Professional Driver Ben Collins Talks NASCAR, Driving as 007, and Life After Top Gear’s ‘The Stig’
by joePA | December 9, 2010 - 2:00pm | 9 comments - 2166 reads
"Some say that his genitals are on upside down, and that if he could be bothered he could crack the Da Vinci code in 43 seconds... " That's how "Top Gear"' host Jeremy Clarkson once described the show's phantasmal test driver, "The Stig." However, just a few months later, Clarkson public assailed the British driver behind the "Stig" mask for blowing the lid off the character's secret identity. "Everyone now knows his real name — it's 'The Twat.'. Actually, to give him his full name it's 'The Greedy Twat.' " That "Twat's" name is Ben Collins. He's the professional race car and stunt driver formerly employed by the BBC to joyride dream cars around the show's famous test track. After a lengthy and costly lawsuit in the British high court, Collins officially took off the Stig's helmet this past August by publishing "The Man in the White Suit," an autobiographical "Top Gear" tell-all. The book was released in the United States this week.
"The whole integrity of "The Stig" to me was that it lived and died with my anonymity," Collins told BroBible during a recent interview. Despite Clarkson's outrage over the publishing of the book, there's more to the man formerly know as "The Stig" than just an anonymous TV character who wrestled his way out of a nightmarish nondisclosure choke-hold. Remember 007's tunnel car chase in the beginning of “Quantum of Solace"? That was Collins behind the wheel of the jet-black Aston Martin as Daniel Craig’s stunt driver. Collins is also a talented race car driver who's competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Europe's Formula 3, and European NASCAR. In fact, he told us that racing in American NASCAR is a dream goal. "I want to win Le Mans and I want to be the first British guy to race and win in NASCAR." We caught up with Collins to discuss a range of topics, including his much-ballyhooed outing from "Top Gear," his new show, "Fifth Gear," hitting 250 miles per hour in the Bugatti Veyron, why NASCAR is a professional race junkie's dream, and his personal vehicle, a VW van.
BroBible: How did you become interested in automobiles?
Ben Collins: I grew up in California actually, so I have a lot in common with your American audience. I wanted to be a fighter pilot when I was younger. I use to see the jets flying around in the hills on their way to Miramar or wherever they were going. I lived near one of many of bases in California, so I got hooked on that. So I wanted to be a fighter pilot when I came back to England later. There was the speed of it and also the service side of it: The duty and what have you was really appealing.
I wasn’t able to become a pilot because of my eye sight. But the first time I got in a racing car, that was the moment I was hooked. In a strange way, it felt very similar to being strapped into a fighter cockpit, if you’d like; the sensations you get -- the speed, the reaction time you’re using -- you’d imagine it’s very, very similar to what a pilot would experience, high G forces and that sort of thing.
That was on my 18th birthday. It was my first day in a racing car. It was on the Silverstone Grand Prix Circuit in England.
How did your race career pan out after leaving the Army?
That first test in the car went really well. I matched the school’s record on that first day. From then on I wanted to be a Formula One driver and spent the next 10 or so years working toward that goal. Things rarely work in straight lines and I didn’t quite make it into F1. I went into Le Mans 24-hour racing, which is just as exciting, racing over 200 miles per hour for 24 hours at a time. That was incredible. When racing season came to an end, I joined the Army. At the same time, this opportunity came up with the BBC to work with “Top Gear” and become “The Stig,” so these two new strands of my life kind of unfolded at the same time. I was really privileged to be in that position.
It’s been about two years since British newspaper began talking about your identity as “Top Gear" ’s Stig. You unmasked yourself with the book this past September. What were the two years like in between with all the intense media speculation?
It’s hard to answer that one without going back to beginning. When I first started the show I was a real zealot. I was pretty obsessed with keeping my identity a secret, so I literally didn’t tell anybody. I went to work and I really guarded that secret as close as I could. In the beginning, I thought that if a single person found out who I was, I would lose the job. That was the gold standard I had when I started.
Over time it became more and more generally known in the motoring industry, certainly, and then in the media. But, like you say, there was certainly a tipping point. I think that tipping point was when the BBC published an article in 2008 in the Radio Times. I think the media really took it at that point that if it’s O.K. for the BBC to point the finger at this guy and we know it’s him, then why shouldn’t we do it? The first time I saw my picture in the paper, it was pretty gut-wrenching. I’d always been able to lie to people and say it wasn’t me, but when one guy threw the newspaper on my table in the morning and he was working on my house, it was pretty hard to deny it.
“Top Gear” is one of the most popular shows in the world. How closely wrapped did you keep it?
Well, I told my wife because you have to wash the overalls yourself. You can’t take it to the dry cleaner. Some people you can’t hide from. Very, very close friends knew. Increasingly, the practicality of lies became unmanageable: You have to tell your insurance company and that sort of thing. But I think my end was very tight. If anything, the real leaks came from the simple fact that the manufacturers behind the cars generally had to know or it became obvious because they recognized my voice from motor racing. My French accent wasn’t very good.
You essentially got pushed out of "Top Gear" and in September there was sort of a war of words in the British press between you and the presenters of "Top Gear." The one that sticks out is the headline in the Daily Mail: "Jeremy Clarkson told me I drive like a homosexual..." Do you have any animosity toward the "Top Gear" host and team?
Well, I don’t know what they feel. For me, I had the best time. It was just such a fun job and I loved it. I got along very well with all of the presenters and particularly the crew because I spent so much time working with them behind the scenes. The first time it became public, there was a real change in attitude from the BBC. It was just very clear to me that the writing was on the wall that I would be replaced imminently. That was painted out to me very clearly. It seemed to be the right thing to go.
The whole integrity of "The Stig" to me was that it lived and died with my anonymity. As much as I tried to keep going, it was time to leave. So I had to go write and tell my story because my identity had become so closely linked with the character. “Ben Collins” came up when anyone who clicked “The Stig” on Google, so I can understand why the BBC said it was time to move me on.
I just didn’t appreciate the way it was done. Obviously being taken to court was absolutely ludicrous.
There was a lot of money spent on that cases too... [Editor's Note: The BBC spent approximately £76,000 in in legal fees to prevent Ben Collin's book from publication, so says The Daily Mail]
Yeah, a huge amount of money. I’ve had to spend a lot of money on it. When a giant media organization like that turns its eye on you, it’s a very uncomfortable place to be. Our baby — number three — was born on the day the case was in the high court, so I really think that was the tip of the spear in terms of stress. I’ve been loyal to the program for nearly eight years. That was no way to be treated. At the same time, I’m not the sort of person to bare a grudge. I won the case and my book was published. I don’t bare anybody ill, but obviously I’ve read a few of the comments that have come out over the weeks and months and you think, "They can’t be much of a friend to become an enemy overnight."
One of the issues of discontent between you and the "Top Gear" producers was about your racing in the Le Man 24-hour as The Stig. What was the conflict? Why didn’t they want you to race?
The one hope I’d always had from day one was that the Stig could go racing. That really is my passion. As much fun as it was throwing the movie cars around the track, racing is in my blood. That was something I was very keen to do. There was a point where we had an opportunity to do Le Mans, but, there again, the BBC made it into a commercial thing. It was clear that it wasn’t going to come together in a way I had hoped. That was very disappointing. By the time we were even looking at going racing, I had already been given my marching orders, if that makes sense. I think it would have been great to see the Stig racing. Obviously we would have been able to get a very good drive. With all the media surrounding it we could have gotten a very competitive car and could have won the race.
In retrospect, what was your most memorable moment on the "Top Gear" track?
One of the most memorable was certainly the Billy Baxter thing. I felt a huge amount of pride. The other was just pure comedy really. I spent a day as the Stig on a roller coaster at the fairgrounds, which culminated on a stage in front of all the crowds. Girls started throwing their underwear. I really didn’t know what planet I was on at that point.
How’s everything going with your new show, “Fifth Gear”?
Really cool. We just had a shoot today. Myself and one of the other presenters were learning how to drive a car on two wheels, which actually it a lot harder in practice than it sounds. We had an hour to learn this. I smashed a car up pretty badly, but I had a lot of fun trying to do it.
You recently finished a segment for "Fifth Gear" on drag racing. Was this your first time in the cockpit of a drag car? What was the experience like?
The drag racing was pretty awesome because the acceleration was like nothing else. I can’t remember my fastest one-to-sixty time, but I think it was less than three seconds. This drag did it in less than two seconds. That was a real punch going forward. It was amazing because you just gain on the horizon so unbelievably fast. It was like being fired out of a torpedo. By racing standards, it was unbelievably fast. You actually feel your eyeballs squashing inside your head. I really enjoyed it. You really felt the adrenaline in the pit of your stomach. And the machine as well. It’s a crazy looking thing: 30-foot long with that tiny steering wheel and those little bicycle wheels at the front and the enormous tires around your ears. It was a completely surreal experience. I found it to be a great challenge. The whole starting procedure was so different from racing as well.
Is there a particular automotive stunt that you’d like to do on "Fifth Gear" that you couldn’t execute on "Top Gear"?
There are a lot of things on the back burner. I was always coming up with ideas for "Top Gear" that were either deemed too crazy or unworkable. One thing I’d really like to do is a 24-hour race with engine servicemen who have come back from Afghanistan or Iraq. To train these guys up, get them to compete, and take on a new challenge after they've been in the service. The closest thing I had to that with "Top Gear" was when we had an ex-military guy called Billy Baxter who lost his eye sight serving with the British Army in Yugoslavia. His goal was to beat a fully-sighted celebrity in the "Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car" challenge. He actually ended up beating six. He was completely blind and I told him where to go, but he did an amazing job. I got a huge kick out helping him. It’d be amazing to carry it on with other guys.
You raced this past year in the Le Mans. Were you happy with your comeback performance?
I had the best return you can have. I’ve only missed one year of racing, but we won the first race I came back for -- the Le Mans Series in Portugal. I was over the moon to jump back into it and win right away. We won the Le Mans Series, the actual Championship, as well. So, from a team perspective, that was a really warm feeling to come back with a team I’d raced for in the past. The last time I drove with that team we’d won the championship in the European NASCAR series. It was a real great homecoming with high hopes of coming back next season.
You were the first British driver in almost 30 years to get behind the wheel of an American NASCAR in the United States when you tested a car at Lakeland Speedway with Red Bull. Do you have any plans to come back to the U.S. to race NASCAR?
I’d love to race it. I had a really good run testing that car. I was very competitive in the times I did. I’d say it was the best experience I’ve had in racing, apart from actually crossing the line first. The buzz of driving a top-level NASCAR -- the feeling you get through the engine and the power and the precision -- was unlike anything else I’ve ever done, and I’ve tested Formula One cars. That was a test I came home with my hair standing up because I felt I had a real shot of competing at the very highest level. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come around very quickly since it depends on getting the right kind of sponsorship. I’m still working very hard on that because that’s my dream goal. I want to win Le Mans and I want to be the first British guy to race and win in NASCAR.
What do you like about the NASCAR circuit? Why is it such a dream for professional drivers?
Well, the variation is incredible. You have everything from a half-mile oval to a two-mile super speedway and everything in between. That takes a huge breadth of driver talent to handle all of those conditions. That’s point one. Plus, they have the road-course races, which is similar to Indy Car in that the driver has to be multi-skilled to cope with all those different scenarios. Also, the racing is constant. Even in Formula One, obviously the cars are very quick, but there are long periods of time when drivers are really not fighting for their position. They can’t make mistakes, but they’re not fighting for every inch of tarmac. Only NASCAR has that where the cars are so closely matched that they are really nose-to-tail, side-to-side, wheel-to-wheel and everybody is depending on everyone around them. There’s really no other feeling like it when you’re three-abreast and three-long and feeling the weight of the aerodynamics of the cars around you. It’s pretty unbelievable. It’s as wild a ride as you can get in racing.
You were Daniel Craig’s stunt driver in “Quantum of Solace.” How did you get into stunt driving?
I’m pretty obsessed with films actually. I suppose it was a symptom of growing up in California near Hollywood. On all my school holidays we would go to Universal Studios and you grew up as a fan of "The A-Team," "Buck Rodgers," "Star Wars," and all this stuff. That really stuck into later in life. I became more and more interested in how the films are made. With the skill set from racing, I saw an opportunity to get involved in the film business behind the scenes. I was very fortunate to get taken on by Gary Powell, who’s a renown stunt coordinator. He’s done a load of Bond films and Bourne movies. He took me under his wing and brought me into that amazing stunt crew they put together for the "Quantum of Solace." I was really privileged to be amongst those guys. The seasoned stunt guys are a pretty unbelievable crew.
What’s the atmosphere like working on the set of a Bond movie?
It’s very salty because the stunt crew is fairly small; there are about 25 guys assembled and each one of them is supremely talented in at least one way. Most of them could do five different skills extremely well, from kick-boxing, high-falling, diving, riding bikes, and all the other things that go between it, like setting themselves on fire and working with ropes to do these crazy tricks.
I came in with my one skill, which was obviously my main skill. I was in a fortunate position that I had a depth of experience with cars to just join these guys and learn. As much as you know about machinery, the actual mechanics of a big movie like that were like nothing I’d ever seen. I was really blown away by the scale of the production: how many cameras they had and the hundreds of guys on set. By the time they were set for a shot, hours and days of preparation had gone into that one moment, and you only get a couple of gos at it to get it right because there were so many working parts. It was a huge pressure working around these very talented camera men and directors. You felt a real expectation to be very good.
Do you think you’ll get asked back whenever they finally get around to filming the next Bond, “Bond 23”?
I’d love to! I hope there’s a car chase...
Are there any other film projects you’re working on?
There’s a "Batman" being filmed next year and I’d like to be involved in that. These films are always in the offing and it's always very exciting to be brought in.
You’ve had the opportunity to drive every single dream car imaginable. Is there one car out there that you’d love to get behind the wheel of and push it to the limit?
I’ve been very spoiled. I’m kind of like the fat kid who works in an ice cream shop. Having been spoiled for so long with so many good cars, it’s difficult to pick a modern one. Clearly, the ones that get me the most excited are the America muscle cars from the 1970s. Things like the Mustang that was in the “Bullit” film and the Dodge Challenger that was in “Vanishing Point,” that’s the type of car that gets me excited. When I see a really beautiful old Mustang parked up, that’s the type of car I end up drooling over for 10 minutes at a time because they’re just stunningly crafted machines. They handle badly by modern standards, but you have the comfort in there: the leather seats, the smell, even the seat belt. Everything about those cars from the ‘70s smacks of ultimate style. I think that’s a lost era, in a way.
In terms of modern cars, I still get excited by Ferraris. The Ferrari 5-8 -- specifically the Ferrari 45-8 -- is really a spectacular machine.
You’ve pushed the limit in so many vehicles. What’s your personal top speed?
My max so far is 250 miles per hour in the Bugatti Veyron. That was pretty good. I also got that in the Bugatti Super Sport. I probably won’t beat that.
Have you ever tested anything at Bonneville Salt Flats?
No, but I’d like to! I see those guys having a lot of fun out there.
Do you have any words of advice for anyone who aspires to reach your level of personal success as a driver?
Well, I’m still reaching myself. I hope to go on and really reach the goals I set out to. Coming to America would be great. Racing in the States is the best place to be racing because the ladder of success in America is the strongest in the world. The network from the dirt-track oval to NASCAR is exceptional. We could have a lot of fun. Even if you don’t make it, you can still have a lot of fun on those dirt tracks. Just because you’re racing there and not on television doesn’t mean you’re not as good a driver. That’s a pretty exciting thing to know that you’re racing against talented people. Just race to the highest level you can.
Finally, I’m sure you’ve gotten this question hundreds of times, but what’s your day-to-day car? What are you driving home right now?
A van. The only car I own is a Volkswagen van and we love it. It’s great for going touring and you can fit the whole family. Here where I live in England it snows sometimes, so it has four-wheel drive. I get to drive past everyone else when they’re stuck in a ditch.