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Challenge Accepted: Behind the Scenes of Top Gear America with Rob Corddry

Automobile logo Automobile 5/6/2021 Derek Powell,Motor Trend Staff
a man riding on the back of a truck: 002 top gear america home built performance hot rod © Motor Trend Staff 002 top gear america home built performance hot rod

To hear Rob Corddry tell it, his first day of shooting Top Gear America was almost his last. As he was hustling a decommissioned Police Interceptor through an abandoned neighborhood with The Stig hot on his tail, the reality of what he signed up for truly sank in.

"Oh, God. What have I gotten myself into?" Corddry says. A year later, he can still remember the thoughts running through his head: "I'm afraid of danger. I have a low tolerance for pain. I'm not a daredevil. What am I doing? There are so many ways I could die."

Watch this segment on episode 5, and you see this interior monologue unfold in real time during the height of the chase. Full of fear, his eyes frantically flick between the road ahead and the rearview mirror—and finally glaze over in resigned defeat as he's jostled from behind. He was convinced The Stig had smashed into him and at any second his car was going to roll or explode. Probably both.

In reality, Corddry's right rear wheel had kissed a curb, and the car hopped sideways. The Stig, though looming close, was at a safe distance. But to the co-host, that point of impact served as a metaphor that reflected his state of mind. "I was beside myself," he says. "That first day, I remember just spending it sort of terrified. I embarrassed myself in the race. I was a DNF." He smacks the table with his hands for emphasis. "Did. Not. Finish." Taking stock of the situation, he wondered if somehow he was miscast as a daredevil alter ego.

As a young actor in New York City in the 1990s, Corddry, now 50, could never have anticipated his career would lead to this moment. In a town where public transit runs 24 hours a day and only 45 percent of households own a car, he didn't have an outlet to express his inherent automotive enthusiasm. Instead, he focused on chasing every audition and studying improv, bouncing from sidewalk to subway and back again. Even his wife, Sandra, who he refers to as his "most trusted adviser," wasn't privy to her man's vehicular interests. Their car, a hand-me-down 1994 Toyota Corolla, wasn't exactly a sports car. At least it had a five-speed manual.

a man standing next to a woman © Discovery

Looking back even further, it's understandable the car gene took so long to germinate. Corddry's first car was a 1975 Ford Pinto, unimpressive by any measure, save for the fact that it contains memories as only a first car can convey. "It had an oil leak so consistent it burned a hole in my parents' driveway," Corddry says. "It was a quirky, crappy car, white with woodgrain, that I loved with all my heart, even though I had to lift my legs going over puddles because the floor was rusted out. No cars smell like ones from the '70s, man. I can smell it now, and it's glorious."

Moving to Los Angeles was the catalyst that rekindled the actor's passion for cars. As his interest gained momentum, he'd let it drop in interviews that he was an avowed car guy—even if it was just to score fast wheels he could drive on the weekends. His wife caught on, too, as she noticed he was prioritizing real estate searches by the number of garage spaces a house had.

Then came the call to join the cast of Top Gear America. Although he couldn't say yes fast enough, Corddry felt it prudent to first set the record straight. "I said, 'You guys know I'm a car enthusiast, right?' And they were like, 'We know, we know. We're not casting you for that. '" Unlike fellow co-hosts Dax Shepard and Jethro Bovingdon, whose own passions were amplified by early hands-on indoctrination in the automotive industry and who have racing backgrounds, Corddry's experience makes him the everyman who represents the viewer. At least, that's what he thought.

On this show, things rarely go right—sometimes by design, more often by happenstance. If there's any doubt, the complicated relationship you see between the producers and hosts is absolutely real. Scenarios are devised in a virtual writer's room to highlight the hosts' strengths and to exploit their weaknesses. But what results on the day of a shoot ultimately depends on the hosts and how they take on the challenge.

In the very same episode where fear almost got the better of him, fortune smiled on Corddry in the following challenge, which consisted of a drag race across a dry lakebed. True to character, Shepard added a nitrous system to his Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, while Bovingdon fashioned an aero tail for his Mini Cooper. Corddry ripped out the police car's interior and sawed off the exhaust. The lighter, louder Crown Vic cruised to victory against the nitrous-failured Cadillac and wind-cheating Mini.

a car parked on a runway © Motor Trend Staff

For Corddry, the win was vindicating—and an exponential victory in the literal sense. "A little behind-the-scenes secret is that you're seeing one race on a finished show," he says. "But of course, we did that race four or five times so they could get different camera angles on it. And I won every single one of those races. So I walked out of there 5 feet taller. I drove home from the dry lakebed not able to fit in my car, I felt so tall." It gave him the capacity to appreciate what he's capable of—and be comfortable with what he's not.

That's when the wheels started turning in his head. He realized the challenges were anybody's game. "The one thing I could pride myself on in season 1 was that while Dax and Jethro are both way more knowledgeable than I am about cars—encyclopedically—I knew I had to do work." Instead of just winging it, he could gain the upper hand through methodical thinking and strategic planning. Here, it's not just about choosing the best car but also about selecting the right car for the challenge.

It's this kind of tightrope thinking that appeals to Corddry's tactical nature, because even the wrong choice can turn out to be the right car. "We are barraged by choices of cars we can buy for each challenge. [Senior producer] David Silberman sends us cars and says, 'How about this one? How about that one?'"

Corddry even fondly remembers the car that almost stranded him. "I made the mistake of choosing one of his cars, and it was a Saab [900 Turbo]. That was the worst car I've ever chosen for Top Gear so far. I always was confident in the fact I had chosen the best car because I worked for it. But when I didn't, I was in the position of 'Oh, now I'm that guy on TGA. The guy who has the car that's broken.' And I found it kind of fun to have to deal with all that nonsense."

a man driving a car © Motor Trend Staff

In that moment, Corddry's approach gives way to his improv training. His time in New York may not have imbued him with an aptitude for smoky burnouts, but it provided him a quick, malleable wit that reaps dividends on camera. When a mission starts to go sideways, he mentally steers in the direction of the skid, changing course on the fly—verbally as well as physically.

Watching him on set, you really get a sense of this duality at work. Once an episode idea is approved and his car is selected, Corddry takes to absorbing every detail so he can truly take ownership of his opinions. If the challenge involves a race of some sort, he'll focus on how he can drive smarter, not necessarily faster. When it was clear his ailing Saab wouldn't stand a chance on the track against Shepard's and Bovingdon's healthier machines, he opted to take the road less traveled—by veering off the pavement and selecting a shortcut through the dirt to reach the finish line first.

Corddry attributes that spontaneous decision to the version of him "who's ready to chuck all of his plans if something better or even different happens. And that, I think, is the nature of Top Gear America. We always go in there with one idea, and we always come out with a completely different thing."

When it comes to car reviews, this methodical-meets-improv technique adopts a new angle. Absent of challenges and co-hosts, Corddry eschews tire-melting, full-throttle shenanigans for a decidedly more cerebral approach. Immersing himself in tech specs beforehand creates the foundation of the story, but what he really wants to know is what the car has to say. If it sounds like forging this relationship between man and machine is a little unorthodox, remember Corddry is still technically the everyman guy. At least, for now. There's no question that with every passing episode he's a little quicker off the line, a little more experienced behind the wheel.

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UP NEXT

Performing this about-face has been empowering for Corddry, but it's also presented a new fear. "My biggest worry is that I'm getting better. Markedly so," he says. "I still don't have as much practice as the other two, but the risk now is that I actually get good at all of this stuff. I get better than what they cast!"

Boasting more authority is a good problem to have. It also means he'll be able to take on meatier challenges. What does that look like? Corddry thinks for a minute before he responds. "Big rigs. Big rigs." He proceeds to say it five more times in a row. The glee in his voice is unmistakable. "You can make that happen, right? I'll be sad if you can't."

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Go on more adventures with Rob Corddry and his Top Gear America co-hosts Dax Shepard and Jethro Bovingdon, along with 8,000+ episodes of other hit car shows, only on the MotorTrend app. Sign up now for a weeklong free trial on us!

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