Hollywood superstar Idris Elba talks streetcar racing in his brand new BBC Two series.
You seek to chart the history of streetcar racing, what do you hope people will take away from this documentary?
If people take one thing away from this documentary that surprises them or makes them look at kids on their streets tinkering around with their cars in a different light, then great.
Cars, racing, speed, they are and have been for many people throughout history, a way of life; either a means to make, a living, or a means to escape.
For some, like the drivers of the original Cannonball Run, cars were a means to make a political statement, to stage a political protest. For the bootleggers of the Prohibition era, speed was a means to make a living and evade the law.
For me, my big realization was that behind the modern day multinational car manufacturers and multimillion dollar racing events there is an incredible story. Because it’s the risk takers, the moonshiners modifying their cars and the drag racers who were willing to bet shillings, muscle cars and pink slips, which inspired a fundamental change in manufacturing and led to the creation of some of the world’s most popular motorsports events. That’s quite a legacy.
What was the most surprising thing that you learned about the culture of racing?
I’m addicted to speed, it’s no secret, but whilst travelling, listening, learning and telling these amazing stores, what surprised me the most, was just how far people are willing to go, the risks people are willing to take, to satisfy that addiction.
Rally driving is the ultimate, most extreme example of this; I mean you’re not on a track, there is no a wall of tyres to spin into, so if you come off on that course, you’re likely to hit a massive tree or roll down a ditch and chances are, you’re going to get hurt. Bad.
All of the drivers I met, are willing to put their life on the line in the pursuit of speed. But it’s not just about speed, it’s about being faster than the next guy. As a speed addict, it’s something I can relate to.
How do you think the image of the boy racer has changed over the years?
I think most people would think of ‘boy racer’ as a modern term, but since there have been cars, there have been boy racers.
Ultimately, boy racers are not just kids in their fiestas down the Southend beach front, or the guy cruising around Chelsea in a million pound Bugatti, they are all the people in between, who have been around since Henry Ford’s time and who just love driving.
Arguably, the modern day boy racer has a bad rep. Is that justified?
I don’t condone what they do, I can see why they do it. It is very exciting.
The title of the documentary is Idris Elba: King of Speed – who for you is the ultimate King of Speed?
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some extraordinary motor car drivers from a really wide spectrum of disciplines, but I think perhaps Ari Vatennan may be the ultimate. He is truly an extraordinary individual and I tell you what, he is someone who will, right till the very end, continue to push the accelerator and break late on every corner, real or symbolic. He lives life to the full and you can see that when he gets behind the wheel.
You filmed in some incredible locations/ situations, what stood out for you?
Again I think it would have to been staying with Ari and his family in the town where he grew up. We’re talking rural Finland which is very close to the Arctic Circle and is some of the most beautiful country I ever seen.
It’s not anywhere I would have imagined I would ever have visited. I’m a city boy at heart, and to be able to take my passion for driving, do it somewhere so spectacular, such a world away from where I grew up and with someone I really connected with, was such a huge privilege.
Is it true the film crew closed down Watkins Glenn to shoot the sequence with Rusty Wallace?
Yes, it was, it was quite extraordinary really. Watkins Glen International has become home to road racing of nearly every class including F1, the Indy Car Series and of course NASCAR. That permanent track was built just outside of Watkins Glen in 1956, but prior to that, the cars used to race through the streets of the tiny village.
We wanted to drive the original route so, the production team got permission to close off the town. Racing is such a big deal in Watkins Glen, so the locals were really behind the idea. We had support from the local police and fire crews and everything.
That car we’re in, is a proper, bone fide NASCAR, so for the town to see one of those beasts burning round their streets was incredible. It is very loud and very fast. And Rusty Wallace is one of the greatest NASCAR car drivers of all time, so to do it with him, was an immense privilege
The sequence is thrilling to watch. How did it feel to drive through the empty streets like that?
It was amazing. I can tell you for certain, every speed freak has, at one time or another, driven through a town, looked at the streets and tight corners as if they were a race track and thought to his or herself, ‘I could have some serious fun if all these cars and people weren’t in my way’. And that’s exactly what we got to do. It was incredible.
But I tell you something, those cars are not built for the roads, they’re not built to stop at traffic lights and they do not have a go slow gear. In fact there are only two gears. Go fast. Or stop. And Rusty went for it, he really threw that car round those blocks I can tell you.
How did the feeling of being driven by Rusty differ from actually driving the NASCAR yourself?
Let’s face it, even with someone as experienced as Rusty behind the wheel, giving your destiny over to someone else, is often more unnerving. Even with all that experience, you can’t help but think, ‘this guy has had some of the worst crashes in NASCAR history and I’m putting my life in his hands’. But then it’s happening, and it’s amazing and it’s just…POW!
Driving it myself, was very, very different. You can feel right through your body how powerful those cars are. They’re not called ‘muscle cars’ for nothing. It took all my strength to keep that thing on the track.
Which of the vehicles you drove for the purposes of the documentary was your favourite to either drive/ be in and why?
The Black Fiesta xr2 which I drove in London was my absolute favorite.
Have you fulfilled your child hood racing dreams, or are there still some left to fulfill?
There is always another car to drive and more roads to race.
What was your first car?
My first car was Mini Clubman, I bought it when I was 14 years old…my parents didn’t know I bought it. The mini for me is a symbol of my liberation and being able to drive three different generations of rally going minis was an absolute dream – to be in those cars, a model which I’ve had such a connection with from day one, was a real honor.