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American Top Gear: Second Best is Still Pretty Good

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Topics:  Top Gear
Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

American Top Gear: Second Best is Still Pretty Good

Bill Crittenden
December 6, 2010

First of all, I should begin by providing my perspective.  I've watched Top Gear before.  I've been a fan of the UK version for years, Jeremy Clarkson is the person I most often quote and my reluctance to break the speed limit has gotten me called the same nickname as James May:  Captain Slow.

So it was actually very weird to hear the same music, watch some of the same cars, but see three Americans hosting the show in a similar but slightly different studio.  It was a mix of familiar Top Gear elements and new personalities.

Having given it a few episodes to get going, my feelings on the show is best summed up as:  reheated pizza.  It's not as it was in its original form, but it's the best thing you've got in the fridge that night.  So you can either lament the fact that it's not the same stuff you get on Monday nights, or you can be glad you're not stuck with some of the other stuff that's available and enjoy it.

I choose to enjoy it.  It's not hard to, either.

The first episode was, unfortunately, a letdown.  Perhaps it was high expectations.  A lot of the jokes seemed as though they were read off a teleprompter, the first segment was underwhelming for what I thought a premiere episode should lead off with and resembled too closely a bit from the UK Top Gear, but it had its moments.

The second, however, redeemed the show from the disappointment of the previous week.  It started with a race between Tanner Foust and two skiiers.  The skiiers got to the top of the mountain in the ski lift and Tanner hadn't quite reached it in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo.  My wife commented on how the skiiers were already on their way down the mountain and Tanner couldn't possibly win since he hadn't even gotten to the halfway point yet.  But then he switched the Evo into snow mode and drove off the end of the road.  Then my wife comments, "he can't drive it down a mountain!"  To which I reply, "of course he's going to.  This is Top Gear," and Tanner charged down a mountain in a car.  By the end of the race, I was laughing my ass off and my wife wanted a Lancer Evo.

Tanner Foust's presence is one of the more unusual aspects of the show.  A professional racer, he brings a lot of driving skill to the team.  A bit too much, I think.  While he can pull off stunts like driving down a snow-covered mountain in a rally car, the vibe of three average guys being given the keys to their fantasy cars and letting the cameras record their antics is thrown off some by the presence of a professional driver.  Sure, he's got the skill and experience to drive the cars to their limits without ending up in a fireball, and he's a likeable presenter, but the goofy challenges just aren't fair with a professional against the amateurs.  He would have been a great Stig, though.  Unfortunately, he wouldn't get credit for it.

The show has already used that amateurs-against-the-professional dynamic to its advantage in the Blind Drift competition, so it may work out in the show's favor.  But watching him win the Moonshine episode by one point that was gained by pulling a turn that was likely aided by his experience as a drifting champion shows that his abilities have the potential to overwhelm the other presenters if the producers aren't careful.

At the opposite end of the driving skill spectrum is Adam Ferrara.  While his commentary is sometimes flat, the entertainment value of his driving more than makes up for it.  A week after his 11-inch burnout, he put in one of the most incredible driving performances of any Top Gear episode I've seen in either country's format when he tore through an off road course in a 1970's Cadillac Coupe deVille, launching the car off a ramp and nearly breaking it in two with the landing.  I look forward to seeing him race again.

Last, but not least, is Rutledge Wood.  Rutledge.  I didn't even know such a word was a name until he appeared on the NASCAR prerace shows and NASCAR Smarts.  I give the Top Gear producers a lot of credit for bringing a NASCAR personality on board without hiring a has-been driver on their driving resumé alone only to discover after the fact they have little television program hosting skills to speak of.  But before I get off track and make this about Rusty Wallace...

Beard, plaid shirt and all, every average American knows someone like Rutledge.  While Tanner Foust is the kind of person people wait in line to meet, we're usually waiting in line with at least one guy like Rutledge.  He's the relatable fellow that makes the show's format successful.  Top Gear is where you get to see what happens when an average guy gets the keys to one of the most expensive Lamborghinis ever produced and an open airstrip to see what it will do.

The American version of Top Gear is unlike almost every other automotive show on television, the exception being the original Top Gear.  But when the original isn't on, the American Top Gear is the best automotive show on television.

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