Photo Source: John Haslam
The name Perry McCarthy will ring a bell to those familiar with Top Gear, the British motoring television show on BBC which began in 1977. The show, which re-launched in 2002, is estimated to have around 350 million viewers per week in 170 different countries. Being the original Black Stig appearing on the show in 2002 and 2003 behind a full-faced helmet, McCarthy, on the condition of anonymity, was tasked to set lap times for cars tested on the show.
Draped in the Stig’s racing suit, he was known for launching the show’s iconic “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” segment, where celebrities race round a track in a family car. After starring in two series, McCarthy had a tragic ending of being shot off the end of a warship’s deck in a rocket-powered vehicle in the series three premiere due to the revelation of his identity.
McCarthy, who was born in Stepney, East London, tells The Leaderonomics Show how he was signed up as the resident test driver by Jeremy Clarkson, the quirky and humorous presenter, after meeting him at a party in 2002. “He told me about plans to re-launch Top Gear and said that they needed a racing driver called The Gimp,” the flamboyant star shares. “I told him that there’s no way I’m going to be The Gimp!” McCarthy quips. “So he went away and came back with The Stig. That’s when I told him we have a deal.” The mysterious role of “The Stig” catapulted McCarthy to fame and he admits that he has mostly fond memories of his two years on the show.
THE EARLY YEARS
Driving since the 1980s, McCarthy’s 10-year fight to becoming a Grand Prix driver paid off in 1992 when he had one season driving for the fledgling Andrea Moda, before turning his attention away from Grand Prix to the legendary 24-hour Le Mans, driving for Viper and Audi UK amongst others. He reveals that his journey to Formula One was hampered mainly by the lack of financing, but his dreams were kept alive by his never-give-up spirit, before injury ended his Formula One career in 2004.
As part of the Rat Pack, together with Julian Bailey, Mark Blundell, Martin Donnelly, Johnny Herbert and Damon Hill, they kicked off their racing careers together from Formula Four and all made it to Formula One. McCarthy gushes: “We had some fantastic adventures and great fights together; and are close friends up till today! We get together for dinner the moment I land back in London.”
THE WORLD’S UNLUCKIEST RACING DRIVER
McCarthy was once dubbed F1’s unluckiest driver by The Times, having gone through a string of accidents which caused quite a few injuries with the final one badly smashing his shoulders, thus ending his driving career. “There were many moments where I was leading a major race a long way, then something unfortunate would happen and I would go ‘Why?’ But I’m still here and am still having fun.
So I can’t complain much,” he adds. Being born in an average income family, McCarthy had to work hard to self-finance his racing career. Even after joining Andrea Moda, he had to pay for his own flight tickets and miscellaneous expenses. Although luck wasn’t always on his side, McCarthy considers himself lucky to be given a chance to race and just being alive given the dangerous nature of the sport.
BEING THE BLACK STIG
McCarthy fondly recalls his stint on Top Gear as “good fun.” “Cars, driving and racing around tracks have been a massive part of my life. “We had celebrities such as Jay Kay (of Jamiroquai) and model Jodie Kidd coming over, where I taught them the finesse of driving cars which were not fast enough to crash. They were all competitive!” he enthuses. “I enjoyed the teaching process and witnessing how they try to get a little bit faster all the time,” he claims. Secrecy was crucial for the show – McCarthy had to put on his helmet right before the security gate of the tracks and had to keep it on all the time, even while eating in the studio canteen. Even some members of the BBC senior production crew didn’t know it was McCarthy behind that full-faced helmet.
“When I had to speak, I had to put on a fake French accent so that nobody knew it was me!” he recalls. Having gone through challenge after challenge, McCarthy decided to pen his experiences in a book entitled Flat Out, Flat Broke: Formula 1 The Hard Way which is an honest account of his life struggles in the world of motorsports. The book, which was laced with endless witticisms and humour, won critical acclaim for being one of the best ever motorsport books written. It captures his determination in overcoming life obstacles in a comical and entertaining way.
In the book, he brought into the open how he had tricked his way into the F1 paddock posing as a pizza delivery boy for Ayrton Senna and how he doctored newspaper reports to produce fake race results which were then forwarded to sponsors in hope to obtain sponsorships. “I really enjoyed writing, especially during those ‘aha’ moments in writing”, says McCarthy, who opines that writing turned his luck around. Referred by the United States Sunday Express as a “comedian locked inside a racing driver’s body”, he shares that while being a racing driver is a glamorous life, the journey takes a long time, “especially if you’ve got no money,” he divulges.
Admitting to talking faster than driving now, McCarthy went on to carve out a successful career as an after-dinner speaker, sharing his experiences with business leaders all over the world. Asked on his advice for a budding entrepreneur, he replies: “Keep the dream. Do not place money first above everything else, but ponder on these questions: Do I want this? Do I believe this could work?
If your answer is in the affirmative, give it your all!” He adds: “Pondering about money all the time would restrict your creativity, as you are constantly thinking that it won’t work.” “But if you really believe something’s possible, then the risk will be lessened by your energy, hard work and motivation to make it happen. “Follow your passion first and only worry about the financing once you had put in your best to make it work.”
KEY NUGGETS ON OVERCOMING OBSTACLES
With the many disappointments in his life, the 52-year-old father of three daughters attributes his ability to overcome these hurdles to having passion. “You can only be disappointed if you try to do something you are passionate about and it goes wrong. As much as I understand failure, I also understand success. What I really don’t understand is not trying,” he stresses. He emphasises: “Disappointment is when things haven’t come together the way you wanted. So if you fall, just get back up, dust down and try to get the things you wanted, the way you wanted and make sure it works.
“It hurts, of course, but you have to build up an immune system or barriers,” he adds. Whenever he goes through bad moments, he looks back and thinks to himself “Hang on, you’ve won that race. You’ve been empowered. You’ve been fast, then slow. You’ve done it before. You can do it again.” McCarthy also emphasises on the importance of having fun along the way. “Sometimes, you got to give yourself a pat on the back, realign, smell the roses and tell yourself that you can do it,” he muses. “You’re only here once. Therefore, keep fighting, keep thinking and keep going. Let’s do everything really well and but in the midst of it all, enjoy the journey,” McCarthy concludes.