I recently had the opportunity to see how reality television is made when Keith Kramer and I were cast to be on the new BBC show “Mud, Sweat and Gears.” We heard about the show after casting agents trolled around different Internet car forums asking people if they wanted to race cars on “the ultimate car show.” I saw the post and sent in an e-mail explaining that Keith and I were partners in a NASA road racing team. A few days later, Keith and I sat on a couch staring at a laptop screen as the casting agent asked us a bunch of questions via Skype. A month later, with only six days notice, we were told to be in Los Angles for shooting.
Through phone calls and e-mails, the show producer told me we would be getting an unknown vehicle that we would have 24 hours to modify. My first question was, “Can I bring my crew members and our racing trailer full of tools?” Absolutely not. But I was told not to worry about tools, because we would have access to the ultimate shop described as “a car guy’s paradise. Think of a toy store filled with tools for building anything you want.”
They asked us to map out on paper how we would modify a car, whatever car that might be. We gave them the standard racer answers: make the car light, get the best tires available, good brakes, tune the suspension and add gobs of power. The premise of the show was two separate teams would get two different cars to modify, and then the teams would race head to head in three different challenges. The producers promised me, “This is a show for car guys, guys who know about cars. We want the modifications to be legitimate so that the car will be improved and car guys will respect the show.” Based on that statement, I figured it would be a cool show.
I asked one of the producers what other shows he had worked on. “Monster Garage,” “Bull Run,” maybe? “Top Gear?” Nope, he worked on “Dancing with the Stars.” That was the first sign of trouble. Then they revealed our car to us, a 1977 Pontiac Firebird. Not a Trans-Am. Just a beat-to-hell Firebird that clearly had lived a hard life. We also met the hosts of the show, Jonny Smith and Tom “Wookie” Ford, who were British car guys from “Fifth Gear.” We also got to see our “dream race shop,” which turned out to be a shipping container filled with woodworking tools. I told the producer, “With these tools, I can build you a Pinewood Derby car, but I can’t modify this Firebird.” He told me, “Don’t worry. This is television.”
With cameras following my every move, I started opening the toolbox drawers and finding them empty. I finally found a small socket set, but it was metric. Not much help on the American Pontiac. We were in trouble. I looked to the producer for answers regarding the tools, but the answer was the same as before: “This is television!” As I started to use a flat-head screwdriver to remove some interior parts I heard, “Cut!” and then I was whisked away from the Firebird because it was time to do interviews. They asked questions like, “What do you think of your car?” “It is a pig,” I said. “A pig I should be working on right now, instead of talking to the camera.”
Finally, Keith and I got back to the Firebird to find a crew of people welding an exoskeleton roll cage. Little did we know, we wouldn’t be doing most of the work on the car. That would be handled by Dennis McCarthy’s movie car shop “Vehicle FX,” the guys who build the cars for the “Fast and the Furious” franchise. These guys were immensely talented, but their main concern was to make our car look cool. Nobody seemed to be in sync with my thinking, which was to make the car work so we can win the challenges. The producer told me, “Don’t worry. This is television!” That is why I was very worried.
Safety is what the producers and stunt coordinators kept stressing to me. As a racer, I completely agreed, which is why I brought my driving suit, helmet and HANS. “Nope, can’t use that stuff. We want you in matching uniforms and an open-face helmet so the camera can see the emotions on your face.” I started looking at the welds for the cage, the seat mounts and the routing of the harnesses. This car would never pass a NASA tech inspection.
The only performance modifications we had made so far were welding the differential, chopping off the exhaust and removing the air cleaner. I told the producer, “We can do better than this. You said this show is supposed to be legit for car guys. We need tires, these all-season 1,600 treadwear tires on 15-inch rims are a joke. Get us some Hoosiers.” The producer started talking into his radio about budget, and after some time told me, “We’ll see what we can do.” I made a to-do list for the car and left it on the windshield. The car had missing lug nuts, there were jagged metal pieces in the interior, and we hadn’t test driven it yet.
Day one of shooting ended with almost nothing completed but hours and hours of interview footage.
The next morning on set, I saw that the Vehicle FX guys must have pulled an all-nighter. Our car was welded on, painted and ready for action — except for the items on my to-do list. Those were ignored. But I did see a set of Foose wheels next to the car with some summer tires Yes! The producers had come through. The camera crew got ready, and Keith and I bolted on our new wheels and tires. Things were looking up.
I asked a crew guy on set, “Hand me a pressure gauge. Let’s see where these tires are at.” The guy just stared at me. I asked, “What pressures are the tires at right now?” He said, “I don’t know. Whatever pressure they were at when they were sitting in the dude’s garage. We bought these off Craigslist last night.” I grabbed my favorite producer. “This is a safety issue,” I told him. “I need to know what the tire pressures are.” He told me bluntly, “We don’t have a tire gauge.” This sent me over the edge, “I was supposed to have the ultimate workshop and you don’t even have a tire gauge?!” Finally one of the young production assistants found one in her car, and I learned that my Firebird had four different pressures ranging from 18 to 50 psi.
I started to wonder if we would even be doing anything outlandish with the cars. We would, however, be doing some serious stunt driving during the police pursuit chase challenge. Serious stunt driving with three people in each of our cobbled together piece-of-crap cars negotiating concrete overpass pillars, abandoned cars and water-filled obstacles. They had so many cameras on these cars that our vision out the windshield was badly hindered. Oh, well, it’s television. I just hammered the gas pedal and hoped for the best.
When the challenge began, my job was to chase the Jaguar through the course and then use a pit maneuver to stop him. We hadn’t test-driven the car at all with the new wheels and tires, and as I made my first attempt to turn, the car just went straight. It was a pig, pushing the front everywhere. To make matters more difficult, the Jaguar was losing its parts, sharp metal bits of its cage, and knocking stacks of tires onto the course. I ended up with a tire lodged under our car and a flat left front tire. We were screwed.
Keith and I put the old wheels and tires on for the next challenge, where it would be the Jaguar’s turn to catch us. I took off and surprisingly the Firebird would now turn and drift really well. I was drifting the car, completely sideways between concrete pillars, ignoring my and my passengers’ safety. Then the Jag tagged me and slammed us into a water-filled Jersey barrier. The impact was right where Wookie was sitting. He was in a lot of pain, but played it off for the camera.
We climbed out of the cars and found the producer with the biggest smile I had ever seen, “That was awesome! You guys had the entire crew standing here with their mouths open. That was epic!” I guess no one ever drifted a Firebird on “Dancing with the Stars.” The head car guy from Vehicle FX said to me, “Dude, that was totally awesome! Oh, I forgot to tell you before. We never got around to hooking up the front sway bar.”
“Well, that would explain some of the handling issues,” I said.
That ended day two of shooting.
The last day of shooting was the final challenge, an obstacle course across the Sixth Street bridge in Los Angles. The cars had to negotiate barriers, drive though boxes, tires, overturned cars and then hit a ramp and jump through fire.
Between the barriers of boxes, tires, cars and the jump were tight slaloms. I knew the Firebird was screwed. The producers walked us through the course and asked us if we had any input.
“Yes, I’m glad you asked,” I said. “Let’s clear some of the slalom to make this an even match.”
“No changes to the course will be made,” said the producer.
“Then what did you ask me for?” I said, firing back. “You want this show to be legit for car guys, and you brought us on the show as racecar drivers and you want to ignore everything I’ve been telling you for three days. Frankly, it is obvious you know nothing about racecars!”
The producer snapped back at me, “Well, frankly, you don’t know anything about television.”
“I own a television! You don’t own a racecar!” I quipped.
The good news for us was that our competitors and their teammate host Jonny Smith went first. They got through 99 percent of the course and ran into trouble approaching the ramp for the jump. They had a tire stuck underneath the car and it was going to damage the ramp. The stunt coordinator used a remote kill switch to shut the engine off. The car slowly crawled up the ramp without power and fell off the end of it. But even though the stunt coordinator cut the power, the pyrotechnic guy cued the ball of flames. One of the hosts grabbed an extinguisher and put the fire out. Our competitors escaped unscathed, but just a bit toasty.
We were next. With Keith behind the wheel and me in the passenger seat, we ripped through the course the best we could in the beastly Firebird, and Keith nailed the ramp perfectly, which wasn’t easy since it was two narrow separate ramps, one for each side of the car. The pyrotechnics went off, and boy we could feel the heat. Keith landed the Firebird just like Burt Reynolds! We were alive!
Our time was faster, and we won! They filmed us jumping up and down in celebration. It was great. Then the producer said, “You know, there is enough light. Let’s give the Jaguar a second chance.” The Jaguar team skipped the obstacle course and just drove toward the ramp — with some shady stopwatch shenanigans. The Jag landed the jump with its oil pan and blew the motor. But according to the stopwatch, the Jag’s second combined time was faster. So we reshot the ending with the other team winning and Keith and I looking perturbed. We weren’t acting. We were pissed.
To add insult to injury, they took our Firebird and blew it up. That was part of the game. The losing team gets their car destroyed. Keith and I went home dejected.
Before we left, we signed piles of legal documents that we would not reveal who won the show until after the episode aired. They said the show would air in September but September came and went, and we didn’t hear a thing. Then in January, almost a year after the whole adventure started, we got a call from BBC. “The show will be on Monday night. We want you to do some media interviews.”
We talked to a few newspapers and then threw a viewing party at Keith’s house. We finally got to see what “Mud, Sweat and Gears” looked like. It looked great. Then they showed the final challenge and they edited in our competitors’ Jaguar on the ramp. Then they showed Keith jump spectacularly through the fire. It looked awesome. Everyone watching the show was clapping. We had won! Except when they read the challenge times, we lost. This confused the viewers who could clearly tell with their own eyes the Firebird was faster over the ramp. We had to explain the whole thing to our guests, the second chance, the editing process. What could we say? We told them not to worry. This is television.
A Little More Reality
“Mud, Sweat and Gears” wasn’t the first time NASA racers have been featured on automotive reality television shows. Two-time NASA Honda Challenge National Champion Jeremy Croiset was on the first season of “Setup” on SpeedTV in 2007. Croiset, who is NASA’s Director of Business Development, prepared and raced a Pontiac Solstice on the show. The program, which was hosted by Tommy Kendall, ran amateur racers through a series of racing events in identical Solstices. Drivers and their crews had to attempt to modify the setup of the cars — hence the name of the show — to gain advantage over one another. As each episode aired, drivers were eliminated if they didn’t finish high enough on the podium. When the final checkered flag flew on the last episode of season one, Jeremy Croiset was victorious.
“I won the show, but the producer didn’t want me to,” said Jeremy. “I don’t know why, but the guy hated me.” Regardless of the producer/reality TV actor relationship, Jeremy’s driving dominance earned him the grand prize. — RK