I Was The Stig on Top Gear
Ben Collins Describes His Life as Top Gear's Top Secret Test-Driver
The following is extracted from the new book The Man in the White Suit: The Stig, Le Mans, The Fast Lane and Me by noted racecar driver Ben Collins, published by HarperCollins @ US price Copyright © Ben Collins 2010. For eight years Mr. Collins portrayed The Stig, an anonymous and silent expert driver, on Top Gear, the world's most popular TV show ever. Some say The Man in the White Suit: The Stig, Le Mans, The Fast Lane and Me is available at Amazon.com.
Chapter 7: The New Stig
Finally I heard back from Andy Wilman. It seemed that I did have a future with Top Gear, but I was to speak to no one about it. My first tasking was something called a 'powertest'. I packed my gear and made my way to the airfield.
I pulled up a few hundred metres short of the security gate and ran a mental checklist: No names, no personal info ... No unnecessary introductions ... Look the part, act the part.
I pulled a black balaclava over my melon and admired the view in the head mirror. Yep, you look like a terrorist.
The security guard approached me more cautiously this time, noting the registration plates in case these were his final steps on mother earth. I wound down the window and hailed him.
'Morning. I'm with Top Gear.'
He broke into a relieved smile, waved me through and returned to his cheese and pickle.
I drove on to the concrete staging area. Tripods and cameras and black travel boxes full of kit were strewn everywhere, and the place was seething with camera crew. I had no idea what any of them were doing, but they seemed very busy doing it.
Several had noticed the suicide bomber who had just drawn up beside them. I was bringing unnecessary attention to myself, so I climbed out and made my way as anonymously as possible towards the toxic cabin.
I loitered near the cardboard cut-out of John Prescott, waiting for some sign of Andy Wilman. Under his leadership, Top Gear had been through a successful revamp following its demise in the Nineties, but it remained essentially a car review programme. As I joined in the second year of the new format, it was as popular as ever, with over two million viewers. You'd think they could have spent a few quid doing up the place. It was the pits.
After five minutes there were signs of movement down the dim corridor. A young guy with a Tintin hairdo and Elvis sunglasses appeared, chatting to a skinny nerd in an Adidas shell suit. They walked straight past.
'Hi,' I said.
'Whooooooaaa,' Tintin shrieked, leaping through the air as if someone had just plugged him into the National Grid.
Back on the ground, he started to laugh.
'You must be Ben.' He waved a hand. 'I'm Jim Wiseman. You scared the living shit out of me. Nice balaclava, though. Bet it comes in handy on a cold day robbing banks.'
'Very. Should I just wait here?'
'Yeah, I think that's best for now. We'll find you a room later. It's great to have you on board, welcome to the A team!'
'Thanks. Am I actually on board?'
'You're kidding, right? Hasn't Andy told you?'
'No, other than turn up today and not tell anyone. I sent him the rushes he wanted and hoped I did some good times the other day.'
'That's so typical. I think you equalled Perry's best time on your second lap, and your best lap was over a second faster. Wilman was straight on the phone to the office and was like, "Boys, we've got a new Stig ..."'
The Stig was the show's faceless racing driver who tested everything from exotic supercars to family saloons around Top Gear's track, setting fast lap times to gauge their performance. Dressed in black and hidden behind a blackout helmet, he looked like Darth Vader's racing twin.
The vital component of The Stig's aura was anonymity. No one ever saw his face, knew his name or heard him speak. When Perry McCarthy, the chattiest racing driver on the planet, revealed that he was the driver behind the mask after Series 2, his days were numbered. Shortly after I took over, I observed the fate awaiting me if I ever broke that rule.
Black Stig, or rather someone dressed like him, was filmed being strapped into a Jaguar XJS to attempt a speed record aboard the aircraft-carrier HMS Invincible. A dummy Stig was then sent screaming down the launch pad, aided by the pressurised steam catapult used for launching Sea Harriers.
Stig 'missed his braking point'. Car and driver crashed into the North Sea, never to be seen again ...
With him out of the way, it was my turn in the sandpit. But I knew that a character born of the media would inevitably die by it; that a single slip-up would lead to the catapult. Black Stig lasted a year on the show; maybe I could hold out for two. Carpe Diem. If it only lasted a day, I was determined to make it a good one.
I vowed to take The Stig in the White Suit to a new level of secrecy and hold out for as long as possible. I made my own rules: never park in the same place twice, never talk to anyone outside the 'circle' and keep a balaclava on until I was eight miles clear of the location, and certain that no one was following.
My golden rule was never to appear in the white suit without my helmet on. Conjecture was nothing without proof, and nothing short of photographic, tangible evidence could prove who I was. I sterilised my gear, left every trace of Ben Collins — my phone, my wallet and so on — locked in the car, then hid the keys. When the Sunday Times raided my changing room and sifted through my gear, the only information they gleaned was that The Stig wore size 10 shoes.
At work I hid behind a mask. At home I lied to everyone, including my friends and family, about what I was doing.
To me, The Stig epitomised the ultimate quest: no challenge too great, no speed too fast. He had to look cool and have attitude, so I ditched the crappy racing overalls the BBC gave me and acquired some Alpinestars gear and a Simpson helmet.
Apart from unparalleled skill behind the wheel, The Stig was rumoured to have paranormal abilities and webbed buttocks, to urinate petrol and be top of the CIA's Most Wanted list. There was only one possible hitch: I had never been a tame racing driver.
* * *
After forty minutes the balaclava began to itch like hell. The only place to give my head a break was the mothballed room Jim Wiseman had shown me where the test pilots used to change for pre-flight. It was more like a jail cell.
Paint flaked off the damp, yellow-stained walls; the red-painted concrete floor had survived an earthquake and the windows were too high to see out of. It was furnished minimally — with a rump-numbing, standard locker-room issue wooden bench. My only company was a plump beetle that I named Reg. He usually made an appearance mid-morning and scrambled across the pock-marked floor.
I waited there for hours on end, to be summoned to go ballistic on the track in whatever vehicle was lined up for filming. Food was brought to me and eaten in solitary confinement. In between eating and driving, two of my favourite pursuits, I busied myself reading books or doing press-ups. I pestered racing teams on the phone and drifted off into the recesses of my brain. It was like The Shawshank Redemption, minus the shower scene.
Only Andy Wilman, Wiseman and a couple of the producers knew who I was. I was just a voice behind a mask. Even the presenters were in the dark. When I coached the celebrity guests, none of them knew my name. They never saw my face. My helmet always stayed on with the visor shut.
It didn't take long to slip into my new routine.
It would begin with a knock at the door. The world turned Polaroid as I pulled on my helmet. The familiar scent of its resin bond filled my nostrils and the wadding pressed against my cheeks. I paced down the hall and on to the airfield to receive instructions from the director. People stopped in their tracks and stared at me like I was E.T.
The director swept his curly locks behind his ears and extended his hands, framing a square with his thumbs and forefingers as he breathlessly visualised the scene he was looking for.
'What we would like you to do, if you can, Stig, is pull away really fast. And spin the wheels. Can you do that?'
The cameraman, a North Face advocate with white blond hair, crouched like a rabbit six inches from a Porsche 911's rear wheel, evidently focused on the hub. 'Hi, I'm Ben Joiner,' he said. 'Am I all right here?'
I nodded. I was hardly being asked to skim the barriers at Daytona.
I red-lined the Porker, flipped the clutch and vanished in a haze of smoke.
The radio crackled. 'Cut, cut, cut ... Wonderful. Let's do that again, but this time look at the camera first and then go!"
We did it again. And again. And again. Filming took ... time.
I began to get my head around the compromise between fast driving and spectacular driving for TV. Sometimes, it overlapped — a fast lap could be as exciting to behold on the screen as on the stopwatch, but that was rare.
I studied the edit inside the minivan with James, a dour young Brummie who received the footage hot from the track, tapped a whirlwind of inputs on to his hieroglyphic keyboard, and deftly dissected it into a meaningful sequence for broadcast.
To enhance the viewing experience — and to keep my new friend James at bay — I threw in some wheelspins and lashings of lurid cornering to complement the more sedate looking but faster driving shots.
The Porsche was down to set a time, but it was pissing with rain and the track was flooding in the straights. Just completing a 140mph lap without spinning on to the turf had been an accomplishment.
Andy Wilman wandered down and collared me. 'Can't you do something?'
'What did you have in mind? A good time is out of the question. The car aquaplanes from second right up to fifth on the straights.'
'The old Black Stig was a dab hand round this place, y'know. Amazing car control in the wet. Just do something. Something ... interesting.'
Andy could already push my buttons like a jukebox.
As if by magic, the eight-year-old in my brain had a great idea. The Follow Through corner was named when Andy designed the layout of the Top Gear track with Lotus test driver Gavan Kershaw from Naaaarwich (which some people know as Norwich). 'The cars will be going bloody fast through this bit,' Gavan explained. 'You wouldn't want to go off, that's for sure.'
Andy is rumoured to have got quite excited at that point. 'You mean if you went off you'd shit yourself and follow through?'
I asked Jim Wiseman to reposition the Follow Through cameraman. I'd decided not to share my plan with him. If things went wrong, I could always blame the weather.
I pounded the Porker around the lap as per normal. As I exited the Hammerhead chicane the adrenalin began boosting. As every gearchange propelled me closer to the money shot, I started to wonder if this was such a good idea.
The rain slashed across the windscreen, I turned right into the Follow Through and buried the throttle. The Porker fired several warning signals but I was able to straighten up and point it towards the gap between the tyre wall and the verge. The pools of water were so dense they were picking the whole car up and aiming it in a load of different directions. For my plan to work, that was precisely what I needed.
Forty feet to go.
I passed my previous braking point and kept it lit, steered straight, leant left and handed over control to the Rain God.
The water lifted all four tyres off the tarmac and the steering went ghostly light. I passed through the tyre wall at a rude angle at just under 120mph. There wasn't a sound as the car pinged into its first 360-degree spin.
I stayed on my original line of travel, which was good news. It gave me 300 feet of runway to sort things out before I ran into the landing lights. To cap this manoeuvre in style I needed to end up facing in the right direction.
Once I was going fully backwards on the second gyration, I straightened the steering, then turned it gently right to swing the front around. I was still shipping at around 100, so I had to manhandle out of the manoeuvre with some hard opposite lock to catch the rear for the last time.
I skirted the gutter bordering the runway and peddled round the final corners to cross the finish.
I pulled alongside Jim for a debrief.
'Fucking hell. Are you all right?'
'Sure. How did it look?'
Jim rolled his eyes. 'I don't know if it's better or worse that you did that intentionally ...' He contacted the main camera unit on his radio. 'Biff, did you get that?'
'Uuh ... Oh ... Yeah ... We got it.'
'Iain, what about you?'
'YYYAAAAAAAAAP (enormous burp). Got it.'
'What've you got, Jim?' Andy quizzed.
'The mother of all spins. Stiggy's changing his underpants as we speak. So am I, for that matter.'
'Good work. Get ready for the celeb, he'll be here in fifteen.'
With that, a black van was dispatched to collect the camera tapes and run them across to James. I went off to get some lunch.
The Top Gear catering unit consisted of a double-decker bus and mobile trailer. When the schedule was tight I grabbed my own scoff. Each chef greeted me with the same startled look as I bowled up like a white-suited Oliver Twist. They checked my wristband periodically to ensure I had a meal ticket. Can't be too careful.
'How do you eat it?' the chef asked.
'I snort it through a straw. What's for pudding?'
Depending on the guest, I might get a briefing beforehand. With my limited knowledge of TV personalities I needed all the help I could get.
Wilman took me under his wing and talked me through it.
'Right, Stiggy. Today we've got Martin Kemp driving the reasonably priced car.'
'Do you watch EastEnders?'
'I've seen it, yes. Is he the bald one?'
Andy shot a bemused look towards the heavens. 'No. He's the baddie. Everyone hates him; well, not the public but in the show. He used to be in Spandau Ballet. Can you teach him some good moves out there so he sets a fast time?'
'Absolutely, assuming it dries.'
It didn't. The track stayed as slick as Kemp's hairdo and he spun so far off the track during practice that he nearly collected a $6m helicopter.
I handed Martin over to the presenters, who went about filming their pieces with him in front of the studio audience. My job was done, yet the night was still young. I never hung around after studio days for a beer or a chat. It was decidedly antisocial of me, but I really did have somewhere else to be.
Portions of this content have appeared in foreign print media and are reproduced with permission.