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British ‘Reserve’ To Meet NASCAR Car Culture

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, April 30 2012

"Top Gear' host Richard Hammond gets a NASCAR tutorial from driver Juan Pablo Montoya. (Photos courtesy of NASACR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

The television show “Top Gear” is crude, condescending, intellectually dishonest, contradictory, pretentious and self-important. Its three hosts are churlish, arrogant and bellicose. “Top Gear” is also – in spite of, and, undoubtedly because of all of the above – extremely entertaining.

In fact, it may be the best show on television (the BBC version that is, not that lame “History Channel” crap). It and its hosts are witty, clever, original and  erudite in a Monty Python kind of British way. You simply cannot  be a car person and not love it.

Oh, and did I mention the show and its hosts love to undress America. They relish in skewering American people and American culture. Relentlessly (kind of odd, I think, for people from a culture which rejects the advances modern dentistry and which took 100 years to fight France-for-gosh-sake to a standstill) but poignantly.

The show and hosts share particular disdain for American automobiles (again, kind of odd for people who base their opinions of cars on how well they power slide and whose national auto industry gave the world British Leyland).

It’s against that background that “Top Gear” visited America recently for a segment on NASCAR. Reporting that segment – which is scheduled to aired Monday – is co-host Richard Hammond.

Hammond – the lone member of the hosting trio who has actually professed to liking American automobiles and the only one who does not look like he is modeling novelty teeth and getting his hair done by his gardener – was at Texas Motor Speedway for a NASCAR weekend.

There, he hung with drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Richard Hammond in the pits at Texas.

Last week, Hammond was a guest on a NASCAR teleconference.

Missing was the contempt – which is, one would assume, more theatrical than heartfelt on the show – that ‘Top Gear’ has directed at NASCAR over the years.

When asked about the Texas event, Hammond said, “There is nowhere elsewhere you’ll find motorsport at this level of professionalism and speed and ability where people are so welcoming. That to a European guy who is used to seeing F1, and the great motorsport we have over here, but it’s very remote, very distant. You’re kept at arm’s length. And these guys were so welcoming.

“The biggest surprise was the drivers of the likes of Jimmie, just who wandered around the crowds and talked to people. That is unheard of in other motorsports and really revealing of an attitude that says come along and watch. And they know they need to put on that show.”

Hammond was asked if he thought he could convince his co-hosts – unabashed Tories James May and Jeremy Clarkson – that NASCAR had something positive to offer.

“I’ll try, I’ll try,” Hammond said. “But they’re also two guys who believe exercise makes you stupid, and they’ve stated that claim. So there is no explaining the state of them.

“But I think it’s a British reserved thing. They’re unwilling to embrace the fact that NASCAR is aware. Everybody wants a damn good show out of it. You were talking about it earlier (on the teleconference) with Jimmie, and Jimmie the way you were discussing that professionally. You wouldn’t expect to hear as kind of mature and professionally considerate a conversation about the spectacle, the show, the event, which it’s got to be.

“The racing is essential. But it’s about the drivers and teams getting to do what they love as athletes and as teams. I understand. But at the same time, there is a kind of deal of going public. I want to see a good show. What I saw when I went was an amazing show from everybody involved.”

Hammond was asked his thoughts about the one NASCAR driver who is widely known in Britain – former Formula 1 driver Montoya.

“Well here’s the most revealing thing,” Hammond said. “Juan Pablo Montoya enjoys a reputation across Europe whenever he is interviewed post race for just saying nothing. And the guys in the office at ‘Top Gear’ said, well, good luck. You’ll get an interview with him, but you’ll get one word out of him, if that. And the guy was just so effusive and enthusiastic. He sat me in the car and talked to me about how it works and how it feels. He was literally hopping up-and-down with enthusiasm, to the extent the guys in the office at Top Gear could not believe what he had given us.

“I think that tells you everything about how the guy is. He was absolutely wedded to it. He loved it. He was a completely different man. Just as they are, in many ways, different sports. The driving is different, the attitude of the drivers and the sport, and the relationship that it enjoys with its fans is very different, and it was expressed fabulously well through Juan Pablo being so enthusiastic. He was like a little kid with his new toy, which was fantastic to see.”

Hammond also talked about car culture.

On his show, American cars are the objects of scorn (which is odd coming from a group of guys who actually think Aston Martins are supercars and deserve to be honestly compared to Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis).

On the teleconference, Hammond was asked about the approach Americans take to car-building as opposed to the approach Europeans take.

“I think sometimes European makers,” he said, “particularly the performance cars, get very much caught up in the idea that it’s absolute dry performance as it were on the track that matters most, when very few owners are going to take whatever else over to Germany and pitch it with somebody with a new 99 Block. Whereas UK car makers are better at remembering, yeah, it’s got to be fun.

“So if you look at the Camaro and some of the hotter Mustangs, they remember that, yeah, all of that is fine. Very few people are going to take them on the track and do what Jimmie does. They’re going to drive them in the real world.

“There, it’s not just about fuel economy and getting good gas mileage, it’s also about does it make you feel good? That’s why I like American cars, because they make life a bit happier, a bit more exciting. You couldn’t ask for more from a car, could you?”

Well, you could, actually. Just not on ‘Top Gear’.

If you haven’t seen “Top Gear” (again, the BBC version), absolutely tune in some time. Perhaps not when the NACAR segment runs again. Not if you are sensitive to criticism of Americans and American car culture.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, April 30 2012
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