Ben Collins adjusted the foam seat of the blue Ford Focus and tried to concentrate on the track ahead. He’d been in professional racing for years, but this was different. Tracks like this needed a machine like the single-seat cars with wings that help grip the turns he drove in Les Mans races. He had no idea how the 4-cylinder front-wheel drive sedan would perform, but for a chance to be Top Gear’s coveted Stig, he was willing to give it a try.
The show’s producer, and the only person present at the audition, Andy Wilman dropped his hand. Collins revved the motor, burned the tires and shot off. His first lap was dismal, with wide turns that careened across the track. By the third lap though, he had beaten The Black Stig’s time by a second and a half.
“The next thing I saw on television was his corpse, faked of course, floating in the North Sea.” said Ben Collins in an interview with bazaar. “The Black Stig was history and I stepped into the fray with a mild sense of concern for my fate.”
The ‘Stig’ is a masked personality, whose entire identity revolves around his ability to push regular cars to their limit, and set record lap times in high-end vehicles on the internationally acclaimed British show Top Gear. Jeremy Clarkson, one of the show’s three hosts, presented the character in the Top Gear premier as an object, “nobody knows its name, and we don’t wanna know because it’s a racing driver.”
For seven years that anonymity was closely guarded from everyone, including Collin’s coworkers on the set. He would arrive at the studio gates before daybreak with The Stig helmet already on. He had to eat lunch alone, and was even spotted grabbing a bite in the back of an ambulance. He put on a fake accent when he needed to talk, and even kept a fake ID in his locker to deter anyone who might snoop through his stuff. Yet, none of that daunted him. He lived for the speed.
“The best part of my day was getting changed in my secret hut and walking out onto the airfield at day break. The air was thick with oxygen for powering the engine and we used to get this mist hovering over the airfield,” he said. “During that first magic hour we would test it to its absolute limits and I got a massive buzz from being that measuring stick.“
Despite his extraordinary talent behind the wheel, Collins’ identity dominated the Top Gear fan conversations. It became one of the most frequently asked questions on Google by mid-2008. Then, on October 29, 2008 Collins came home from the gym, and the carpenter fixing his kitchen floor asked him to sign a copy of BBC’s Radio Times. The suit he lived in on the set for the past seven years posed under a headline that read “WHO IS THE STIG?” Among the two chief suspects, he was the only race car driver.
Photographers and journalists swarmed his neighborhood and knocked on neighbor’s doors, itching to reveal the secret. To throw them off track, the producers brought in F1 champion Michael Schumacher to test-drive the Ferrari FXX. Since he was the only person allowed to drive the super car prototype, Collins would no longer be a suspect.
When it came to the reasonably priced car sequence, The Stig turned over the engine, couldn’t find the gears and kangaroo hopped the car around the track. What the audience didn’t know was that Schumacher had flatly refused to drive the Suzuki Liana, and so they actually saw Collins, who played Schumacher acting as The Stig. The episode threw some people off, but Collins remained top contender.
Soon after, Collins got the chance to run the Red Bull F1 car at Silverstone and he jumped at the opportunity. In that same day he test drove the new Corvette ZR1 and the V10 powered Audi R8. By evening, the urge to race was nagging at his soul and Collins realized he needed to let go of the helmet and go back to being himself. His soul searching started with a book published, to the chagrin of BBC and his fellow hosts, shortly after his resignation from the show.
“I envied The Stig. He was as welcome at A-list parties as he was on the grid of the Indy 500, NASCAR and even Le Mans,” he wrote in The Man in the White Suit. “Outside my little white bubble, the horizon in fact stretched away towards infinity. Replacing the constant fear that my world could unravel in the press at any moment with a ticket to ride through free space. No more what-ifs; more what’s next?”
For Collins, it will always be about racing the finest motors. The speed calls to him, and he is most comfortable when taking a deadly turn at an incredible speed. He continues to work in production, but on the big screen. From Bond movies to Spiderman, his amazing driving skills provide heart-stopping sequences that make a good action movie amazing. He will also participate in the 24 hour Les Mans to be held later in the year.
Most importantly, when Collins took off the iconic helmet he found his own voice. The Man in the White Suit became a best seller, and his second will be released in October of this year. He currently writes for iconic magazine Autosport and The Sunday Times in the UK, and gives public motivational speeches. His greatest piece of advice: find what you love, and then do it well.
“Racing is 99% mental and 1% physical and by focusing on personal strengths and weakness you can mold yourself in any direction you choose. I’m very privileged to do a job that I love which has enabled me to challenge my outlooks on life and be in control of my fate. Most of the time.”
The London Speaker Bureau represents some of the world’s leading business and motivational speakers. If you are interested in booking Ben Collins for your event, or are interested in bringing in other speakers to your corporate events and conferences, please contact [email protected] or visit www.londonspeakerbureau.com.