UK driver takes on role as US version of The Stig

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The Independent Online

Sussex racer Justin Bell has landed a job on prime time US TV as America's answer to The Stig.



Bell is the driving coach to A-List celebrities appearing in the Green Car Challenge eco-time-trial on the Jay Leno Show.

He has already been putting stars through their paces, with Charlie's Angels actress Drew Barrymore.

It is a far cry from winning races for Bell, whose father Derek was good friends with racing actor Steve McQueen.

Instead of piloting a car that does 200 miles an hour, Bell is coaching the celebrities in an emission-free electric Ford. Guests race the clock week after week, like Top Gear's Star In A Reasonably Priced Car.

"We are asking guests to set a time round a track in the NBC parking lot in an electric Ford Focus and seeing who the fastest green celebrity is. Being a green car, celebrities can save the world and race at the same time," Leno explains.

Leno picked Bell for the job of preparing the stars for a race against the clock after a chance meeting at a car show a few weeks ago. In true race fashion, Bell's call to action nearly resulted in a crash.

"My wife and I were house hunting in LA when the phone goes," Bell said. "It was an unknown number. I nearly did not answer it. Boy, am I glad I did. This voice says 'hey it's Jay Leno here'.

"At which point I nearly drove through the coffee shop I was trying to park in."

Bell will soon be thrust from relative obscurity into the living rooms of a coast-to-coast audience of up to 10 million. He said he is prepared for his anonymity, as he walks down Sunset Boulevard unrecognised, to evaporate.

"I am ready for that," he said.

Bell's best friend is Perry McCarthy, whose tenure at Top Gear as The Stig - the programme's mysterious 'tame racing driver' - ended when he went public about life beneath the white helmet.

Bell said he knows the current incumbent too, but is not sure why he does it.

"You can't talk about it and nobody knows who you are. There's nothing good about it ... unless you go to a convention of other people in white helmets and white suits."

The BBC piloted a US version of its own hit show Top Gear but it has not so far been aired.

Leno, who was a guest on Top Gear in the summer, had been approached to host the show but turned it down. He recently said in Sunday Times column: "Some British shows translate quite well here - The Office, for example. But with Top Gear I have such respect for the original show, I feel if they asked me to do it I would be a pale imitation of Jeremy.

"In my mind I can just see Jeremy lambasting Americans for what they did to his show. So I think: I've got to run away from this as quickly as I can."

Leno's Green Car Challenge was beamed into American homes for the first time last weekend. Drew Barrymore was the first participant in the electric Focus.

Leno said the interest from Hollywood has been significant. Tom Cruise has even been on the phone asking if he can pop down and practise.

"I think Cruise will do well," predicted Leno. "But I cannot make any predictions. I think the women will do better than the men because they take direction."

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