Top critical review
TAME RACING DRIVER : TAME STORY
on 20 March 2016
Before I bought this, I didn't fully understand what lay behind many of the comments of other reviewers about needing to be a real 'racing fanatic' to fully enjoy it. Now I do.
As one of the army of Top Gear fans (and also a closet admirer of Jeremy Clarkson's written work), I've read a couple of the books about the series and Richard Porter's 'And On That Bombshell' is quite good, although still a bit reserved. Reviewers said that The Man In The White Suit was better. Well, in my humble opinion, it's neither better nor worse, it's just tame in a different way. The book follows the life, quite loosely, of Ben Collins, through his racing career to date, an attempt at a military career (I remain unconvinced on this) and his weird life as The Stig. Oddly, I found the detailed story of his army recruitment training the most interesting although, of course, his tales of the stars that he met in 'a reasonably priced car' are also entertaining.
I struggled to form an opinion of the real nature of Ben Collins, switching from thinking him a narcissistic egomaniac to a thoughtful yet driven (no pun intended) man, and back again, The problem is that, although the odd self-deprecating remark or anecdote is thrown in, they aren't convincing and all of them seem carefully intended to fabricate an image of humility. At no point does Ben Collins consider himself to be anything less than an action 'He Man' and hero. With very few exceptions, whenever Mr Collins doesn't win a race or appears to fail in his aims in any way, there is always an extenuating reason that means that it isn't his fault.
I'm lead to believe that every word here was written by Ben Collins and not by a ghost writer. I can believe that, but that's not a criticism as, in general, the writing style is quite good and in a vernacular that I would expect from Mr Collins. There's certainly nothing screaming "amateur" about this style. That's hardly surprising given that, although barely given a mention in this book, Ben Collins has been writing for magazines and journals for years.
My biggest gripe, and why I now understand the warning of "for race nuts only" is that the whole book is laced with every race that BC has ever undertaken, in excruciating detail. That's every gear change, every touch on a pedal, every slide, every emotion. And for every race. If Ben Collins really can remember how he took the third corner, for the fourth time (what gear, what racing line, what the track surface was like, what the tyres were like, the pressure required on pedals and lots more), in a race that he entered ten years ago, then either the intensity of racing burns all of this onto the memory forever or BC kept an unbelievably detailed diary. Or he's making it up now. I just didn't care how he remembered all of this stuff, it simply isn't interesting. And there's lots and lots of this.
Like Richard Porter's book,Mr Collins never mentions anyone in any negative way at all. All of the TG crew are phenomenal, the three presenters are awesome and every star met is simply wonderful. Absolutely no shocks then. Then there's the ending of the book. I was hoping for an honest account of how the unmasking and revelation occurred and the immediate aftermath of that, but I was disappointed. The book falls mute at the point at which BC 'moves on to a new and better life'.
I did enjoy many of the anecdotes about the making of TG and I did learn a little bit that corrected some of my earlier assumptions. My main enjoyment came from the descriptions of working with the stars in the 'reasonably priced car', especially those sections that contrasted one of my all-time heroes, Ranulph Feinnes, with the full showbiz entourage following Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz and the Formula 1 team machine that make an appearance by Shumaker into a state visit.
It seems strange that some parts of Ben Collins' life are simply skimmed over or not mentioned at all. His childhood in America and his studying for a law degree, for example. This book has lots of sections about his army training but almost nothing about his four years service in the AArmy Reserve, and I would have liked much more on his job, in the Army, training driving techniques to Special Forces. The link between Collis' own company and his unveiling as The Stig isn't mentioned at all (it began with a journalist examining the annual accounts of Collins' company and seeing where the income came from).
I very nearly gave this book four stars as, in general, I did enjoy it. In the end, it lost a star because of the endless drudgery of the mind-numbingly identical racing detail. And, if I'm honest, perhaps a little because I just didn't warm to Ben Collins. I'm sure that being a successful racing driver demands a self confidence that breeds a special ego and the sections describing army selection illustrate how powerful that ego can be as a driving factor in a personality. It shows in this book. By the way, has anybody heard of Ben Collins recently? If TG has gone to Amazon in America, can we expect to see Ben Collins again?