Every Top Gear on History fan would like to know what it’s like to be in their studio audience. However Season Three of the US-version has omitted the studio segment and we don’t know if it will ever be seen again. Lucky for us, one of our favourite opinionated women, Sacramento-based writer and marketing designer, Kristin Berkery, not only had that experience but has kindly agreed to share it with us.
My Cable TV Premiere on Top Gear
by Kristin Berkery
After I got a ticket from On Camera Audiences to attend a taping of Top Gear USA, I did something probably no other fan of the show has done. I got on a train and took a 10-hour journey from Northern California to Orange County to be on the show. I could have driven, but I didn’t feel like spending all that money on gas and I loved the idea of reading as many books as possible on the trip.
Once I got to Orange County, I took a taxi to the decommissioned El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, now called Orange County Great Park. The parking lot was full of cool cars that fans had driven to the taping, and I was definitely the only person showing up in a taxi that day. I could feel the stares as I arrived. I’m pretty sure I was breaking some kind of Top Gear protocol.
No matter, because at 9 a.m. the production crew packed us all on school buses — no fancy transportation here — and drove us around the base to a hangar where the show was taped. Because El Toro is very large and in the middle of being “repurposed” from military base to urban park and nature preserve, it’s pretty rough-looking in places. Many of the buildings are abandoned with rusted metal and broken windows, there are huge piles of construction waste and broken concrete, and the grassy areas are overgrown. Not the pretty look that fans of the UK version of Top Gear are accustomed to. As we travelled around the base, I spotted a parking lot with several cars, including a red stretch limo Corvette that we’d see later in the Limos episode.
Everyone in the audience went through a security check at the set, our mobile phones and cameras were confiscated, and we were led to a tent with big TV screens showing episodes from the previous season of Top Gear. A few people didn’t know anything about the show and were checking it out for fun, but most were avid fans. There were a lot of laughs as we watched the Death Valley episode from season two, which included footage at the end that was later edited out of the History Channel airing.
A member of the production crew gave us our instructions for the taping. When someone on the show said something funny, we were supposed to laugh really loudly, and if something exciting happened, we were supposed to cheer, clap, and whistle loudly. Basically we were told to do what we’d normally do, except much more obnoxiously. We were appearing in the second episode of season three, Muscle Cars, although we didn’t learn this until much later.
The first 100 audience members who showed up that morning were given special wristbands that allowed them to appear in the Big Star, Small Car intro. I wasn’t in that group, but I could see them taping several hundred feet away. After waiting at least an hour, we were led into the hangar and onto the dark set. To the left of the stage I noticed the blue Chevy CK step-side pickup, nicknamed “Blurple,” that won the America’s Toughest Trucks challenge in Alaska — but something was different about it. It was now mostly flat, but we were told only that a future episode would show us what happened. The crew arranged us so there were no gaps and I was placed in a group that was instructed to stand near the Big Star as he walked from the Small Car, the Suzuki SX4, to the stage to be interviewed by Rutledge Wood, then we were supposed to close up the audience circle. The Big Star turned out to be Patrick Warburton of Seinfeld and Family Guy. As he jogged up to the stage for his interview, I stood next to the camera that filmed him and then moved close to the stage. Unfortunately I didn’t get on camera in that scene.
The interview was much longer than what you see in the final episode. It was strange to discover that even though I was near the front, I couldn’t hear Rutledge or Patrick talking at all. They were miked so the crew could hear them, but only the audience members closest to the two could hear the conversation. That made it difficult to react at the right times. I figured out that when the audience closest to Rutledge and Patrick started laughing or clapping, I needed to do the same thing. When Patrick’s lap time was announced as the fastest, we cheered and clapped as loud as possible for several minutes.
After the scene was over, we filed back into the tent to watch more Top Gear past episodes. An hour later we returned to the hangar, but this time we stood in the large sliding doorway and gathered around Ford Mustangs that had been parked there. The set was now covered by a white cloth stretched across a 30-foot-high truss. There were typically three or four takes of the same scene, and in between takes Rutledge Wood, Tanner Foust, and Adam Ferrara would turn to face the audience and tell us what happened in the episode up to that moment. The audience laughed as they described the events. We learned that the drive-in movie theater in the episode was in Riverside, California, and a house nearby had a couch on its roof so the residents could watch drive-in movies for free.
While we waited for different scenes to be set up, the crew entertained us by having a dance competition between audience members and a prize for the person with the coolest car. The crowd disagreed with a few of the people who thought they had cool cars, like a Scion and a right-hand-drive Range Rover, and responded with jeers. The contest winners received Top Gear posters. In the distance I watched the red Suzuki do several laps around theTop Gear track with the Stig in the passenger seat. A production crew member said actor Joe Mantegna was in the driver’s seat practicing for his timed run.
Around 1:30 p.m., we wrapped and headed back to the buses. I stayed behind with a small group to get autographs from Rutledge and Tanner before leaving. (Adam left before taping ended for that episode.) Both were friendly and polite, and Rutledge thanked us for being patient as he made his way through signing autographs for everyone. I had a ticket to the next episode’s taping later that afternoon, but I was exhausted and needed to catch a train so I boarded a bus back to the greeting area. When I got there I called the cab company that dropped me off, but they hung up on me four times after I told them to pick me up at Orange County Great Park. Not being from the area, I didn’t think to say I was at El Toro. (All street signs in the area call it Orange County Great Park.) Since I didn’t have a smart-phone at the time, I was stranded. I called my husband in Northern California and had him find another cab company in Orange County that would pick me up.
While I waited the 45 minutes for a taxi, an 18-wheeler pulled into the lot carrying exotic cars. I envied the people attending the next taping. My return trip involved taking a train through Orange County, a harrowing bus ride that had me vomiting like Rutledge in a supercar piloted by Tanner, and yet another three hours on a train that passed along the scenic water’s edge in Oakland. I arrived home exhausted but happy. Next time I think I’ll drive.