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Getting Inside a Car Guy's Head

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Topics:  Richard Hammond, Top Gear
Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

Getting Inside a Car Guy's Head

Bill Crittenden
27 May 2013

This started out as a book review but ended up being a personal story...

I picked up a copy of Richard Hammond's autobiography at my new favorite secondhand book store and decided it should be the first book I've actually read in...possibly half a decade, now that I think of it.

Thumbing through a few pictures in the middle I knew he had at least touched on the jet-car crash he experienced in 2006, but I was expecting the rest of the pages to be filled with tales of behind-the-scene shenanigans with James and Jezza.

The book begins in customary autobiography fashion: his childhood, early love of cars, discovering the joys of being an entertainer, making a meager living in radio and finally getting his big break as a presenter of Top Gear.

From there it skips ahead to the story of the fateful September 2006 run of a 10,000 horsepower jet-powered car called Vampire down an airstrip in Yorkshire.

As most of the Top Gear watching world must have known by the time the book came out, the car crashed, flipped, and Richard Hammond was hospitalized with a head injury. Britain, of course, followed the story with special interest. Not here in the USA, where Top Gear wasn't even broadcast on BBC America until late 2007. Even then I hadn't heard of it until browsing through the satellite menu and saying to myself, "Top Gear...hmmm...this sounds like it could be a car show."

At the end of the crash, the font and perspective changes for a reason that will soon be obvious. Richard's wife, Mindy, takes over from there. Richard has suffered a traumatic brain injury, and is in a coma. It's at this point the book is revealed to be much less about cars than it is about the difficult recovery from a traumatic brain injury.

Not to take anything away from the book (I don't think it's a spoiler at this point to say that Richard Hammond survives and makes a full recovery), the story from there is about the recovery from his injury as told, for the most part, from the perspective of Mindy Hammond, a woman of amazing strength, resolve, and patience.

It may seem a bit more casual and personal than usual to refer to him as Richard, but the customary "Hammond," in this case, would leave you asking "which one?" most if the time.

Now, as Richard has been so open I'll just take a moment here to mention that I've had my own issues with the most complicated part of the human body, something that works in unusual and unpredictable ways when it's traumatized. That's perhaps why this story was so moving to me on a personal level, and why I'm gushing about this book a bit now.

Whereas my issues were...not the result of blunt force trauma...I was introduced to an online community of people dealing with "invisible illnesses." While the fundamentals between injuries and illnesses of the brain are medically different, some important similarities remain. When something happens to the brain, it affects how the mind functions but many times there is no outward sign...in this case, an "invisible injury." People who haven't experienced it usually don't understand how debilitating these issues can be, and to have to struggle through without full mental and emotional capacity or without a properly functioning memory makes for a steep hill to climb in a recovery that is never assured in any way.

Aside from some bruising at the beginning and some lingering eye damage, Richard was outwardly the same person so many people saw on television, and when his writing returns to the book there are some touching passages about recovery from an injury that affected the way in which a person thinks and perceives the world around them while looking outwardly uninjured.

In most ways, injuries to other parts of the body can be easier to cope with. Thanks to medical technology a lot of physical damage can be repaired, and having full mental capacity you can adapt to changes if there is permanent damage. When the public sees someone struggling in a wheelchair people they see that there is a lingering injury and sympathize. Not so when the damaged body part is the brain.

And while we know how the story ends from the many seasons of Top Gear filmed since, remember at the time no one was ever sure if the Richard Hammond we all know from television would ever emerge again from the person that was pulled from the wreckage on that Yorkshire airstrip. The heartbreaking tension in Mindy's writing is just so saddening, you wish there were some way you could tell her from 6 years later he turns out fine, but like a character in a film, they're not going to hear you yelling at the screen.

On American television, once we got Top Gear at the end of 2007, we saw a segment on the epic wreck, heard a few jokes about it, heard that Hammond was in the hospital, and that was it. Through several more seasons of Top Gear and two more shows, you'd never think he went through such trauma. So if you're as late to the story as I am, the depths of his injuries are quite a shock.

If you want a story about which cars were "Hamster's" favorites over the years, dirty secrets of Top Gear and those behind-the-scenes shenanigans I mentioned before, this isn't the place to find it. What it is, really, is an amazing story of recovery thanks to his incredible wife, an open and candid look into what happens to a person who has suffered a brain injury and the family around them, and a reminder that away from the cameras a presenter in a television show watched by a quarter billion people is just a regular bloke.

One that keeps his promises, I might add. This book was written in 2007 before Richard would go on to star in another television show, Richard Hammond's Crash Course, he told his children, "no, no, I won't go on the roof again."

When he got to the Crash Course episode about being a stuntman, he was to roll a Crown Victoria over a ramp similar to the famous Dodge Charger roll over the front of the truck at the end of The Fast & The Furious. He hit it perfectly, and the Crown Victoria flipped and landed on its side. Promise kept.

So far...

Anyway, I highly recommend this book not just for its relation to one of the decade's preeminent automotive television personalities but also as a story of inspiration for anyone dealing with a family member trying to recover from a brain injury or mental illness.

And Mindy's perspective reminded me that I have to remember to thank my wife as well when I see her tomorrow.

Author Bill Crittenden had a stress-related mental breakdown in late 2008 and in early 2013 is still not the same person he was a decade ago. Perhaps someday he'll write his own book about it, but he's a bit busy building The Crittenden Automotive Library right now...

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