Why "Top Gear USA" Is Unlikely To Succeed

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Watch it if you must, and if you haven’t already: this is “Top Gear USA”. The three people involved are:

  • Rutledge Wood, a television personality best described as “professional douchebag”;
  • Adam Ferrara, stand-up comedian and character actor;
  • Tanner Foust, a fanatically self-motivated and successful individual who has made a name for himself participating in a variety of low-talent driving events such as X-Games Rally and “Formula D”.

Even if you don’t watch the trailer, you should be able to figure out that this series will be an absolute train wreck. With that said, the original Top Gear has never exactly been compelling television, yet it’s found a worldwide audience. The USA version won’t, and here’s why…

The English didn’t invent the idea of a TV show about cars, any more than the Japanese invented the basic ideas behind the Honda Civic. We’ve had American TV shows about cars for decades, and they’ve all been unwatchable garbage. “Motorweek”, with its endless pans of Toyota Camrys doing five under the speed limit on rural two-lane roads, is a perfect example. I double-dog-dare you to get through an episode of Motorweek without picking up a book, checking Twitter, or changing the channel. It’s unbelievably bad.

The original Top Gear succeeded in the UK because it had no competition and because it was on one of the default-choice BBC channels. Motorists in the UK, as a group, are an endangered, persecuted species, endlessly taxed, regulated, and humiliated by everything from a national network of speed cameras to a Byzantine inspection process which fails perfect-condition Jag XJSes off the road because the handbrake doesn’t work better than it did when the car was new. Driving in the UK sucks. It’s much easier to watch a show about driving, so Top Gear became a success.

Add in a sprinkling of the usual fawning British celebrity culture, and there was no stopping it. If you think the American celebrity culture promotes idiots to fame, you will be flabbergasted by the Brits; Google people like “Katie Price” or “Jade Goody” to find out what our oh-so-sophisticated cultural betters like to do with their time. “Jezza” Clarkson almost seems like a reasonable individual compared to some of these folks.

As with their compatriots in print journalism, American video autojournalists set the bar so low that this relatively flaccid English product had no trouble high-stepping over it. Unlike Motorweek, Top Gear at least showed the occasional spinning tire or racetrack action. The hosts appeared to be living people, not cadavers bolted to a stake and shocked into speaking by repeated electrical stimulation. It’s not great stuff, but it’s better than what we got here.

Naturally, the “Mr. Euros” of the world loved the snob value that came from watching a British TV show. (These people were apparently all too young to have seen Fawlty Towers.) Watching TG became a must-have status badge in the world of Internet car forums and “Cars and Coffee” circle-jerks. This is amply demonstrated by the fact that the anti-American episodes of the show are usually some of the most popular and most discussed episodes with American audiences. The folks who watch TG here consider themselves to be better people than the “Amurricans” lampooned on the show.

The final inspired addition to TG was “The Stig”. I’m continually surprised at just how impressed non-racers are with this person and the glorified-autocross “test track” he uses. When we lampooned him at Speed:Sport:Life by having me put on a mirrored helmet and present myself as “Mr. Roboto”, we got some nasty, threatening emails from it. Even if TG itself doesn’t take The Stig seriously, the viewers sure do.

For the record, the whole “Stig” deal is a joke. The race course is a joke. The vastly differing weather conditions are a joke. If you think that “fast lap” times mean anything on that show, you are mistaken. It’s all about entertainment, plain and simple.

Can an American version of this English show succeed? Of course not. It’s missing the three crucial factors that made the UK one work. It will not have a large audience as the original show did, it will not benefit from American celebrity culture due to the complete and utter nonentity status of all three hosts, and it won’t benefit from the snob appeal of being an overseas product. I promise you that the vast majority of potential viewers will simply continue to watch the original. Why would they switch?

If an American show about automobiles is to succeed, it has to be American. It should incorporate all the American automotive and racing traditions, from quarter-mile circle tracks to rallycross. It should provide accurate, fair information and have hosts with both crowd appeal and respectable resumes. Top Gear USA fails on all counts, and it will fail anyway for the simple fault of not being British.

If any of you watch the premiere when it comes out, feel free to let me know your thoughts. I won’t bother; I’ll be out driving. For that matter, you should be, too.

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2 of 92 comments
  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Jan 05, 2011

    Dan Lewis - let me know if you get a call. I'd like to join the readjustment team too. I'm just an average guy but I know I could be more witty and creative that the three dudes on TG-USA. They need to learn to laugh and tease a little. More smiling might help too.

  • Owb Owb on Oct 24, 2011

    Jack Baruth is acting just like the person he dosen't want to be; Jeremy Clarkson. This article COMPLETELY misses the point of why Top Gear USA will fail, and it strikes me as nothing more than an anti-European rant with a chip on his shoulder. As a Brit, I'd like to inform Mr Baruth his stereotype of weather conditions and driving in this country is nonsense, but unlike Mr Baruth I won't jump to conclusions about an entire nation. I respect America and I am totally with the other commenters here - dissapointing article from a ranting man who has an 'expert' opinion with no basis in fact.

  • Szi65724742 Not saying dude's not a douche, but Google Maps doesn't show a stop sign at any of the three Walmarts dumping onto 60 - there's a stop-line at best. And while you nerd-rage at a random dude in a truck, a similar thing happens ALL. THE. TIME here - get Prius'd and Tesla'd every single day. I got hit while stopped at a stoplight. 7:30am, sunny morning, clear, straight sightlines for a couple miles. Was a loaded down work van. I don't rage and yell to get those off the streets. Blame the drivers, not the vehicles.
  • AMcA This, from the same regulatory agency that mandates the two adjacent outboard and center rear seat buckles be incompatible, so that the impatient passenger who hits the wrong buckle the first time simply gives up. You oughta watch my husband in the back of a cab. Every time he tries to put the outboard belt into the center buckle. The belt and buckle are incompatible and won't latch. He says "godamn [insert vehicle brand]" and stays unbelted.
  • VoGhost Twenty comments, but none acknowledging that the 'Elon promised me a $35K car!' propaganda can end now. But then, accountability was never a strong suit of the anti-America crowd.
  • AMcA Old school VW HVAC controls were impossible. On Beetles and Type 2s, there were two little levers down on the floor next to the hand brake. No labels or anything, you had to know what they did. One got you more heat, one could direct it on the windshield or the floor or shut off the flow entirely. All operation was done by trial and error. Defrosting was almost impossible to get right in a hurry.
  • VoGhost The big news today is that GM joined Ford in accepting Tesla's dominance in the charging market.