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'Top Gear's' Richard Hammond talks about his new 'Crash Course'

April 13, 2012 |  5:53 pm

When Richard Hammond first attempted to drive an Abrams tank, he couldn’t tell the back from the front or even find the door. The impish 42-year-old Brit has tested almost every high-performance vehicle on the planet as co-host of the outrageously popular motor-head show “Top Gear.”

He commutes to work flying a helicopter and has a garage full of motorcycles, but that résumé was only “kind of useful,” he said, for “Richard Hammond’s Crash Course,” a new BBC America program premiering Monday at 10 p.m. that casts him as a wayward novice, felling trees, wielding wrecking balls and attempting to operate other highly specialized pieces of heavy equipment that take workers months, if not years, to master.

“When I was a kid, my name in my family was Richard Get-away-from-the-edge, all one word,” said Hammond, who was attracted to “Crash Course” because it appeals to “the little boy inside of me. Every little kid loves big machinery.”

And BBC America is betting some big kids will love it too. Hammond is a British TV icon who co-hosts several programs in his native U.K., the most popular being “Top Gear,” the world’s biggest car show, sold to 198 territories globally and costarring Jeremy Clarkson and James May. “Crash Course,” which premieres Monday, is Hammond’s first show filmed in the United States for a U.S. audience.

Conceptually, “Crash Course” is significantly different from the program that has made Hammond a household name among gear heads, though it shares some DNA. Instead of playing the vehicular expert, Hammond is a fish out of water who’s reeled into challenging scenarios of the American workplace.

In each of the series’ six episodes, Hammond has three days to learn how to operate some of the world’s most complicated machines, including a trash compactor at the Denver Regional Landfill, a fire engine capable of firing 1,200 gallons of water per minute at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and something called a dangle head processor in the Oregon forest that cuts, strips and slices wood in seconds that Hammond said “was the most complicated thing I’ve ever used. It was fiendish.”

Richard hammond crash course“Lumberjack” and “Richard Hammond” aren’t the most natural linguistic companions, but part of the show’s appeal is parachuting a diminutive metrosexual Brit into the most quintessential of American landscapes to give viewers an in-your-face experience of the machines and their operators. “Crash Course” imports the quick wit and cinematography that have become “Top Gear” trademarks, as well as competitive elements and, of course, the imaginative destruction of vehicles.

In “Crash Course,” minivans have replaced RVs as Hammond’s victim to “heap bile and spit and hatred upon,” he said. “I got rid of a lot of them. It’s a public service I’m providing for America.”

He was less enthused about plundering a Porsche 928 and Ford Mustang GT under the tread of an Abrams tank — an activity that made him “feel filthy and wrong,” said Hammond, who is known for his affection for Porsches and American muscle cars. Still, when asked to choose between a 1,500-horsepower Abrams tank and a Formula One race car, Hammond said he’d choose the tank “because it’s got one purpose and it’s terrifyingly good at it.” If forced to choose between the dangle head processor and a $1.6-million Bugatti Veyron, he said, “I’d go for the Bugatti Veyron because it’s the simplest thing in the world to operate” even though “it’s about as engaging to drive as a VW Golf.”

Of the machines he tested, Hammond says he was most impressed with the simple track hoe, which he saw in use at several of the work sites he visited. He was so impressed, in fact, that he bought one secondhand and now “there’s a lot of holes at my home,” said Hammond, who lives in a mock castle in central England with his wife and two children.

Hammond’s sense of humor combined with his contrarian nature and attraction to risk helped propel him to international stardom and into the lead role of “Crash Course,” for which he was approached by BBC Worldwide America.

“You can have a lot of careers before you have a success on that scale,” said Hammond, who worked in radio for several years before being cast for “Top Gear” in 2002. “I’m extremely lucky. It’s my duty to enjoy it and to do a lot of stuff as a result of it because to do otherwise would be lazy. When you get that massive opportunity, what? You’re going to ignore it? I’ve got to run with it. So I will.”

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— Susan Carpenter

Photo: Richard Hammond of "Crash Course" got to try driving a truck that transported the 340-ton boulder for artist Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass" from a Riverside quarry to the grounds of LACMA. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times.

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