‘Top Gear” is a hugely popular show in the U.K. on the BBC about three car enthusiasts doing wacky stunts in vehicles of all stripes.
The show does well for BBC America, too. But attempts to create an Americanized version has been a bumpy ride.
After at least three tries, the History Channel has created a new “Top Gear” debuting this Sunday at 10 p.m.
And one of the three hosts is from Senoia, Rutledge Wood.
Wood, who has done regular segments for the Speed Channel, is kind of a “hillbilly meets a car salesman,” said fellow host and stunt driver Tanner Foust in a promo video.
“He’s an idiot savant without the savant,” added the other host Adam Ferrara, the standup comic who was on FX’s “Rescue Me.”
A University of Georgia graduate, Wood is besides himself with excitement as the show debut approaches. “We are doing ‘The Today Show,’ ” he said earlier this week. “It just cracks me up. I keep laughing about it. I wake up every morning and watch ‘The Today Show!’ ”
For a time after graduating UGA, he lived in Newnan and met Yvonne Monet, a morning host at Dave FM who once owned a club in that town called the Alamo. There, the pair so-hosted a karaoke comedy show where they brought in a raft of costumes people were required to wear. “I not only learned how to talk proficiently on a mike and interact with a crowd but get a sense of how to relate to a room full of people in the shortest amount of time,” he said. “She makes you feel like she’s talking directly to you.”
Monet, in a separate interview, said she wasn’t surprised that he landed on this show. “He was destined for TV,” she said. She even sold him a 1985 BMW. She said he loved to wear a tight jumpsuit, with the attitude of a Jack Black or Will Ferrell. He and she could also do a mean version of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.”
That lasted eight months. He then found a job in the marketing department of the Speed Channel based in Charlotte. He traveled around the country with NASCAR. “I got to become friends with Kyle Petty,” he said. “I got to do stuff with him every week. I’d hop into a Lamborghini and go 200 miles an hour.”
He got a call last summer and a woman from a production company asked if he’d heard of a show called “Top Gear.” They were seeking hosts for an American version. “I laughed,” he said. “That’s the premiere car show in the world. This could become a dream come true.”
Both Discovery Channel in 2005 and NBC in 2008 created pilot versions of the show. Neither made it to air. A New York Times story wasn’t able to shed like on why Discovery didn’t pick it up. NBC was wary of the failure of “Knight Rider” and felt a car show wouldn’t work on such a mainstream network.
So now it’s History Channel’s turn, with some financing help from BBC. They took Foust from the NBC pilot and Ferrara, the “Rescue Me” actor and car aficionado, along with Wood and are hoping for chemistry that made the BBC show so successful.
“We’re not trying to duplicate their roles,” he said. “That’s be a losing proposition. I know they’ll be comparisons. You have to give it time.”
Wood, who grew up in Peachtree City and Senoia and married his high school sweetheart Rachel, considers himself “more the average guy and how the average guy thinks. Tanner is good in any car in any race setting. Adam is good for classic and muscle cars.”
Wood grew up around cars thanks to his dad, who loved to flip them. “I’ve just turned 30 and have owned 52 cars. I haven’t wrecked any! I’ve had lots of not-so-nice cars. Kind of crappy. We call them beaters. The types of cars you might hit in a parking lot and keep on going.”
The first of 10 episodes tonight is shot in Griffin where Tanner and Wood are in a Dodge Viper convertible trying to dodge a helicopter. “We told people we’re doing a TV show ahead of time,” he said. “Some people were still running outside thinking it was Armageddon. That helicopter sounds so menacing.”
His favorite challenge: trying to “save” GM by bringing back a “classic” GM car. Tanner chose a 1985 Pontiac Fiero. Adam had a 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass. Wood picked a 1994 Buick Roadmaster, one of the last of the station wagons with wood paneling.
He also got to meet celebrities who get to race around in undersized cars: Buzz Aldrin, Tim Allen, Tony Hawk, Kid Rock. “When you see a guy like Buzz Aldrin riding around a test track in a Suzuki, it’s hard not to laugh.”
By Rodney Ho, firstname.lastname@example.org, AJCRadioTV blog