Unless you’ve been living under a rock during the past few weeks, you will have noticed both the national and motoring press being dominated by the news of The Stig outing himself as Ben Collins.
After much legal wrangling, Collins has now been dismissed from his white Stig role ahead of his publication of a tell-all book on life behind the distinctive Simpson helmet, whilst all the while Top Gear executives begin to conjure up who should be given the role of Stig #3.
Collins held the position as Stig for so many years (seven in total of the nine since the show re-launch) that many casual fans of the show won’t know that he is actually the second incarnation of the masked racing driver.
The original Stig dressed in all black for a couple of years before driving off an aircraft carrier to his “death” to make way for the white Collins Stig. That man was ex-F1 and Le Mans driver Perry McCarthy.
Given that everyone has a strong opinion on Collins saga, we thought we’d go to the only man in the world bar Collins who can give their opinion on the outing of white Stig from the unique perspective of an ex-Stig.
Perry is responsible for one of the funniest motor racing books available, “Flat Out, Flat Broke: Formula 1 the Hard Way!“ which charts his remarkable rise and bizarre route taken to eventually racing in the sport’s pinnacle formula, making him an excellent candidate for an amusing and entertaining interview.
After battling his way through the junior formulae and even racing sports cars in America, Perry landed a 1992 drive with the highly disorganised Andrea Moda team that proved nothing short of disastrous – the team and Perry failed to ever qualify for a Grand Prix which does Perry’s talents no justice whatsoever. Test stints with Benetton and Williams followed in the seasons after but eventually Perry walked away from F1.
Having raced all manner of cars en route to his short lived Formula 1 career, Perry subsequently carved out a successful and lucrative career racing sports cars including campaigning Audi’s famous R8 at Le Mans in both the nineties and noughties.
It was this level of adaptability to be quick in any car put before him that brought Perry to the attention to his old friend Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear executive producer Andy Wilman who approached Perry for the role of the first Stig.
Perry accepted and for the first two re-vamped Top Gear seasons drove celebrities and all types of cars from Renault Clios to Pagani Zondas around the Top Gear test track before leaving because, given the secretive nature of being The Stig, there were no opportunities to develop his career as a corporate speaker or TV presenter.
Many of you will have already read Perry’s book or know the story of The Stig, so we decided in our ten minute chat with one of motorsport’s biggest characters to instead chat about Perry’s views on the recent Collins vs Top Gear saga, his relentless ribbing of friend Mark Blundell and his own life post-Stig.
SM: Firstly, why did you hang up your helmet and stop racing?
PM: I finished racing at the end of 2004 because I suffered a major injury to my left shoulder and so it became impossible to race from then because even though I’ve had operations and treatment, that’s it, goodbye and thank you very much.
SM: There’s been a lot said in the press and on motoring forums about Ben Collins’ decision to out himself as The Stig in order to publish his tell-all book. What do you think about Collins’ decision to out himself?
PM: Contrary to popular opinion, I didn’t out myself so therefore I’ve got to say I don’t agree with how Ben’s gone about this. I can only link this in to my experience of being The Stig where I had a gentleman’s agreement to not talk about it, which I held my end of that bargain. But then because certain things within Top Gear weren’t working for me and weren’t going to work, I decided to leave and we parted ways and that’s when the black Stig was killed.
They brought the white Stig in and I imagine they signed a more binding contract. Now the reason why I didn’t sign anything like that was because it wasn’t working for me, Ben felt it was working for him and that’s why he signed those agreements. But he has then broken that agreement, so … for me personally, that’s not the way I would do it.
Contrary to some recent newspaper reports Perry was not fired from Top Gear, but can understand both sides perspective.
SM: What have you been up to since you left Top Gear in 2003?
PM: Most of my time at the minute is spent with after-dinner speeches and sometimes motivational speeches in England, sometimes Europe and stretching as far as China and America. I’ve always enjoyed performing on stage and I used to write comedy sketches before I became a racing driver and the two things join together quite well now. So as long as people are happy to hear me speak I’m happy to do it and as long as they’re laughing at the end of the evening I’m happy continuing to do it!
I’m also having a lot of fun at race circuits now looking after Scott Pye who I brought over from Australia because there were certain things that were going wrong for him out there. I felt he was a superb talent and a really unusual kid who has shown exceptional grit and determination in the face of some very bad situations.
I took the risk on bringing him over not because I wanted to be a driver manager, believe me, no way. But I brought him over thinking I’ve got to help this kid and so far out of 20 British Formula Ford Championship races he’s won 11 of them and he’s showing that that he’s somebody who’s got the talent who can reach Formula 1. And me trying to help that is quite fulfilling. It’s bloody hard work! But seeing this kid race wheel to wheel and winning week after week is great fun.
SM: For someone who made his living from danger and being on the edge, how do you now get your driving kicks now you don’t get to test the latest supercars every week?
PM: For me, with driving, there has to be something at the end of it. There has to be a reason to take the car into the twilight zone. So before when I was training to be a Formula 1 driver, sure, I was on the edge and often over the edge trying to get there. When I was driving at Le Mans, I wanted to the 24 hours race so again I was giving everything I had.
When I was on Top Gear, the view was to extract the maximum out of the car to make the show good and everything so that was great.
But for me to just take a car for a laugh around the track … unless there’s a real reason to get my pecker up then I probably don’t, however, if I’m on track and someone’s slightly quicker that’s enough reason to try and go faster!
SM: You’re pretty prolific on Twitter – how did you get into it?
PM: I was fronting a campaign for a large drinks company who asked me if I would start tweeting – I didn’t know what the bloody thing was but I said “Yep, I’ll do it no problems, I’ll tweet!” And given how much they were paying I said I’ll tweet as much as you like! So the campaign finished and I continued doing it as I like communicating with everyone. I don’t do it every day but it’s a bit of a laugh and it’s a good way of connecting with people to hear what they think about stuff.
Usually I talk about random things like the strange personality of my cat and I spend an awful lot of time having a go at Mark Blundell. And to give him his due, he spends an awful lot of time having a go at me! So between the two of us we entertain a lot of people by having a bit of banter going on.
For me, with driving, there has to be something at the end of it. There has to be a reason to take the car into the twilight zone.
SM: You’re clearly good mates with Mark Blundell, which other drivers do you keep in touch with?
PM: Well I mean there is a pack of us that are very close. Mark and I as you know are pretty much inseparable, Johnny Herbert and I have lived no more than one mile apart from each other for most of our motor racing careers so we’re very close. Damon Hill’s a very close friend of mine and fortunately I get to see him every two weeks because his son and Scott are team mates in Formula Ford. Martin Brundle … I catch up with Marty quite a bit in London during the year and I’m good friends with David Coulthard. So there is a pack of us that are close and we enjoy each other’s company and just have a lot of fun.
The big thing with racing drivers is that when one is talking to the outside world, we all do our best to communicate what it’s like to be in a racing car and in those racing conditions. But unless you’ve actually been in it, something is certainly lost in translation because you can’t instil that wide eyed moment of sheer fear when you’re about to launch into the earth at 200mph! Or when you’ve taken a particularly daunting corner flat out and made it. Drivers know this and so you can talk in shorthand when communicating because you all know what it’s like as you’ve all done the same things.
SM: You have three daughters, is there any likelihood of them getting into motor racing or have you learnt all the lessons to last a lifetime of McCarthys?
PM: As with all kids, any parents who are balanced would say they drive you completely nuts! I’m very flat line when it comes to how I look at the kids. I don’t go around singing their praises unless they deserve it. All three of them have got totally different traits and I totally believe they will be successful in their own right and not one of them will follow the same career path as me or as each other. But they have very strong characteristics in certain things and I think what they have got from their old man is to think that’s anything possible and to never quit.
SM: Your book, “Flat Out, Flat Broke: Formula 1 the Hard Way!” is perhaps one of the most entertaining autobiographies that we’ve read certainly for the insights it provides into the world of motor racing – are you planning to write another book?
PM: I don’t like the first part of that question because you said it’s one of the most entertaining books and it should be the most entertaining book on motor racing! Ha, have I got any plans to write another book? Can’t tell you at the moment, watch this space.
SM: Looking back on the whole ‘Stig’ period, are you glad to have been involved with Top Gear or do you feel that it overshadows your achievements in the highest forms of motorsport?
PM: I’m delighted to have been involved with Top Gear. It was good fun and it’s fantastic that so many people out there have got a real affection for The Stig, it’s created a huge stir not just in the UK but also internationally. So, to have been the first one, the original Stig who kicked it all off … I see that as adding to any achievement that I’ve had in motor racing.
Obviously, within motor racing there are achievements I’m particularly proud of and certain moments will always be with me. But my life as I’ve always said is about having done stuff – and that’s fantastic – but I can guarantee you my life is always about tomorrow and the future. I reflect joyfully sometimes on the past, but I’m still like a bulldozer going forward!
SM: Hopefully you’re a long way away from needing an epitaph, but if you were able to write your own, what would it be?
PM: Well I gave it a bloody good go, ha!