot in a single day and designed to feel timeless. Because episodes air several months after they're shot, it's crucial that even the newest, hottest car reviews feature an evergreen take.

After all, cars aren't just a hobby here. They're the lifeblood of the series. A million-dollar McLaren has a tremendous draw factor, but so does a 25-year-old Buick Roadmaster wagon; each one has a unique character that one of the hosts brings to life. The host's genuine enthusiasm and opinion makes the vehicle and its story compelling, regardless of price or provenance.

"It's Like a Traveling Circus"

Even on a good day, television production is a notoriously difficult beast to tame. It's a perpetual motion machine of writing, shooting, and editing, often all at the same time. The complexity of sourcing cars and locations in a short amount of time only compounds the difficulty.

"It's like a traveling circus," says Jamie Kellum, executive in charge. "Constant traveling, heavy logistics, a lot of stopping and starting." And she's right. Except here, the animals are cars, and each location is an entirely new Big Top.

And then the pandemic hit.

Halfway through filming the third episode, in Austin, Texas, during mid-March, showrunner Craig Armstrong got the call to shut it down. As the crew gathered around to hear the news, we were only sure of one thing: We were going home. But miraculously, the production soldiered on, communicating over Zoom twice a day for the following three months. And by June, we had a game plan to see through the rest of the season.

Now, the challenge was of a different sort. The same caveats and rules of making Top Gear still applied, but they had to be accomplished in locations that were no more than a day's drive from Los Angeles. And in the summer, that meant everything in close proximity was the same color.

"Finding locations that can work well with the content is always challenging," producer David Silberman says. "When we could fly, we could shoot anywhere. But around Los Angeles? It's hard to find different looks to fit the story when everything is just brown, brown, brown."

Then there's the matter of securing access; associate producer Dawn Moore is a master of these logistics.

"You might find the perfect road only to discover that it travels through three different jurisdictions in the area you want to film," she says. "So not only do you have to get a permit from each of the agencies, but then you need to orchestrate traffic control across those borders."

Getting that variety of looks and roads was crucial to creating a unique tone for each episode. We ventured east, north, and south in search of these spaces, retroactively revising a lot of existing ideas to make them work in this new, smaller zone.

Which brings me back to the Coconino National Forest. At 7,300 feet above sea level and named for the nuggets of volcanic rock blanketing the forest floor, Cinder Hills is just northeast of Flagstaff and spans nearly 2 million acres. The colorful topography of black lava rock and green pines was anything but brown.

This trip to Arizona was perhaps our most ambitious one of the season. In just more than a week, we would start with a car review in Phoenix, shoot one episode in Flagstaff, and then film another episode that would span from Sedona to Chuckwalla Valley Raceway back in California. In the middle of all of this, we'd hang a detour down to Camp Verde to finish the episode we began during that short-lived trip to Austin way back in March. Ten picture cars, 10 support vehicles, approximately 50 crewmembers, and four hotels, all across thousands of miles—and all in just eight days.

From achieving that high point, the cast and crew soldiered on through another month and a half to complete the season. Trucks got totaled, tires got shredded, bones were broken, and cars were blown up. Most of this was even on purpose.

Showrunner Armstrong has decades of experience in television, and he still can't believe his luck on how everything turned out.

"It's hard enough making a TV show," he says. "But when you put all those other obstacles into the mix, it's enough to make you just want to walk away. But no one did; we all stayed focused and managed to put out really good stuff. And I'm super proud of that."

Editor's Note: Multiple calls to The Stig to contribute to this article were never returned. Photos courtesy of Discovery.