The international television phenomenon “Top Gear” tries to make Utah a star in its 25th-season premiere on Saturday night — and the state doesn’t entirely cooperate.
The stars of the BBC-produced show, which airs on BBC America in the United States, arrived at the Bonneville Salt Flats in October only to discover the famed speedway was largely underwater. That was a huge disappointment for Chris Harris, who hosts the show alongside Matt LeBlanc (“Friends”) and Rory Reid.
Speaking by phone from the U.K., Harris confessed he has “a serious motoring condition” and is “a genuine petrol head” — and that Bonneville is on “the bucket list of locations” for people like him, along with LeMans, the Indianapolis Speedway, the Circuit de Monaco and the Nürburgring in Germany.
“In its own way, Bonneville is up there,” he said. “It’s a mecca of motorized vehicles, isn’t it? It’s also, visually, the most stunning of the lot. It’s awe inspiring. I think that phrase if over used, but when you get there — you don’t often see 12 miles of uninterrupted flatness. It’s something that, certainly in Europe, is entirely foreign to us.
“And to get there and not be able to drive on it — I was a little bit gutted.”
It still looks gorgeous onscreen. The shots of Harris, LeBlanc and Reid alongside their cars — a McLaren, a Ford Mustang and a Jaguar — on the edge of the water with the mountains in the background are spectacular.
The guys can’t race their cars there, but they do race them through some similarly spectacular scenery in southern Utah.
“All I can tell you is the soil was very red, the cliff faces were vertiginous and I couldn’t quite believe how stunning it was,” said Harris, who was “left largely speechless by the variety of landscapes” on his first trip to Utah.
He was also left grumbling when he had to drive his McLaren off-road. “Absolute shambles,” he says in the episode. “Four million miles of paved roads in America and they tell us to meet in a pit full of rocks. ... When they said road trip, I though it might involve actual roads.”
It’s all part of the chemistry that the hosts have worked out since Harris and Reid joined LeBlanc last season.
“We know where each other’s funny bones are. We know each other’s weaknesses. We know how to wind each other up,” Harris said. “We know that Rory likes to wear the clothes of a peacock. We know that Matt doesn’t like me leaving crumbs in his car. And they both know that making me take part in childish challenges will probably make me furrow my brow.”
And there are a couple of childish challenges in Saturday’s Utah episode. Like a “chain-racing” event at Rocky Mountain Raceway in West Valley City — where each of six competitors consisted of three junkers chained together with a driver in the front car; an empty middle car; and a driver in the third car. Harris is in one of the third cars as they race in a figure-eight around the track.
“Why anyone would ever invent that pastime, I don’t know,” he said. “But I genuinely was out of my comfort zone there. That was horrendous.”
But it was part of what makes “Top Gear” work.
“If you take cars out of context and presenters out of their comfort zone, that’s probably the recipe for the perfect ‘Top Gear’ film,” Harris said.
The series is seen in 130 countries and territories around the world, and it will provide a nice plug for Utah ... albeit with a bit of weirdness in those challenges — one of which purports to re-create moonshiners running from the law.
And given the current occupant of the White House, it’s not hard to imagine that some viewers will misunderstand the large America First Credit Union logo on the track at Rocky Mountain Raceway.
But Harris went away impressed.
“The long drag down toward the Salt Flats was remarkable. The light conditions were just superb,” he said. “People of Utah, I don’t know whether you remind yourself on a daily basis how blessed you are with the light you have. The stunning bleakness as it comes off those Salt Flats. I was mesmerized by it. That’s what stuck with me.”
“And you’re truly blessed with the landscapes you have.”
On TV • The season premiere of “Top Gear,” which features a trip through Utah, airs Saturday on BBC America — 8:30 p.m. on DirecTV and Dish; 11:30 p.m. on Comcast.