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Behind The Wheel Of History's 'Top Gear'

February 14th, 2012 1:00pm EST

Top Gear "American Top Gear."

It's a phrase that's struck dread in the hearts of many for years. Fans of the hit BBC series - those of us sitting at home with our Jeremy Clarkson books and 'I Am The Stig' T-shirts, and yes, I am one - have heard rumblings about a US import and almost immediately worried one would go south (see: the American adaptation of Coupling, etc.) Yet after a false start (a busted NBC pilot hosted by Adam Carolla), History Channel made the concept a reality two years ago.

And guess what? It's not a nightmare. In fact, it's pretty good.

The cynics - and yes, I was one - are understandably protective of the brand, but if you know what makes the History series tick, you might look at it differently. After spending a day on the set, I certainly do.

It's true that we Americans can't expect to touch the original series hosted by Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May; without them, there wouldn't be any Top Gear to speak of. The American Top Gear is not the British Top Gear without the accents. (We have more lawyers to appease.) The American version isn't trying to emulate the British version; it's forging its own identity, one that involves less caravans exploding, more American culture, and its own trio of hosts who aren't trying so actively to kill one another...yet.

There's Adam Ferrara, the standup comic and Rescue Me star who's so funny that when I see him two months later at the Hollywood Improv, I'll be the one front row center laughing so hard I've hurt myself. Both he and Clarkson are prone to destroying everything in their path, but Adam has better hair and would probably win in a fight.

He's joined by racing driver Tanner Foust, the only survivor from that failed NBC pilot, who has my respect because he's done stunt driving in my beloved Fast & Furious film series (even if he started with Tokyo Drift). Like Hammond, women love him. His good looks get him hit on while I'm standing there laughing.

Then there's Rutledge Wood, the NASCAR analyst who's the closest thing the group has to a voice of reason, if that voice of reason once wore an inflatable alligator as an outfit. He's one of those nice guys you just want to hug. I'd say this makes him the May of the group, but I don't think Rutledge would get lost on an oval.

They resist the urge to compare themselves to their predecessors ("Being fans of the show, you can't do it," Adam says). There's one big similarity, though: just as it's obvious that Jeremy, Richard and James get along so well, it's clear that Adam, Tanner and Rutledge are having the time of their lives playing in the Top Gear sandbox.

The four of us sit together in a trailer on the set, and even though it's been raining all day and we are in the middle of nowhere (okay, Irvine), they're all in good spirits. Their chemistry is instantaneously apparent, and they could not be more welcoming, making me feel like the fourth member of the band. There is no other set in the world where I could make a joke about carjacking an Aston Martin and not only not be arrested, but be encouraged. "You and me both," Rutledge tells me, "and most of the stuff has keys somewhere here."

Most Top Gear fans would agree that the secret to the original show's longevity is the camaraderie between its three presenters, who go back a decade-plus together now. The American trio hasn't known each other nearly that long, but they have that same kind of bond together. "We've become friends to the point where we have genuine disdain, I think," says Tanner. "It's like family. Once you get beyond friendship to family...I love my family more than anything, but once I get like four hours of solid family time, I'm ready to take a walk."

"Great analogy," interjects Rutledge.

Tanner doesn't miss a beat. "It's been good flow, we've done big challenges. Rutledge went to the hospital twice this season."

"It's hard to pretend you're Tanner for five minutes," Rutledge admits. "You can get really hurt."

"This time Rutledge got his own show, and one thing he wanted to do was race trucks," Tanner tells me. "It didn't work out so well. He flipped it."

"I ended up in a race in a super-light truck at the Glendale Speed World in Surprise, Arizona," Rutledge explains. "I found out like 'Surprise, you're going to the hospital.' I hit a jump wrong. I flipped the truck three and a half times end over end. And Adam's big worry was that he, later that night, was going to have to help me get out of the bathtub."

"I was so afraid my phone was going to ring," concurs Adam. "I'm thinking, if he gets stuck, he's going to be wet and naked. It's going to be like Life Alert."

That's probably one of the more painful outcomes, but it's only one of the many shenanigans they've pulled off over this upcoming run. This season is going to be packed with mayhem. They haven't yet gotten to that Top Gear staple - the destruction of a motorhome - but they've come close.

"We did destroy trailers in Death Valley," Adam tells me.

"This season I kind of want to blow some stuff up too," says Tanner. "We burned a Pinto."

"The Pinto burned itself," Adam retorts.

Rutledge explains, "We tried to disprove some of the world's most dangerous cars. And those are the Ford Pinto, the Chevy Corvair, and the Suzuki Samurai. We tried to show people that all the things that they were known for being so dangerous were not true.."

"...And they are," Adam interjects.

Tanner adds that we'll see the guys try to correct those problems. "Adam put a guard rail with giant springs on the back of the Pinto, so you couldn't crash directly into it, and then had a fire sprinkler system set up. That was pretty nice."

"Just in case," Adam says, then continues, "We almost set a field on fire. When I say we, I mean Rut."

That'll come in tonight's episode, in which the guys drive big rigs. Rutledge elaborates, "We each had different stuff in the back of our trucks that we were trying to not disturb. I had lit barbecues and fireworks. I set most of the side of a highway on fire in Michigan."

With a laugh, he adds, "And then the producers come up with these ridiculous challenges where they try to kill all of us."

Explains Adam: "We did a muscle car episode and they put muscle stimulators on us and made us go through a handling course. So we're getting electroshock therapy."

"Tanner put it on his face," Rutledge adds.

"I don't think I had a choice," Tanner retorts. "You made me put it on my face."

For all the things they've gotten away with (we try to come up with a monetary amount of how much property damage they've caused, to no avail), it might amuse you to know that there are some things they haven't been able to get on air, or that just don't work. When I ask if there's ever been a challenge that's gone horribly wrong, they all crack up laughing.

"We wanted to jump Snake River Canyon," Rutledge tells me. "No one would sign off on that."

"I wanted to get a [Porsche] 550 Spyder," Adam adds. "The one James Dean was killed in..."

"...Right then? No," Tanner interjects. "Does it cost more than $700? You can't have it."

Adam continues. "I wanted to see how fast he was going, and actually see the turn he died on, and make you drive it."

There's an awkward pause for all of two seconds, then Rutledge: "That sounds mean when you say it out loud."

"He got hit by another car," Tanner adds, before he gets it. "And that's you. I see. You're going to crash into me."

Still, they've accomplished a lot in their relatively short time on the air, including things that were supposed to be impossible (Adam rolled a car in the video game Forza Motorsport 4) and ones that have gotten them fired (Tanner couldn't drift a bus on the tarmac, but he was once let go from a bus driving job in Colorado for doing it). With all that going on, I can't help but wonder what the biggest challenge of working on Top Gear is, when every day could either be awesome or fatal and you don't know which.

"I wish we could make more of them," Rutledge opines. "It takes a long time to make our show because there's a lot to it."

"Our other biggest challenge is math," Adam quips. Every time we try to do math on-air, we just can't do math."

"And I'm not allowed to wear hats anymore," Rutledge continues. "Or be on TV without pants on."

Their playful attitude extends to the celebrity guests who appear as the show's Star In A Reasonably Priced Car. This upcoming season, you'll see the likes of Joe Mantegna, True Blood star Stephen Moyer, and Lake Bell. Previously, the track has been visited by Buzz Aldrin and Maroon 5's Adam Levine.

Naturally, being a fan of his, I had to ask about Adam's time on the show. "He was great. He has a mouth on him like a sailor," Rutledge tells me. But that happens to everybody when they get out there. I think you could get The Pope to say 'Damn it' out there."

Who would they love to see on the track? "Oprah," Adam tells me and Rutledge concurs. "Oprah, top of our list. I'd love to see Ellen out there. I still think it would be fun to put some guys from NASCAR out there."

Tanner thinks the idea has merit. "The UK show had [racing driver Lewis] Hamilton and all kinds of people out there. There's the great thing about having a reasonably priced car. Finding the limit of the car is not so hard."

Not to be outdone, Adam adds that "I always wanted to call it a Celebrity in a Celebrity. Get an old Chevy Celebrity and make them drive around in that."

Spend more than a few minutes with these guys, and it's clear that they get the biggest thing right. Sure, they might not be able to do challenges that are quite so insane as going on an ill-fated caravan holiday or a trek across Bolivia, so of course they're not going to be the UK edition. But what's really important is that these are three guys who love their jobs, genuinely enjoy each other's company, and who are insane enough to risk life and limb showing us what cars can (and can't, and shouldn't) do.

That's what this franchise is really all about. It's about the celebration (and sometimes destruction) of cars by the men who love them. And these three guys are impossible not to love. So, a word of advice to all the American Top Gear skeptics: sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

My thanks to Adam Ferrara, Tanner Foust and Rutledge Wood for taking the time for this feature! Check them out in action when Top Gear returns to History tonight at 9 PM ET/PT. Then tune back in here for my recap of the premiere episode.

(c)2012 Brittany Frederick/Digital Airwaves. Appears at Starpulse with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted.

Related: Adam Carolla, Adam Ferrara, Adam Levine, Jeremy Clarkson, Joe Mantegna, Lake Bell, Maroon 5, Rescue Me, Stephen Moyer, Tanner Foust, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Top Gear, True Blood, Starpulse Exclusives, Television, Reality, Interviews, Previews, Photos

Photo Credits: History

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