The Time I Went to a Top Gear Episode Taping

NBC Top Gear USA Pilot

Well, it’s official, Jeremy Clarkson has been sacked and will no longer be part of Top Gear.  Sad really, I’ve spent quite a few years of my life watching the boys cock about on BBC.  Here’s hoping the Netflix rumors are true and that Hammond and May go along with him.  Regardless, this “fracas” got me thinking about that time I went to see a taping of Top Gear.  No, not that version, the USA version.  Actually, not even that version, the NBC version that never aired.  Do I have your attention now?

I sometimes daydream about my trip to LA to see the first episode of what would eventually be the first of two different Top Gear USA series.  The NBC version was unceremoniously canceled before it aired after Knight Rider didn’t do well and we all know that Top Gear USA was rejuvenated by the History Channel and is enjoying a 4th season. So the version I’m referring to had comedian Adam Carolla, Tanner Foust (the only person to survive the switch the new version) and Eric Stromer, a fairly unknown dude who made what fame he had from a few home improvement shows.

But this tale is going to focus on the first version, “genesis” for TG USA. As luck would have it I was scheduled to travel out to LA from DC for a work trip just about the time the pilot taping was announced. I believe I saw something announcing the link for tickets on Final Gear and I NBC Top Gear USA Pilotput my name in. Initially I was out of luck, they were all full, no room at the inn. But eventually they opened up more space in the hanger they filmed the Discovery channel show “Smash Lab” in and I got my confirmation. It couldn’t have been a more perfect scenario, I finished up the speech I was asked to give and still wearing my suit I hopped into my rental car and drove over to the studio.

The parking lot was littered with interesting cars, from tuner WRXs and imports to Mustangs, a Viper and some other notables that time has taken from my memory. This was not a cool day in LA and the hour or two I spent waiting outside in the suit was fairly brutal. I made friends with a nice couple who drove there from a nearby town in a modified MR2 and we hung out in a shady spot for a bit while we waited. It was a friendly, car crazy crowd, I even exchanged email addresses with them and kept in touch for awhile.

The organizers got us organized and we got to head into the hanger. Picture the Top Gear UK set and you pretty much have the right image. It was dead on, which made sense since producer Andy Wilman was there to introduce us all to this new version of Top Gear. He even made a joke something along the lines of “Oh and I know the Final Gear mafia is here, our lawyers are waiting to speak to you outside”. That got a good chuckle at the time (less funny now that they are kaput) and the stars were introduced. It was fascinating to see how the donuts were made behind the scenes. I imagine it similar to the process in the UK, each studio segment was taped giving the hosts several takes to come up with clever things to say. Then we would all watch one of the pre-taped challenge segments, or the SIARPC lap (David Hasselhoff in this case).

NBC Top Gear USA PilotTalent
I have to say, Adam Carolla was fantastic. He is legitimately a car guy and it was obvious. Tanner was about the same as he is on the current version, a bit less polished and savvy on what to say, how to act, etc. I was fortunate to stand up front during quite a few segments, once standing right behind Carolla as he introduced the Stig for the first time. I wish I had written down what the “some say…” line was, but I can’t remember. I also stood next to him and Tanner between takes and they were shaking hands and joking around. Stromer wasn’t fantastic in the studio, but came across more effectively in Death Valley taped segment.

Speaking of that segment, it was quite good. Basically similar to some of the previously aired TG UK/USA bits, they were given a budget and had to get cheap cars to cross Death Valley. This resulted in hilarity and some creative bodging by the hosts. The rest of the show was typical of the TG UK format (and the 1st season of the current TG USA) where they had a SIARPC interview/lap, they did the news, tested some cars (DB9 vs GT3 I think), etc. The Stig was “born” from a C-130 cargo plane and drove out of the back in an Ariel Atom. Awesome. Hasselhoff was genuinely likable (and not a bad driver) and I ended up with an autographed picture that still to this day solicits some odd questions as to why I have it on my desk at work.

They actually do move attractive girls to the front. At one point I had some stripper looking girls who has no clue what show they were watching thrust in front of me. And they taped different segments in different parts of the set so they moved us around a lot and there was generally a lot of standing around and waiting. I was able to stay towards the front by paying attention, and making sure I didn’t trip over any cords. I spent all told probably 8 hours on my feet in dress shoes, a suit, and tie. But it was incredible and I will always remember the show that never was. That night I was exhausted and had a quick dinner at the sports bar next to my hotel. I think I posted some thoughts on final gear, no clue if they are still up there.

The Top Gear USA experiment has been worthwhile. I was a fan of this version and I am a fan of the new one. Sincerely, I really like it. And that comes from a die-hard watcher of the original, I didn’t think they would pull it off. But the editing, cuts, backdrops, etc. were quite good in this NBC version, and have come a long way on the BBC produced History channel version. The chemistry between the hosts in the version I saw needed work. Much like it did in season one of the current TG USA, and the early days on the BBC. But I submit that it’s pretty solid now on season 4 and I am glad they have eschewed the studio audience in favor of focusing on challenges, road tests, and wacky races, which in the end is mostly why we watch Top Gear to begin with.

I would LOVE to see a fully edited version of the NBC version, but I guess it remains locked in vault in 30 Rockefeller Center.  So to Mr. Clarkson, good luck.  And to Mr. Carolla, please keep trying to produce some sort of car show!  The time I saw you on stage, it was quite good.


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