The BBC's international TV sensation Top Gear
has explored a wide gamut of automotive machinery in its uniquely free-spirited way, and added NASCAR to the list with the episode that premiered on BBC America on April 30, in which host Richard Hammond interracted with five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson, along with Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya, at Texas Motor Speedway last fall.
In the episode – which airs again tonight at 10 p.m. ET and again on Saturday at 3 a.m. on BBC America – Hammond explores the history of NASCAR, and tells the story of how the sport evolved into what it is today. After explaining its roots, Hammond visits Texas Motor Speedway on race weekend to dive into the different elements and intricacies of a NASCAR racecar. Here, he and Johnson relate to the NASCAR media some of what they experienced along the way:
Q: Richard, talk about your experience at Texas Motor Speedway during the shoot, and was it all you expected for Top Gear when you focused on NASCAR for an episode?
RICHARD HAMMOND: Straight up, no it wasn't. Because NASCAR, well, we're familiar with it on Top Gear, of course, if you're a car guy, you have to be. We weren't familiar with the intricacies of it, we just knew about it. When we arrived at the speedway I thought well, I'm going to feel out of place. I'm not going to know what's going on.
But I couldn't have been more wrong. The moment when I stepped out of the car arriving, I was made so welcome. That's largely because at the very essence of the sport, in the very center of it, there is an awareness on the part of the drivers and the teams, all of them, all they want to do is drive. That's all they're there to do. They realized long, long ago, to facilitate that, they need to put on a good show so people can come and watch it because it costs millions of pounds a year to do this.
Boy do they. That absolutely informed everything they did. We were made so welcome, and before I knew it, I ended up being filmed in the pits with cars coming in during the race. You couldn't be made any more welcome than that.
I don't think there is any more motorsport in the world at that level where you'll see spectators wandering around the pit lanes where the drivers sleep at the track the night before the race. It was absolutely unique, and I had a wonderful time. I loved it. I want to come back and do it again.
Q. Jimmie, talk about your experience working with Richard and the rest of the Top Gear crew last fall in Texas?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It was great to see them out. I'm a fan of the show, and I was very happy to see the film crew, and to know how in depth Top Gear is with their program and the fact that they were going to take our sport and showcase it to the level that they do was exciting to me. I was excited to be a part of it. It was a pleasure to meet everyone, and I certainly hope to cross paths again with everybody.
Q. Richard, what was something about doing this piece that surprised you about NASCAR? Was there something that you didn't know before that you learned?
RICHARD HAMMOND: I think the whole spirit of the event, for one. As I said in the introduction, 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.
Q. Jimmie, I wanted to ask you that question. We know what Richard learned by getting to do this. But what was your most memorable moment in being part of this piece?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: We were trying to shoot our piece while the teams were warming the cars, and with the audio required, we had a hell of a time just trying to find a quiet spot to get it done to show him around my racecar.
RICHARD HAMMOND: You can't win. It's loud, man. It's incredibly loud.
Q. Richard, what in your opinion is the difference in approaches between the way American car makers make cars and the way European car builders build cars?
RICHARD HAMMOND: I think sometimes European makers, 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?
Q. Richard, you and your fellow presenters have made fun of NASCAR in the past, and you already talked about how your perception of NASCAR has changed. But have you tried to convince that Jeremy guy and Captain Slow that NASCAR really is fun?
RICHARD HAMMOND: I'll try, I'll try. But they're also two guys that believe exercise makes you stupid, and they've stated that claim. So there is no explaining the state of them. But, no, I think all things American on the show at the moment.
But I think it's a British reserved thing. They're unwilling to embrace the fact that NASCAR is a show. Everybody wants a damn good show out of it. You were talking about it earlier on 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.
Q. Speaking of American shows, there is the American version of Top Gear over here now – Is there ever going to be some collaboration between the two shows like you did with the Aussie Top Gear show a few years ago where had you them come over and compete? Anything like that you'd like to do?
RICHARD HAMMOND: I'd love to see that. I've met the guys of the American show, of course we have. But give them time to settle down and make sure they get their share of shows. We've had 10 years of doing ours, and they haven't yet. But I'd love to pop up on their show and get in the way, and get stuff wrong and break things, because that's what we do.
Q. A couple years ago you had not such a happy ending with the Jet dragster, and we all prayed for you and we're glad it turned out OK. But have you ever thought about going back to do that again? Like some kind of redemption of getting back on the horse?
RICHARD HAMMOND: Yeah, my wife might have a view about me getting on that particular horse again. We did a few things at Bonneville Salt Flats in a stock car – in fact, a new Challenger. But it's an unnerving moment. But, yeah, one day, but I'll have to buy my wife another horse before I can get on that one again.
Q. Richard, your piece involved Juan Pablo Montoya. He has the perspective of Formula 1 and NASCAR. I wanted to see what kind of interesting stuff you got out of him?
RICHARD HAMMOND: Well here's the most revealing thing. 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.
Q. Jimmie, obviously, they have a European perspective on things. I wanted to see if they might have asked you something that us American media failed to maybe get out of you guys?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Outside of the cool accent, I think that's about it.
RICHARD HAMMOND: Not what my daughter thinks, but there you go.
Q. Richard. can you walk us through what you did at Texas Motor Speedway and some of the things that you enjoyed as you get to drive the cars what all went down and what are we going to see Monday?
RICHARD HAMMOND: Just not get in the way and complain about the noise the car makes, because it is really loud. Remember, we're introducing an audience to a new motorsport. In Europe, there are a lot of guys follow it, but there are a lot who still don't.
So we were getting a history of it, its roots. It was fantastic. It goes a long way to explain what is still at the core of this multi-million dollar motorsport. There is this slight whiff of a kind of slightly outlawish, rebellious streak, and also folksy in engaging people who watch it.
So we explored the history of it. They put me in the pits, and even put me near a car that was coming in. I had a job blowing the brakes dust off the wheels, and I was trying hard not to mix it up.
And I got to drive the car, which was staggering. It took me to a whole new realm. I fly a helicopter at home, and when you roll that car into the banking – bearing in mind I'm a complete novice – even at the speeds I was rolling, to feel it settle down as you drive through another dimension, I felt more like I was in my helicopter than a car. It felt unlike anything else I'd ever driven. It was astonishing.
Q. Jimmie, Richard was saying earlier when he got to the track he realized how friendly it was and how much access everybody has. When you bring someone to the track for the first time, whether it be someone from outside the sport, family member, whatever it may be, what do you find that their perceptions are versus what they see in reality?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I think it's very similar, the access that fans have at a NASCAR event is second to none. What makes it more apparent to me is when a football friend or baseball friend comes to the track. Especially the baseball guys – the starting pitcher, you're not even allowed to talk to that guy prior to a game.
So just to see the interaction the driver has with the fans, how accessible the cars are, the crew members are, the fans around the work space, the hospitality events that take place prior to the race, the driver intros, every aspect of it is really an eye-opening experience for anyone that I bring out there.
We have something special in our sport, and I think that's what has separated us over the years and why our sports are so highly attended.
Q. We're talking about fans and being recognized. Obviously, you have a very familiar face to a lot of fans. But you also travel to Europe. There are times when you get away that you're really not recognized. Could you talk about that and what that's like for you? Here you have a very famous face, and then maybe get Richard's take on what you say.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Traveling around, I'd certainly do fly under the radar. We used to take a trip in July and work our way through a lot of different areas. I see F1 stickers or watch F1 broadcasts, a little rally, a little MotoGP. But in most areas, NASCAR is not around.
When I've competed in the Race of Champions event, they know that NASCAR drivers are coming, and London especially when we raced there, there was a huge gathering of fans. I mean, they're flying 48 flags and they had die cast cars for me to sign.
So I think there are different pockets where NASCAR has worked its way into. But we still have a lot of ground over there to make up within the motorsports community to showcase our races to.
RICHARD HAMMOND: I think that can only grow as everything I've said about the sport providing a fantastic spectacle. That's not to undermine the sincerity of the races. Every time I mingled with Jimmie and the other guys, all they want to do is race. They're athletes and machines themselves. That's what they do, that's what they're designed to do. But equally, there is a sense that permeates the sport that, yeah, we'll do this. We want to get out on the track and race, but to do that, we want to make it a spectacle and fantastic weekend.
To that end, to see Jimmie at the level you're doing it and have been just granted an award for most influential sports person, and yet standing there talking to people. You spoke in the previous question about people in your workspace. And, yeah, that's absolutely unheard of across Europe and something that the more we see it, the more people will think I want to get some of that, because I want to get that close to my idols and the sport that I follow.
Q. Jimmie, Richard's been behind the wheel of all sorts of different cars on Top Gear. Is there a car that you've seen on the show that you really want to get behind the wheel and take a couple of laps in?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: One of my favorite episodes, I don't think Rich was driving, but I think it was the Lotus F1. They have a rich man's play day where you can come to a track. They set up the rigs and put you in a car and let you go out and run and have the full F1 experience. That looked really cool and one episode I always think of.
How amazing that would be to go out and experience. I think it's a cool car and all, but to go out and have a proper test and have some time in an F1 car would be cool.
RICHARD HAMMOND: You'd be worthy of it. I did drive an F1 Renault a few years back. And after three laps of the circuit I had to bring it back in because the tires reheated. It's really hard. It stalled eight times trying to get it out of the pits. So, yeah, it's pretty focused.
Q: You've driven so many different types of cars as we were talking about. What was it like getting behind the wheel of a 3,000-lb car running 800 horsepower with little traction control?
RICHARD HAMMOND: It was like climbing inside a dragon and shutting the door. I love cars built for purpose. I love cars that need a driver to do it. But things like the Noble M600. But in the case of a NASCAR, it's so focused. It has a job to do. As long as you're up to it, it will do the job.
Having the faith and confidence to know that it will hold at those speeds when your brain is telling you, get out now, fella, because you've already crashed. It was mind-blowing.
So to have Jimmie and the rest of his racers do what they do, it's a different mindset. They go to a different place when they're out there for racing, and I salute them all for managing it.