WHEN the world's most famous anonymous racing driver started to become the world's worst kept secret, Ben Collins knew it was time to ditch his alter ego, the Stig.
"I think part of the appeal was that it was a modern mystery," Collins says. "It tickled people that there was something they couldn't find out easily. Until the point when it was really easy [to find out]. A couple of years ago if you clicked on Google, 'the Stig', you got Ben Collins.
"It did make me laugh. They did a survey in the UK in 2008, they polled people and the most asked question on the internet was no longer, 'What is the meaning of life?' it was, 'Who is the Stig?' It's pretty meaningless stuff but it was just great fun. I think people enjoyed the guessing game."
But not everyone was happy the game ended. After deciding to leave the show, Collins found himself in a legal fight with Top Gear and the BBC to publish his book, The Man in the White Suit.
He says he was surprised by the reaction from his former bosses, especially given the increasing speculation about his role.
"Yeah, very much so, because I told my bosses I was leaving, gave them my notice," he says. "I'd been there a very long time, I felt like I was making the right decision because the key thing about being the Stig was being anonymous. It has really been run to death over here in the tabloids that it was me. So, to me, it seemed that the integrity had gone and I felt it was time to move on.
"I could pick up in the wings that the producers were making noises that they were going to replace me or use other people. I was really keen to go out under my own steam than be pushed out the door. So I made my position pretty clear and felt once I left I'd be free to crack on."
What Collins wants to crack on with is his dormant racing career. The more successful Top Gear became, the more time it required and the less time he had for racing. He says his biggest disappointment is that he couldn't manage to combine the two.
He admits he tried to convince the Top Gear executives to let him race in some of the biggest motor races around the world while in character as the Stig but without any luck.
Since quitting the show, Collins has taken up a presenter's role on Top Gear rival Fifth Gear but his main focus is reviving his racing career. He has already raced in a round of the British Touring Car Championship but his focus is on trying to win the famous Le Mans 24 Hours. He will compete with one of his old teams, Ray Mallock Limited, in the Le Mans Series LMP2 category driving a prototype racing machine.
"That's the kind of racing I love because it's very high speed," he says. "The cars do over 200mph [321km/h] and it's the closest thing to F1. So I get a real buzz from that. As much as I loved being one man in one car and testing all the different Ferraris and Lamborghinis and it was a real challenge, you had to imagine the competition was there. Obviously with racing you don't need to imagine; the guys are right there and they'll kick your arse if you're not on the pace."
Despite the pressure, it's a more carefree existence than he enjoyed as the Stig. He spent eight years walking around wearing a racing helmet and suit full time at work. He would arrive at his job wearing a balaclava. He would lock his wallet and keys in his car before hiding the keys. Going to and from work, he would religiously check he wasn't being followed.
In an age of instant news, camera phones and social media such as Twitter it was a miracle Collins kept his secret identity under wraps for so long.
"You start with a full complement of anonymity but obviously that only runs one way, it's always draining out," Collins says. "Eight years was way beyond what I thought was possible."
He claims when a British tabloid raided the Stig's dressing room the only thing it discovered was that he wore size 10 shoes.
"I worked so hard to keep a lid on the whole thing and stay anonymous," he says. "I didn't tell anybody what I did. I used to go to the locations wearing a balaclava in my civvie clothes, which was all my idea, I wasn't told to do it.
"When I taught the celebs they never saw my face, I always kept my helmet on with the visor down so they couldn't work it out. But people do recognise your voice and that was the problem."
That hard work paid off. Keeping it a secret helped heighten the mystique surrounding the white-suited driver and turn his likeness into an unlikely television icon.
Ben Collins's CV
Born February 13, 1975.
- 1994-95 Starts career in British Formula First (finishes fifth in series) and then moves up to Formula Vauxhall Junior (finishes third).
- 1996-98 and 2000 Spends several seasons in British Formula Three; competes against future F1 racers, including Mark Webber.
- 1999 Moves to American Indy Lights series and scores two top-five results.
- 2001-02 Competes in sports cars with Team Ascari in Europe and US.
- 2003-04 Tries his hand at NASCAR-style racing in the Days of Thunder series in Britain; wins the championship in
- 2003. Begins his role as the Stig.
- 2005-08 Returns to sports cars in Europe and US with various teams; races sporadically because of Top Gear commitments.
- 2009 Races in Australia with Jack Daniel's Racing in the Phillip Island 500 and Bathurst 1000 V8 Supercar events.
- 2010 Back in sports cars again and helps Ray Mallock Limited team win the LMP2 category of the Le Mans Series. Also competes in the final race of British Touring Car Championship in a BMW.
The Stig's love of Aussie cars
Having tested a variety of HSV models that were exported to Britain under the Vauxhall brand, Ben Collins admits he has a soft spot for Aussie cars.
"Well the ones I've driven, I've absolutely loved them," he says. "The stunts we did in the live shows we used them a lot. One of my favourites is the VXR Monaro Bathurst edition, Commodore you guys call it. That thing, I just love it because you can pull away in third gear and still spin the wheels.
"I also spent quite a bit of time in the Maloo and loved that ... those big V8s are quite close to my heart."
Collins also enjoyed his time racing a Holden Commodore V8 Supercar in the 2009 Bathurst 1000 and Phillip Island 500. He has already begun planning another crack at our local racing series.
"I'd love to [do Bathurst again]," he says. "It's a bit of a strange one because I was ruled out of doing the Gold Coast [endurance race last year] because I wasn't an international driver, which I took as a compliment because they must have seen me as a token Australian. Maybe we'll try and revisit the rules next year because I'd love to come back and do it."
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