Rutledge Wood, one of Top Gear on HISTORY’s presenters doesn’t specifically remember his first automotive memory. He remembers sweltering Birmingham, Alabama summers and time in the back of an old Volvo wagon that his mother hated, but dad loved. It was named Helga, and Helga was not equipped with air conditioning. An ’83 VW Rabbit Diesel four door is also part of the foggy picture. A sauna too, the Rabbit was additionally cursed by violent shaking fits.
Despite such inauspicious beginnings, it was Wood’s dad who got him into cars, having been raised on Rt. 66 in New Mexico in a small town called Moriarty. Now known for fireworks more than anything else, Wood’s grandfather had an International Harvester and Deere dealership along with a NAPA in one group. They also owned a wrecker and thus Wood’s dad grew up helping his father pull cars out of ditches and working on cars himself. It couldn’t help but rub off on Wood and though he and his father talked about building a car together, it never materialized.
As time passed Wood thought he might pursue a law degree, because he was really good at debate in school. But watching Saturday Night Live icons like Chris Farley and David Spade and the power they wielded, entertaining millions and making them smile, impressed him. He decided then that he’d go to college for the most non-specific business degree he could – marketing – and then figure out a way to get on TV via a car show.
Following college he did a stint at Country Music Television (CMT) that he quit after about eight months. Ironically, he left the job because he didn’t want to travel as much as was demanded. A series of trivial jobs followed and eight months seemed to be the normal arc for Wood at his subsequent jobs too, until he responded to a Craigslist ad searching for someone with a marketing background who could work a crowd. He thought that he blew the interview, but was offered the position at the Speed Channel, accepted it, and eventually broke the eight-month pattern.
It was there that he made his TV debut some time later. Almost impossibly, it was one clip from his time on Speed that got Top Gear’s attention. He was riding around with John Schneider, who was the grand marshall of a NASCAR race in Atlanta, and kept asking him about “Daisy” while suggesting that the characters weren’t really cousins and that perhaps there was something else afoot. Wood’s humor in never breaking character and calling Schneider, “Bo”, led to a call from a BBC producer who found it hilarious.
When interviewed, Wood astutely pointed out that the greatest hurdle in bringing the show to the US would be Top Gear fans, of which he was one. He realized that you couldn’t make a knock-off and expect people to like it, because Clarkson, Hammond, and May had such great chemistry. Three “car guys” trying the same stunts and jokes would not equal the same laughs. And so they’ve moved away from the Top Gear UK formula.
Amazingly, once they found their footing and began attracting American fans to the show, they discovered that some of those fans had no idea that the show was based on a British program. And looking back, Wood loves being a part of the Top Gear USA family. They’ve shot 72 episodes, including ten that will air this season, over five years and Wood has only experienced a couple of moments that he was uncomfortable with. One involved a large, glass helmet (essentially an upside down fishbowl) over his head with rats sharing the space.
A skydiving stunt was also nixed. On a positive note, Wood still looks forward to filming and running at Bonneville, someday (it was flooded last time they tried), as well as tackling the Tail of the Dragon in something more exciting than the 2008 Toyota Tundra he used last time. Hopefully when he makes the trip cameras will follow along.