Tor Poznan. The racetrack. A windy Friday in late February. 12.30 pm.
The Stig said, “Get in.” It was an offer I couldn't refuse. And yet . . . and yet . . . I was hitching a ride with a driver who is notorious for knowing two things about ducks. And they are both wrong.
Trackside, the TVN Turbo people were throwing fits, horrified, pointing at their watches. “No No! There's no time!”
Ben repeated, “Just get in. We'll take a short spin.” He wanted to show me the curve, the one that almost “finished me,” as he put it. (Perhaps I should have thought twice before I jumped in with him.)
“Put your seat belt on in case I kill you,” he says. At high speeds there is always the possibility that something will go horribly wrong. That's where the thrill is. Ha ha ha ha ha! Eat my dust Turbo Freaks! We're hauling ass!
The Infiniti lurched forward picking up speed and soon we were drifting, almost floating, through the first curve, Ben oversteering, causing a loss of traction in the rear wheels, the front wheels pointing in the opposite direction of the turn, yet smoothly controled from the entry to exit of the corner. Your stomach jumps. Adrenalin pumps. A few days before I had been motorcycling through the impossibly crowded streets of Margoa in India floating in streams of sunshine and insane traffic and now Vroooooooom, we hit the straight track and into another drift and a straight and a drift and into the straight and OFF THE TRACK and just as quickly back on again.
“Just a touch of rallying for you,” Ben said.
“I know what kind of person you are now,” the TVN PR woman, Marta said as we roared back to a screeching halt. I was grinning like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I would have howled at the moon if it had been midnight instead of midday.
Because speed is the ultimate adrenalin high.
His job with TVN Turbo is to drive test cars “to destruction,” says the former Stig, Ben Collins.
"I'm pushing really really hard. These are all road cars and they cant do more than two or three laps before the breaks start to go. What we are trying to do perhaps unlike Top Gear is to really see the weaknesses and the strengths of the cars, to find their limits.There's no bullshit in this.”
The Stig, if you happened not to know, is the masked test driver from the BBC car show Top Gear, which has 350 million viewers worldwide, making the Stig the most famous unknown celebrity on the planet. There have been three Stigs: Perry McCarthy (2002-2003), Ben Collins (2003-2010) and Unknown (2010-2012). For seven years Ben Collins was an anonymous legend, a masked man, who despite his racing prowess, was taunted relentlessly by show host Jeremy Clarkson, who maintained that the Stig was kept mute and incognito because racing drivers are stupid and their opinions are worthless. In the very first show, Clarkson said, “We don't know its name, we really don't know its name, nobody knows its name, and we don't wanna know because its a racing driver.”
In his “Some say” introductions, Clarkson claimed variously that the Stig was confused by stairs and afraid of bells, that he possessed hydraulic legs and two sets of knees, that he never blinked and naturally faced magnetic north, that he could catch fish with his tongue and that he invented the curtain, that his left nipple made the shape of Nurburgring racetrack and that the BBC paid his salary in pornography. For his trip to the Isle of Man road test, the Stig was picked up like cargo from the baggage conveyor at the airport. That was the schtick. Great stuff! One hoax in 2008 revealed the Stig to be Michael Schumacher.
Of such stuff pop legend is quite rightly born. If the Stig had been a rock band he would have been Kiss. If he had been a caped crusader he would have been Batman (who also liked to drive fast). If he had been a spy he would have been Bond. (Collin's company did the stunt driving for the last two Bond films.) If he were an artist he would be Banksy, who hid his identity for years until outed by The Daily Mail.
But what is a Stig? Clarkson coined the term based on his English public school days at Repton where „Stig” was a nickname for new boys from „Stigma” which in English means „a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” (Worth noting: Stig is a Swedish first name and a region in Serbia.)
It all ended in tears in 2010 with a law suit. Collins went public with his autobiography and the BBC sued his publisher. Clarkson whined, „If you have seen Wall Street, Greed is not good, kids. It was a shock. I had him over for drinks at the house and all the time he was writing a book.
Collins maintains that the BBC had already outed him: „What happened was that The (BBC) Radio Times did a story headlined: Who is the Stig? The Nation Wants to Know. They did a photo shoot with a guy dresseed in the white suit and inside is a photo of me and another candidate who is in his late 50s. That happened in 2008 and the first I knew about it was when our plumber came in with a copy of the magazne and asked me to sign it. He said we all know you are the Stig so can you please sign it. Within 3 months of that happening it ran in all the national papers.So I knew they were planning to get rid of me.”
The courts decided in favor of the Stig. He moves in mysterious ways. The Top Gear gang responded by doing a drive-by shooting of cardboard Stig cut-outs. Boys will be boys.
I have noticed on occasion that the right dose of Xanax and red wine will produce a jovial mood, however accompanied by the side effect of weirdly slurred speech. My voice seems to morph into an oddly mellifluous mixture of Marlon Brando's mumbling in The Godfather and Dean Martin's crooning of My Rifle, My Pony and Me with a dash of lisping Churchill. It was with this voice that I approached His Holiness, the Stig, who most people just call Ben these days.
“So who are you?” he asks me.
“I'm the Stig of reporters so I cant reveal my identity. But truthfully, if I tell you who I am, I don't have to kill you. I have to kill myself.”
„But seriously, can you tell me the two things you don't know about ducks?”
„I can't remember them,” he says.
Despite what Clarkson says, Collins is a sharp cookie. He did a law degree and then spent four years in the army.
How did you learn to drive?
“On my 18th birthday my dad gave me the present of a try out. I always wanted to be a fighter pilot and when I got in the car I thought I was Tom Cruise in Top Gun. . . There was something about getting in the car. I already felt that was the place to be before I drove it. It was a kind of an emotional connection and I drove flat out and nearly set a record my first time (at Silverstone racing school). Then I went to America to do Indy Light cars. I had a great year racing but I didn’t make the cut and came home with my tail between my legs. I kept on until I was 26 and the racing team ended. Then I was in the army reserve and started teaching evasive driving. Which is great fun. The interesting thing is that you learn all these dirty tricks in racing. They teach them to you. Most kids start racing go carts when they are 6 or 7 years old, post embryo stage. They already had this ability to tap your car in the right place to slip past, so you learn that very quickly not just car control of your own car but of theirs as well so how to nudge or push their car like they do in NASCAR. ”
What separates the sheep from the goats in racing?
„Hard to say really. I'm built the way I am. I love the high speeds. You have that or you don’t. I love the high speed corners. That mentality suits Le Mans. For example they have a corner there called Indianapolis because it's the fastest corner in the world. At 185 miles an hour you just lift off the gas and turn right and its really exciting. But you see the consequences if anything goes wrong. .. . a big fireball and it's really unpleasant sometimes . . . There was a qualifying run one time and I saw a guy crash and there was his head in his helmet lying beside the track.
How does that affect you.
„You never think it will happen to you. . . Le Mans is a huge race. The track is 81/2 miles long so it's twice as long as any other. The first time you go there it’s a big thing because the speeds are like at Indy. 250 miles an hour. It's for the big boys. You have to have something in you to want to be there in the first place. Does that make sense? And the other thing is that Le Mans is really a long race (24 hrs) so you get all kinds of weather. In my first year it rained for 17 hours and we were quickest in the rain. I caught up two laps. We got up to fourth place and were catching the leaders when the car broke down.”
What qualities are required in a Stig?
„Silence, obviously. And being able to drive really really fast.”
„And knowing zero about ducks.”
„Still friends with Clarkson?”
„I hope so. I think so. Ive not seen him since the big fight in the high court. . . I have a lot of respect for Jeremy. He's very bright. I love the way he writes. He is really funny. . . But all the bullshit aside I think if they were to walk in right now we'd all laugh and get really drunk.”
Check out http://bencollins.com/ for more info.