The 2013 Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race is just days away, and it’s going to be one heck of an event. Amongst the field, BFTV found two familiar faces: Fairly Legal star Michael Trucco and Top Gear co-host Rutledge Wood. I caught up with Michael and Rutledge at the recent TPCR Media Day in Long Beach to find out what they’re thinking going into this weekend’s race, as well as what else they have in the works.
It’s Michael’s second time racing, after competing in 2011, and at Media Day he was introduced as the “co-favorite” to take the title. Does he feel like the favorite? “I don’t,” he said. “Mark Steines is by far the favorite. I’m competitive with Mark, but there are so many wild card factors out here.”
One of those factors being that success in the TPCR requires a lot more than just keeping your foot on the gas pedal. “It’s about consistency,” Michael explained. “There are guys who can drive a car fast; you have to put together laps that are always consistent.”
Michael’s previous TPCR experience is also a factor in his favor, but it’s not necessarily the ace in the hole that you might think it would be. “You always learn something on every circuit. Every lap you make on a track you learn something,” he continued, but pointed out that the cars for 2013 are different from the ones driven in 2011. This year, the Scion FR-S replaces the Scion tC. Comparing the two, he said, “That was a front wheel drive car, this is a rear wheel drive car. But I think these cars are better. I think that they’re faster and they’re more predictable.”
His goal the second time around is to stay out of trouble. “I got spun out by a Jonas brother last time I was here,” he recounted with a laugh. “Kevin Jonas put his nose right under my rear quarter panel [and] he spun me out in the hairpin.” But Michael got his revenge. “I chased him for about two or three laps and just harassed him on the back bumper,” he added. “He kept looking up in his mirror and he eventually hit some tires.”
In addition to competing in the TPCR, Michael recently shot a pilot for ABC entitled Killer Women, which stars his former Battlestar Galactica castmate, Tricia Helfer. She plays a Texas Ranger and he co-stars as her supportive brother in the project executive produced by Modern Family star Sofia Vergara. ABC hasn’t yet announced whether or not it will go to series. Those looking for a more readily available fix should look to the second season of Fairly Legal, which was released last Tuesday; you can find it only at Target.com.
For Michael, the 2013 TPCR is the second time he’s achieved an aspiration that he set for himself more than a decade ago. A lifelong fan of motorsports, he aimed to participate in the Pro/Celebrity Race as soon as he became aware of its existence. “For about the last twelve years, I went to racing school and that was my goal,” he reflected. “It took till 2011, but I realized my dream, and then I got invited back for this one.”
Hopefully, 2013 will be the year that Michael finds himself in victory lane – because with his smarts, passion and focus, he really is a strong candidate to take the title, even if he might not be convinced of that.
This competition is made for people like Michael, who are willing and able to go to that next level. The Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race is more than just another celebrity event. Saturday’s race will be the 37th in the program’s history, with the first green flag dropping in 1977. Previous participants have included NFL greats Joe Montana, Walter Payton and John Elway, Olympic gold medalist Mary Lou Retton, and acting legend Gene Hackman.
And this is no cakewalk either: the entertainers and athletes are given the challenge of competing alongside professional racers, like Kyle Petty, John Force, and Danica Patrick. In fact, more than a dozen celebrities who have driven in the TPCR have gone on to race professionally. Those who enter the field have to be ready to compete.
Aside from Michael and Rutledge, this year’s lineup includes Kate del Castillo (La Reina del Sur), Brett Davern (Awkward), Jenna Elfman (1600 Penn), Olympic medialist Jessica Hardy, Jesse Metcalfe (Dallas), Medal of Honor winner Dakota Meyer, Jackson Rathbone (Twilight), Jeremy Sisto (Suburgatory), Emmy award winner Mark Steines, and Wanda Sykes (Curb Your Enthusiasm).
The pros are motocross champion Andy Bell, Olympian Tyler Clary, NHRA driver Melanie Troxel, and last year’s celebrity winner, Adam Carolla (Celebrity Apprentice). The field is rounded out by Keyes Toyota GM Glenn Faber and two charity winners, Dave Pasant and philanthropist Carter Lay.
For Rutledge, who’s also a second-time racer, it’s now or never. “I think this is my greatest chance to win this race, ever,” he confided, “because if I do well enough, they’ll switch me to pros, and then I’ll get my ass totally kicked.” He’s speaking from experience, because he was classified as a professional for last year’s race.
But he’s no stranger to being in that kind of situation, considering that his other gig as co-host of Top Gear has seen him travel around the country with two people who routinely prank him, doing things that most sane people wouldn’t do. This season’s finale saw Rutledge, Adam Ferrara and Tanner Foust driving up an active volcano in Iceland. After things like that, racing against a few celebrities in Long Beach seems decidedly less nerve-wracking. “I think I don’t feel like there’s going to be a volcano that jumps up in the middle of the track,” Rutledge quipped. “Doing this race, it still just seems so larger than life. I still just pinch myself that I’m here.”
Following the TPCR, he’ll be almost right back at work, getting started on the fourth season of Top Gear. “We’re going to start shooting in another three weeks or so,” he said. “We’re really excited. We’re getting to do a lot of crazy stuff this season. The fans have been so supportive and we get to do more and more outside the box.” And while he can’t say what that is, specifically, he did mention that he has an entire list of the aforementioned crazy stuff.
“I’m not sure whether the studio will come back,” he added, referring to the celebrity guests and Stig laps that have been missing from the show. “We didn’t have time for it in the summer and then they found that for both shows, our show and the UK show, that’s normally when people would kind of turn away.
“I hope that we get to do it. I thought it was such a fun way to connect with fans,” he continued. “If we’re not doing it, then we have to find other ways to get celebrities involved. I want to get Adam [Carolla] on, I want to get Michael on, Jesse Metcalfe wants to be on.”
When Rutledge isn’t hosting Top Gear, he’s also a racing analyst for SPEED. It was announced earlier this year that Fox would be turning SPEED into Fox Sports One, but Rutledge’s fans can breathe easy, because the switch doesn’t mean he’s going anywhere. “Speed is becoming Fox Sports One at some point during the year. I don’t really know what point,” he explained. “Most of our NASCAR stuff though is going to be real solid. It’s not really changing. NASCAR will still have a huge home on Fox Sports One.
He’s got not one but two dream jobs, and he knows it. “I get to travel with them full time for the NASCAR schedule, and then I do Top Gear full time,” he added, “and somehow my beautiful wife lets me do all of that, and I still get to see our beautiful daughters.”
When it comes to the TPCR, while Rutledge has his competitive streak (see the many driving moods of Rutledge Wood, courtesy of Toyota Racing), he’s also just appreciating the experience. He loves being in the company of his fellow racers, and had some particular kind words for Michael. “Trucco is a great guy,” he said. “For me, I’ve been lucky enough to meet some really cool people around doing this stuff. I’m just a normal guy who somehow found this job that he loves, and through doing [that] I get to do fun events like this, where you get to see Trucco, who I’ve seen him on a million things and then it turns out he’s as sweet and kind in person as you believe him to be.
“Jenna Elfman was another one of those – loved Dharma and Greg, she’s really funny on 1600 Penn, and then [it] turns out she’s a total sweetheart when you meet her,” he added.
Rutledge also touched on something else that makes the Pro/Celebrity Race meaningful, and that’s the fact that the whole thing benefits charity. Toyota donates $5,000 on behalf of each participant to Racing For Kids, which supports children’s hospitals across the country, and drivers take a day before the race to visit one of the two local hospitals selected as beneficiaries of the funds raised. In addition, the winner of the race earns an additional $5,000 for their charity of choice, and People Magazine sponsors a separate $15,000 award given to the charity of the celebrity who claims the pole position on qualifying day. That’s $115,000 being raised for good causes this weekend.
“For me, I get to be competitive at times when I want on Top Gear. This is really not about the race,” Rutledge reflected. “When we get to go and make those kids smile and try to bring some joy to the parents, that’s what this is about. That makes this silly stuff possible. Toyota brings so many different toys and gifts and fun things that we get to give to these kids of all ages. All these celebs make these kids smile. It’s just a really awesome thing for me.”
“I still think that the most memorable thing I took away last year was Adam Carolla at the hospital with the parents,” he continued. “He was so great. He knew it was important to take a few minutes and thank those parents for all those hardships they go through, too. This year, I want to help bring that same kind of joy. I think that would be huge.”
The Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race is Saturday, April 20 as part of the Grand Prix of Long Beach. Stay tuned for my insider coverage from trackside, including race-day interviews and post-race analysis. You can find out more information about the entire Grand Prix by visiting the event website. The Pro/Celebrity Race will also be televised on SPEED/Fox Sports One at a later date.
Photo credit: Ken Pamatat / Toyota Racing Media