Top Gear is one of those things that's much easier to watch than to describe. You start out telling people, "It's about cars," and twenty minutes later you find yourself trying to explain why the BBC is sending an automotive journalist to the North Pole on a dogsled. They have used cars as a flimsy excuse to go to so many exotic places that Top Gear is now better at being the National Geographic Society than the actual National Geographic Society. The three of them have bickered like children in some of the most gorgeous spots on the face of the planet, usually while Clarkson is trying to fix his car with a very large hammer.

Moggie has just finished her physics homework and needs something to stop the weeping, so I'm going to talk about Richard Hammond for a while. The bookseller from whom I attempted to order On The Edge somehow managed to be out of copies before they got around to shipping mine, so I'll just be doing my usual semi-baseless speculation, fueled entirely by stuff I've seen someone do on TV.

This is Richard Hammond, over on the right. He's even wearing the world's least rock 'n' roll leather jacket in that photo, although the shirt pattern is strangely tame for him. Moggie's crush on him is second only to the one she has on the Mazda MX-5, and Hammond is enough of a gearhead that I think he would be totally okay with losing to a Miata.

Hammond's main role on Top Gear is to be short and kind of shouty, and also do anything that requires athletic coordination, mainly because while his co-hosts look like middle-aged guys who drink a lot of beer while talking about cars, he looks like an almost-middle-aged guy who drinks a lot of beer while talking about cars, but also runs miles at a time and probably owns freeweights. This is quite obvious in any one of the innumerable photos the internet will give you of Hammond totally failing to button any of his obnoxious shirts up all the way. Moggie and I are hoping they do their next overseas special somewhere warm. India was nice.

You would think that someone who is as much of a blatant adrenaline junkie as Richard Hammond would not be all that thinky, but you would be wrong. I suspect that the two things are not unconnected. He's in his forties now; if he hadn't had enough intelligence to temper the early recklessness, I don't think he'd have seen twenty. There's a rolling word-stream wrapped in his head somewhere, and radio taught him to externalize it in a reasonably coherent way -- he's still the only one of the three whose reaction to fear is to deliver a monologue to camera, rather than going all quiet and petrified.

A lot of the stunts he does look like staring death right in the face, but the ones he chooses to go through with all depend on either his skill or his ability to keep a level head under stress to get him out alive. They stuck him in a freezer once -- in an excuse a car, to see whether he or the electrics would conk out first -- and had him do the Mythbusters-esque tests to see how long it would take the pressure to equalize and the door to open after dropping the car into a large body of water; he had a full support team standing by for both, and he was pretty much guaranteed to come out of it perfectly fine as long as he retained his ability to figure out if and when he needed to call for help. The lightning test was unnerving, but all he had to do was not freak out and touch anything conductive attached to the chassis.

Hammond does in fact have a survival instinct, and he uses it a lot. He's quite frank about admitting when he's bloody terrified, although whether that stops him or not depends on other circumstances. He does not play Russian roulette. (Not even symbolically. Clarkson is the one who for some reason keeps wanting to drive TVRs.) When he was racing an actual greyhound on an actual greyhound track -- it's Top Gear, just go with it -- you can see Hammond's face go rather serious when the car starts slipping around much more than he expected it to. He probably could have gone faster, but he decided he'd rather live than win. He's a fan of Porsche 911s, which are rear-engined beasties with some notoriously quirky handling characteristics, but when he got to test a 1980s Ferrari that was so stiff it basically didn't rack at all while turning, his driving got noticeably twitchier.

The survival instinct does actually go haywire in a couple of spots, which is interesting to watch. Hammond emphatically doesn't like either heights or bugs, but I've only seen him able to temporarily stomp on the first one. This may have something to do with the fact that not liking heights is at least based on a reasonable fear, and being up high is involved in a lot of very exciting things; he can override the impulse to freeze up with the intellectual knowledge that it's a stunt and his safety has been taken care of, and that if he can just keep going through the rough spots he will eventually get to do something incredibly cool. The bug thing has less of a rational basis and is therefore less subject to argument (if you don't have any bizarre sources of anxiety, just trust me that this is absolutely a thing), plus I can't think of a case where bugs are ever integral to going extremely fast, so he's got a lot less motivation to not just avoid the hell out of them whenever possible.

The running joke on Top Gear is that Hammond is, as he once put it, the 'angry short bloke', but he really isn't. It's just easy to get him amped up -- which, for someone who needs adrenaline that badly, would be an advantage. Imagine the ennui if you were like that, and never got riled over anything short of actual mortal peril. I suspect that's half the reason he gets on so well with Clarkson. One of them can pick a stupid drunken fight over the new Dodge Viper, and the other one will stupid-drunken-fight right back, and afterwards they both get over it in time for the next taping, because all either of them actually wanted to do was shout about cars for a while.

Why he does it in the first place is simple: It makes him all fizzy. Not everyone reacts to adrenaline that way. Clarkson and May don't. When May took a Bugatti Veyron out and got it well over 200mph on a test track, he looked pleased that he'd done it, but also very, very relieved that he'd be telling people about it in the past perfect from then on. Adrenaline does what it's meant to for them -- it makes them concentrate harder and react faster -- but the jitters are an unpleasant side effect. It's useful despite that feeling, not because of it. Hammond wants it in a way they don't; where it makes them jagged, it makes him very sharp. And that means he can use it in a way they can't. Increased pressure makes him quieter and calmer. Jet car wreck notwithstanding, if I for whatever reason ever have to be in a regular road car careening around at 120mph, I absolutely goddamn want Richard Hammond at the wheel.

If you can find Top Gear 9x01, you can see all this at the end, where they air a lot of what was originally intended for the show along with footage of the crash itself. (And I do mean the actual crash -- don't watch that through if the idea bothers you. It disquiets me about as much as it does him, which is not at all. It's not bloody or even particularly horrible-looking or full of flying parts or anything. As he told Jonathan Ross, "I'll be honest, mate, I've seen better crashes.") Beforehand, he looks strained, and cops to being very very nervous; during the early runs, he looks extraordinarily intense. When the car stops after his first try with the afterburner on, he's shaking, he's panting, he's near tears, he's bubbling over in ecstasy, and above all he wants to do it again.

If I didn't know better, I'd say he looked high. Actually, I do know better, and he pretty much is.

At some point in his life -- and I will probably find out which one, if this second bookseller actually ships my purchase -- Hammond must have sat down and purposely figured out how to go from 'doing very stupid things which will someday get me killed' to 'doing very exciting things that I will probably walk away from'. It's rather difficult to make that transition by accident, so I assume there was serious thought involved somewhere. He seems to be quite self-aware about it, and thankfully has managed to put together a life where he and a lot of other people spend enough time looking out for his safety that he'll get to go home after he does all these crazy things to tell his wife and kids about it over dinner. Looking at it that way, he's an addict who has managed to make his addiction into an advantage -- practically the poster boy for responsible drug use.

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