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The Stig Speaks! An Interview With Former 'Top Gear' Driver Ben Collins

by Danny Gallagher, posted Dec 4th 2010 3:00PM
Racing driver Ben Collins and The Stig from BBC's 'Top Gear'Some say The Stig fell to Earth from a speeding meteorite and landed behind the wheel of a Koenigsegg CCX before the producers of the successful BBC car show 'Top Gear' chose him to be their mute racing driver.

Others said he was actually a clone combination of seven race car drivers, chemically and genetically designed to drive everything from a fully-tweaked Lamgorgini Murcelagio to a gas-powered snowmobile down a steep ski jump ramp.

But Jeremy Clarkson, the colorful and outspoken 'Top Gear' host, called him a "greedy twat."

Ben Collins, the Formula Three circuit, British GT Championship and Le Mans Series racing driver, was revealed as The Stig thi ssummer thanks to a British high court ruling. Collins finally got to speak of his time as The Stig in a new book called 'The Man in the White Suit,' which hit bookstores in the States this week.

The race car driver and 'Fifth Gear' star talked to TV Squad's Danny Gallagher about the memories and skills he gained from driving everything from a Bugatti Veyron to a Datsun 120Y, the response to his decision to "un-helmet" himself before the British High Court did that for him and the heavy burden of keeping his identity hidden from the press and millions of viewers who would have given just about anything to discover the man behind the mask.

How did your involvement with the TV show start?

I've been racing since 1994 and I was actually sponsored by 'Top Gear' very briefly once in 1997 ... My first involvement with the show came in 2003 and I was asked to audition to do a trial at the test track. They had an existing Stig who was wearing black and they had a couple of other guys in the wings ... but they were looking at other people. They had a Ford Focus, which is a small, what do you call it? A runabout, small engine, 1.4 liter engine car and I set a fast time. It was the fastest time they ever had recorded for that car on that track. So they hired me and that's how it started.

Ben Collin's book, Did you know what the character would be? Were you even thinking it would be an anonymous thing?

I had seen it on the TV actually. The new form of the show had started in 2002. They had the black Stig, an anonymous character, and it looked like great fun and in a way, that's why I had been in touch with the program. That looked like a cool thing to do.

It was clear that character was coming to an end in some way because the previous guy, the black Stig, had just left the show. He had been there about a year. He left and had a book that was about his sort of life and times including his time at 'Top Gear.' So it was pretty clear that I wanted to keep being The Stig, but I had to keep him anonymous and that's what I did very successfully for eight years. It was a big challenge but it was great fun at the same time.

How big of a challenge? Was it hard not to tell people, "Hey, I'm the Stig"?

(Laughs) It's hard to stop people from guessing. Of course, you can't stop people from guessing what you do, like people guess that you're involved in the media because of the fact that you have a tape recorder or attend press conferences, things like that. People pick up on what your job is.

If you hang out at racing tracks and with film crews, and if you have to fill out insurance forms that the car manufacturers require ... it makes it very difficult with modern media especially. Everybody has a camera phone and everybody can't help but share a secret and it spreads quickly. That's really what happened.

We had a high turnover with people working in the production office and car manufacturers were required to know who the driver was. So that kind of information really spread and tilted through into the media networks. That's why it was a challenge because people who come up to me when I was dressed as The Stig would try and catch me. It was tough.

How many people connected to the show or just people you knew knew who you were?
I've had to do this recently because the BBC lost the first court action. They are now suing me for damages, saying I was in breach of contract, which I'm obviously disputing heavily. I really refute that allegation. As part of that, I actually had to calculate how many people knew, just in the BBC, knew who I was, and that was over 150. That's just in production obviously. The car manufacturers and the motoring industry, thousands of people were involved in that and word spread through the motoring industry as well, so I haven't calculated how many people found out that way.

Other than having to hide the fact that you're "The Stig," was it hard work?

A lot of racing drivers are very good at driving fast over a lap. There's obviously a core at the very top, the pinnacle of the fastest drivers on the planet and I've enjoyed competing with them on the racetrack. But it's a very different skill to be able to apply car control where you skid the car through the corners in a front-wheel drive car or a four-wheel drive car and to be able to jump in it and within two minutes of experiencing it to be able to maximize its performance and absolutely ring its neck and lap it as fast as it will go. That was a skill I really enjoyed acquiring and I had to acquire it from the very beginning.

I think my career helped that because I've never been in the same category of racing, very rarely so. I had to learn to adapt very quickly. So I suppose that was the greatest thing was putting that ability to the test, to adapt to new machinery very quickly and absolutely ring its neck and max it. I really found out the intrinsic characters of every car and we drove hundreds of cars. I loved that part of it.

How committed were you to the character? Did you appear on the awards shows or appear in the studio or go on trips with the main hosts?
It was the whole time. Like one of the examples you gave where I'm racing through London and just walking around, I'm playing the character.

In that sense, I was very flattered that the producers felt I was the best man in the car and on the track and just walking around ... because I understood the character intrinsically and I really enjoyed that. It was just great fun playing this mysterious driver from another planet who didn't understand humans or the Earth and was experiencing it like a child ... Then there were occasional things that we weren't filming like the awards show for TV and one of the producers borrowed the suit for a laugh and did that instead, but the stuff you saw on screen. That was me.

Was there ever a real dangerous moment on the set, one that would even bring The Stig down a notch or two?
Nearly everyday was dangerous because we were dealing with cars moving at breakneck speed and just like motor racing, you're pushing machines that are built by men and men make mistakes. So there was always a risk of an accident and I enjoy that side of calculating that risk and overcoming it the best that I can. The main risk was to the crew because the crew would risk their lives to get really close to the action. That really hung around my neck. I lived with that every day very consciously to make sure that we kept them safe and they were never put them in harm's way. I'm proud to say that I had a clean record on that front and that really meant a lot to me.

I would imagine that "Gambon," the last hard corner of the 'Top Gear' track, must have been the most dangerous. Were there ever any close calls?

That's where I used to stand and watch the guests cross the line. It's quite interesting because when we first started, we had a solid fence behind us and people used to say they would come straight-on. Quite often, they did. (Laughs) What would happen is the front of the cars tend to skid and people would hit the gas too hard and come right out of it.

There was one occasion with (actor, comedian and 'Little Britain' star) David Walliams when he went very wide and came across the grass and I was trying to use hand signals to suggest that he get his foot off the gas pedal and turn left sharper. I had to grab the cameraman and run and jump on the fence to get out of the way. That was quite funny. After that, I insisted that we put a gate in that fence so if we had to run out of the way, we would have an escape hatch and producers stuck that hatch in and it's the hatch they still used today. So I probably saved someone a flat foot.

Is it the same for every (celebrity) driver when you sit them down and tell them how to drive around the track?
In a way, the format is the same. The guests would come to the set around midday and drink cappuccino and talk about their book or movie and get pampered in the green room. Then they would be let out of that padded environment and on to the airfield where I would be dressed like a stormtrooper and introduce myself wearing a helmet. Then I would strap them into this five-point harness like an executioner's chair where they couldn't move in the passenger seat and take them around and show them how to drive fast. That format was the same for every guest.

What I was teaching them was the same skill, but it really depended on the individual and to what level I was able to teach them. So if someone was a complete novice and didn't really have much aptitude for driving, it really dictated what I could teach them in the time I had available whereas somebody who was really up for it and confident, I could teach a lot more and get them up to a very high level.

Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise with Ben Collins as Any of the stars stick out as your personal favorite?
The standout in many ways is Tom Cruise because you read all the hype about people and when you meet them, it's very different from what you expect. What we met was a very down-to-Earth, super-friendly guy who couldn't have made himself more open to every single member of the crew ... It was very humbling to see how good-natured he was with people. It wasn't what I necessarily expected from a big A-lister. You always hear gossip about what people are like and he didn't seem to match that.

Then in the car, he was incredibly brave. Tom Cruise has got a stunt plane he flies and he's into bikes and all of these things. I've got friends in the stunt business who have worked with him and they say he's always up for it and gets involved and that's what he was like on the track. He held nothing back. He was great fun. He was very intense in learning the skills and he worked extremely hard out there. I would say he dedicated himself to that course more than anybody we've had on the show and the result was there in the stopwatch because he crossed the line on two wheels and set the fastest lap time on that challenge. It was really special for me because that was my last episode on 'Top Gear' and to finish it in style with a guy like that meant a lot.

So what prompted you to finally write a book and reveal your identity? How did that process come about?
The reality is when I started the job, I was completely anonymous. I worked night and day to keep that the case ... Over a period of years, people just chipped away at it ... In 2008, it had become Britain's most asked question on the Internet. Apparently it was more important to them than the meaning of life, which was some really amusing stuff.

The Radio Times published an article and named me as one of two chief suspects. That really popped the cork on the whole thing because the other newspapers over in England respected the secrecy side of it and after that, they all ran front-page stories naming me as The Stig. In a way, anonymity was completely breached at that point. I struggled along with that for a while and the producers did as well.

But then the producers started talking about hiring other people, and I wasn't comfortable with that at all and I really saw the writing on the wall. I was either going to be pushed out the door or walk out on my own and I chose to leave with my head held up high and write a book and have a positive reflection on my time as The Stig.

Were they bringing these other people on because your identity was being revealed?
You have to understand that it manifested itself in different ways. You can just sense a shift in attitudes and I picked that up and there were definite noises about bringing other people in. I was then replaced, not for TV but for some of the live stunt shows they were doing and I was given no adequate reason for why I had been replaced.

It didn't make any sense to me at all because I had done a very good job there and hadn't upset anybody. So I had to make my own conclusions because my bosses wouldn't give me a straight answer and I drew my own conclusions and I thought if I'm going to be replaced, that's fine. I can go back into racing and get on with other things I wanted to achieve.

Writing a book was something I always wanted to do. I'm pleased to have now become an author. For me, that's a great next step in my career. I was free to do it and obviously, the high court in England felt the same.

Were you upset or did you understand when you picked up on all this?

I was upset with the way it was handled. Although, I also understood that if I was no longer anonymous that it was time to go. That I accepted, but what I find very distasteful and I think is a disgrace was the way the BBC handled my leaving. I thought it was completely wrong for the British broadcaster to try to limit freedom of speech by trying to ban my book and I'm very disappointed with the people I worked with for joining in on that and saying I've been in any way disloyal. I worked with the program for eight years and I've not spoken an ill word against any of the people I've worked with. It doesn't add up.

Have you tried to talk with any of the producers or the hosts?
Absolutely, I gave them notice. I did sit down with them towards the end of the last series and made it very clear what my plans were and why ... I gave them several months of notice. So I did my best. I really felt that there was no going back and wasn't really being offered any solution to stay, so it was just the right time to go.

Subsequently, I spoke to James May because I didn't understand some of the comments I'd seen him making in the press. He seemed to be very friendly and it was all tongue-in-cheek on his part, but I would say the same is not true from Jeremy Clarkson from what I've read and the comments I've seen.

I was just going to ask you about him. I just read the story where he called you a "greedy twat." This is going to sound like a mean question, but were you really even friendly with him from the beginning?
Yeah, I was very friendly with everybody. I thought we had some good times. Funny enough, I didn't work with the presenters a huge amount of time. I was really getting up to my own thing, and I shared good times with those guys.

You understand the true nature of friendship. If somebody can turn their opinion against you that quickly, then they obviously weren't friends in the first place. Still, I've got very good friends who work there or have left and those people I share good times with and continue to. I'm not bothered if I lose touch with a few people who continue with that attitude.

Is there a chance that you could be a guest on the show and get a chance to explain all this?
Well I'd be up to it, but that's a question for them. I doubt very much that they would have me.

Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise with Ben Collins as So you'd have no problem with it?

Absolutely, because at the end of the day, I know I've done the right thing. If Clarkson had been in my shoes, he wouldn't have lasted five minutes because he wouldn't have been able to control his mouth and he would have let slip who he was and what he was doing and secondly, it's very much in their self interest. The corporation is obviously making a lot of money on merchandising from 'Top Gear' and I think perhaps they've got some slight tunnel vision on that side of it.

So I have to ask, do you miss it? Is it the same as being a race car driver?
The funny thing is I don't miss it at all and only because I really enjoyed it, but I suppose at the end, the thing that's really helped me cut off that side of it is the fact that these people have turned on me ... It doesn't really help me miss it, (laughs) and I've gotten to enjoy writing about it in the book. All my favorite experiences are in there.

Really my first passion is competition. I'm a racing driver and I live for that contest and as much fun as I had working with 'Top Gear,' it was quite limiting. I've got a lot of ideas I'd like to see on the screen on the screen, on movies and on TV. I've got a lot of races I want to go win and those things, I couldn't do with 'Top Gear.'

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I know everyone on the show is taking pop's at him, but I agree with what he's done.

After all, the BBC own "The Stig" Character, so if Ben was just to leave the show, he'd never get another penny every time Dave played a rerun of his work, or the BBC put out another DVD featuring what he did.

If he was really the "Greedy Twat" Clarkson is making him out to be, then he would have held the BBC over a barrel long ago. Instead, he worked for a very modest salary, compared to the rest of the presenters, and, though the BBC made tons of money flogging his wares, whether DVDs, Toys, games or posters, he never saw a penny of it.

I think it's only fair that he gets to look after him self now he's done on the BBC. Good on you ben.

It's not exactly like it was the biggest secret any more anyway.

December 24 2010 at 6:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I would not be surprised if the next stig is female

December 23 2010 at 1:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thing is, just like Vader is more than James Earl Jones' voice, The Stig is more than Ben Collins. The Stig will go on; Collins will not be the voice of CNN.

December 05 2010 at 12:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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