AOL Cars talks to original Stig Perry McCarthy
The man behind the original black helmet was none other than Perry McCarthy – former Formula 1 driver, Le Mans racer and all-round good egg. AOL Cars caught up with him to talk about the early days of Top Gear, his crazy F1 career and his new-found interest in the Internet...
Hi Perry, you were the original Stig but would you say you are the best?
(Laughs) If you ask any racing driver if they think they are quicker than any other racing driver, the answer is normally "yes". Nobody comes through this game by being a shy and retiring shrinking violet and we all think we are pretty quick. So, yeah.
Can you tell us how you became known as The Stig?
The most extraordinary thing about my career in Formula 1 was actually surviving it because I had no money and in order to keep finding sponsorship, I had to drive as fast as possible. I ended up going to extraordinary lengths to secure sponsorship and there were so many stories of me hanging on for dear life that I decided to write a book called Flat Out, Flat Broke. I had a lot of friends from F1 and TV at the book's launch, Jeremy Clarkson being one of them, and he said Top Gear had been off air for a while and that he was thinking of bringing it back. Jeremy and executive producer Andy Wilman had an idea that they wanted to dress a racing driver up in black, they wanted him to be complete mystery and they wanted to call him The Gimp. I said no to The Gimp but I said yes when they mentioned The Stig but we had no idea how popular that character would become.
Why do you think The Stig became so popular?
The thing we noticed immediately was that all the forums and conversations were buzzing with the big question of who is it? If people don't know who it is, it makes them want to know more. The mystery keeps people coming back, theorising and wanting more.
How did it remain such a big secret for so long?
There were a lot of people who guessed it was me because I always used to fold my arms at race circuits and I can be slightly moody sometimes. Playing the Stig was no great leap of character for me. I was often approached about it but I just said it wasn't me. Even when a national newspaper got hold of it, I denied it completely. Someone in the Top Gear office must have been fired because all of a sudden these papers were sniffing around but I stood firm and kept my mouth shut.
Was it difficult to deal with a certain Mr Clarkson on a regular basis?
Oh no, I think Jeremy is great. He is an incredibly talented journalist and a very talented TV presenter. He's also just good fun to be around. We had a great relationship, as he trusted my opinion, I would often inform him if I found anything particularly good or bad about a test car. He appreciated the feedback.
How would you rate his driving skills?
Jeremy is way above average, there's no question about that but he doesn't purport to be a race driver. Racing drivers dedicate their adult lives to trying to drive as fast as possible but he is obviously too busy for that.
What's your opinion on the whole Ben Collins debacle?
The sympathy I have with Ben is that I never really thought the BBC paid whoever was being the Stig very much money. I think that they are buying a talent as well as someone's anonymity; they should have looked after whoever was playing the Stig better financially. However, if you shake hands on an agreement, you shake hands. With me, I'm not particularly brilliant at negotiating; they didn't want to pay any more so I walked away from it. I wasn't a particular fan of Ben's book though; he came out with some pretty silly things. "They told me on my second lap that I was quicker than Perry had ever been," read one passage. Really? Come on. Ben got to Formula 3 and I went quite a way beyond that.
Would you like to settle a score and race him one day?
No, there's no real point. I feel that my career in Le Mans, Formula 1 and Formula 3000 speaks for itself.
Is it true that you used to write comedy sketches before you got into racing?
Yeah, I would say that generally many things make me laugh. I loved developing sketches and performing them when I was at college, I've always enjoyed making people laugh. I was in Formula 1 with absolutely no money so I had a side income as a tour operator. That kept going well, so more and more agencies found out about it and as a result, I've had a parallel career as an after-dinner speaker talking about my time at Top Gear and in Formula 1.
What are your thoughts on Formula 1 these days?
Even when Sebastian has been winning in the last few years, I have still found it very exciting. However, it has got a little predictable since the summer break. Red Bull has come back with such dominance that each race is almost a foregone conclusion. But you have to remember that we are watching an absolute genius in his prime. Vettel is an amazing driver, he won a race in the rain in a Toro Rosso before he joined Red Bull, he's just so passionate about what he is doing.
You are now a judge for the UK Blog Awards, tell us a bit about it
I've become a lot more web aware over the last few years and I've started to read more about cars online but really, I like reading people's comments on a subject. I jumped at a chance to judge the automotive category because I think blogs have given people a voice and the awards have recognised this. There are a lot of bright and entertaining people out there and it's great that these people now have a platform.
Perry is part of the judging panel for the first year of the National UK Blog Awards 2014. If you Blog as an Individual or Organisation, please enter your blog into the awards for free here