'Richard Hammond's Crash Course': Tiny 'Top Gear' Brit tackles tank and tree
He recovered and has continued piloting all manner of fast vehicles alongside co-hosts Jeremy Clarkson and James May, but to the casual observer, it might seem like tugging on Superman's cape to be starring in a new show, premiering Monday, April 16, on BBC America, called "Richard Hammond's Crash Course."
"It is slightly awkward," Hammond tells Zap2it, "the mention of crash with my name next to it, but it is a crash course, in the sense that I got to a new place and hook up with a bunch of guys doing a specific job, using a very specific and dedicated machines.
"Then I have a crash course, because I have a few days to learn that job and how to use the machine to do that job. Then at the end of that, we see if I measure up."
Over six episodes, Hammond travels across the U.S., testing his driving skills against all manner of giant vehicles, from tanks to lumbering equipment to a bulldozer to a trackhoe, wrecking ball and the mega-sized version of the tiny claw people use to grab stuffed animals out of the machine at the arcade, only Hammond uses it to lift tons of recyclable material at a landfill.
"These aren't things that people play with," he says. "These are machines with a job to do. That way, you have to talk to people about the job they do with the machines, so it's as much about people, the American worker, as it is about the actual machine.
"Obviously, I'm messing about, trying to learn how to drive an M1A2 Abrams tank or an enormous great fire engine at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, but I've got to get to know the people and talk to them."
Asked what was the most terrifying vehicle he has to master, Hammond says, "The most daunting was possibly the Striker, which was the largest fire engine in the world. If you're outside it, it was the Abrams M1A2 tank, which is a pretty fearsome weapon. The military were good enough to spend a week letting me learn not only to drive it, but also to work as driver, commander, gunner and loader.
"I ripped down a house using an absolutely huge trackhoe. Normally they allow six months to get to do that, but I had to learn to be really precise with it very quickly, so that I could pull down a house with surgical precision, I like to think. It was the right house. I made sure they labeled it clearly, so I didn't make a terrible error."
Not all of Hammond's harrowing experiences were behind the wheel.
"I was in the woods in Oregon," he recalls, "with the lumberjacks there, and I was desperate to get my hands on these incredibly complicated machines they use to process the woods. It was amazing. Before they'd let me get near them, they made me climb a tree, because that's how they all started.
"You know how they use one of those belts with spikes on your boots, and you kick into the tree trunk? They look about a thousand feet high to me, and they just have to keep climbing up. I'll be honest, I'm not very good with heights, but I'm glad they made me do it.
"The lumberjack that I was talking to, he's not the youngest of men, he wouldn't believe that I had a go. It was terrifying. But I was glad they made me do it, because it gave me a better understanding of their job. Also, from the viewers' point of view, they got to see a tiny Brit being brought down a peg or two."
Hammond was even tempted to stick a vehicle or two in his back pocket.
"Yes, well," he says, "the tank, I might get into trouble if I tried to hide that in my backyard. Come on, it's amazing. Yes, the Striker is a magnificent thing. All kids love airport fire engines. I asked them, Does it have to look this cool?' I loved it."