Tuesday, 13 October 2009
Top Gear in Alabama... Text
Top Gear in America's redneck country
Of all the hair-raising escapades in the show, being chased by murderous Alabamans was the scariest says presenter in new book
Traditionally, the question asked of me when I meet anyone for the first time has been: “So what’s the best car you’ve ever driven?” Recently there’s been a change, the new question running thus: “Did you really [insert ridiculous moment from Top Gear] or was it made up for the telly?”
And for roughly a quarter of a year, maybe more, the new question was: “Were you really chased out of town by those American rednecks, or was it made up for the telly?” In the programme in question, we wanted to know if it was possible to buy a car and drive across a chunk of the USA for less money than the cost of traditional “fly-drive” schemes offered by holiday companies.
It’s a pretty lengthy story, but in the course of our trip, by way of an entertaining diversion to keep up our spirits during an especially lengthy drive, we had devised a plan whereby we would each try to get the others killed.
We would each decorate the others’ vehicles with slogans we felt might stir up the feelings of the locals, cause maximum discomfort to each driver and raise a laugh for the viewer at home. And so, in a broad, dusty lay-by at the side of a road leading to Alabama, we parked up and set to with the paintbrushes, spray cans and stencils.
On the side of Jeremy’s ageing, beaten-up Trans Am I painted the legend, “Country music is rubbish”. Jeremy had adorned the flanks of James’s 1970s Cadillac with “Hillary for president” and “Nascar sucks”.
I laughed at the slogans with Jeremy as we stood under the tall, smooth-barked trees and sheltered from the southern sun. James was still finishing the lettering on the side of my white pick-up truck and I didn’t want to spoil the moment by peeking before his work was done. Eventually, with a confident flourish of the brush, and a grin, James indicated that he had completed his masterpiece. We stepped up and surveyed. Along the side of my truck James had painted just four short words: “Man love rules OK”.
Well, fair enough: it was perhaps the strongest of our three examples of automotive artwork, but nevertheless, we all felt that we would cause, at worst, a ripple of offence no deeper than that which might be generated among the residents of Cornwall by three visitors driving their cars through Truro with “Cream teas are rubbish” painted down the sides.
We covered three miles before being placed in genuine fear for our lives.
Things started well enough. Our convoy included the three cars being filmed, and, naturally, the cars and jeeps carrying the film crew and their equipment. It was a very hot day and every vehicle travelled with windows down and its occupants’ elbows out — not least James’s, since Jeremy and I had disabled his air-conditioning system with a crowbar at a campsite the previous evening.
After just a mile or two, we spotted a road sign telling us we were in Alabama, and we pulled over to film it. The sign was riddled with bullet holes. And not the pathetic little air-rifle pellet holes you might occasionally see in the UK; this thing was peppered with shotgun blasts and a few larger, gaping wounds inflicted, I could only imagine, by slugs from high-powered hunting rifles. We were definitely not in Cornwall.
A mile or so later, we pulled into what Jeremy seemed keen to call a “gas station”. The crew cars pulled up in a line to one side of us. As I rested a hand on the hot metal of the petrol pump nozzle and readied myself to heave it up and slot it into the car, a movement across the forecourt made me stop. A woman — presumably a local — was walking towards us.
She had a long, rangy frame and looked to be made of wire and gristle underneath the plaid shirt and jeans. Maybe 50 years old with yellowing hair and brown teeth.
“Y’all queers trying to see how long you can last in a hick town?”
“Ah, er . . .” I looked across at Jeremy, who was staring at her. James was frowning. There was more movement around us on the forecourt now. Trucks were arriving and in the back of them I saw the broad backs and cowboy hats of what I could only imagine were more locals. Where they had sprung from, I had no idea. But I saw they were all carrying guns, propped up against their feet.
“No, look, we’re both mar¬ried. Got kids. Just travelling through.”
I pointed at Jeremy on the other side of a fuel pump. “Yup,” he chimed in. “Got kids, and just travelling through.”
An enormous man had come out of the station building now, to stand in the middle of the forecourt. He wore the regulation blue denim overalls, plaid shirt and work boots of a cartoon character and looked like you couldn’t stop him with a train. In an unexpectedly high voice, he started to count.
“Ten. Nine . . . ”
The crew cars were actually coming under attack now. A group of locals had assembled in a ragtag line and were throwing rocks at them. I heard them land loudly against the sides of the kit van, and watched as those members of the crew who had decided to brave the heat for the promise of a cool drink in the petrol station ran back to their cars.
“Er, Hammond . . . ” James had come into view, and just as he stepped up, I could see over his shoulder Jeremy’s blue Trans Am fire up and head for the road with a screech of tyres. “I need a jump-start again, I’m afraid.”
The battery on James’s gargantuan Caddy had faded over the previous two days and it had become a matter of routine to pull up alongside him in
my pick-up, hoist the bonnet, hook up the jump leads and give his car a boost to get the creaky old engine turning.
“Seven . . . ”
“Shit! Not now.” But there was no choice, so I said, “Right, you get ready. I’m coming over.”
The Caddy was about 20 yards away across the forecourt and James ran back to it. By the time he had reached it, got in and pulled the bonnet release, I was parked alongside.
“Five . . . ”
I leapt out of the truck, pulling the bonnet release on the way, and grabbed the jump leads as James thrust them towards me.
“Three . . . ”
The hail of rocks onto the crew vehicles was intensifying as the drivers came to their senses, started up and retreated. “Get in, James. Turn it over.”
The old Caddy gave a heave and the engine made a couple of wheezing turns before it caught and fired up.
“Two . . . ”
“Go, go, go!” More rocks landed around us as we pulled away. Grabbing third gear and keeping my boot nailed to the floor to squeeze every last ounce of go from the truck as our retreat gained pace, I saw the trucks from the garage pulling away.
In the back of each, sitting square against the sides of the pick-up bed in sombre lines, the rednecks toted their shotguns, thin black barrels bristling straight up at the sky. Amid the tense squabble of English voices from our team, crackling across the CB, I also heard the slow drawl of a local.
“They’re comin’ up past here. We’re at the crossroads.” And: “I can see them here, too.” They were using their CB radios to track us. And I was suddenly very aware that television cameras and business cards would not protect us from guns.
I didn’t want to wake up tied to a tree, being invited to squeal like a little piggy for the entertainment of a 20-year-old psychopath in giant dun¬ga¬rees, with three teeth in his head and a bitter hatred of anyone who wasn’t also a 30-stone homophobic racist who shot at things he didn’t understand.
A few miles down the road, conscious that we were easily identifiable to the hordes of rednecks being warned of our approach over the CB, we pulled over. We had seen them waiting at crossroads as we passed, and heard them telling people further ahead that we were coming. We had to try to remove the slogans that had caused offence of an intensity way beyond what we had anticipated.
Our wheels had barely stopped turning before key members of the crew threw themselves out of their vehicles and ran over to the three presenters’ cars, tore off their T-shirts, soaked them in water and began wiping frantically at the painted words. I joined them, and when we ran out of bottled water we used soft drinks instead, ripping the tabs off the cans and pouring the contents onto T-shirts before continuing to scrub at the stubborn paint.
The fear slowly subsided as we drove out of Alabama. But we kept going. And months later, the new question is still asked of me: “Did that really happen in America at the petrol station, or did you make it up for the telly?”
Well, yes, it really happened. You didn’t even see the half of it.
Oh, and if you were wondering about the answer to the question that preceded the new question, the best car I’ve driven is my worthless old Land Rover, across a field, with two dogs, my daughters and my wife in it, all heading for a picnic and a lazy afternoon.
© Richard Hammond 2009