Finding the best driving roads in the world, closing them and then tearing them up in the latest performance cars on offer isn’t a bad way to make a living. It’s a dream job for most, for sure, and it’s exactly what Justin Bell and Rhys Millen do. Shut Up and Drive on Fox Sports pits the two against each other on closed public roads, in cars like the Lexus RC F. They race the same roads and see who can drive it faster.
But Millen and Bell aren’t two average Joes straight out of driving school. Below “TV host” on his resume, Justin Bell has a first-in-class victory at Le Mans in a Dodge Viper in ’98 and a third place overall in a McLaren F1 GTR in ’95. Millen has a Formula D Championship under his belt, set a RWD record at Pikes Peak and is an active Hollywood stunt driver. Safe to say the pair’s experience goes beyond hosting a show and turning a few laps; they both raced during periods of complete change in regulations and identity changes at historical venues. What they have to say about the racing life, and the industry is worth a listen.
Q. From doing Shut Up and Drive and being in the industry for so long, do you have a favorite road car?
JB: Yeah, well first of all there’s no such thing as a bad car these days. I think we’re living in an amazing era where technology and design are creating some incredible cars. If I had to list it out, I’m really enjoying getting to know the Lexus RC F. I think any time you get a chance to drive the supercars, you’re in pretty rarified, exciting air. And then there’s the F-Type, which is just out of this world. The F-Type makes a sound that you just love in or out of the car, and I love the design — I think it’s one of the most elegant cars out there. The Lamborghini Huracán
, I thought it was a shockingly good car and destroys any of my preconceptions I ever had about the brand. And if you’ve got that kind of money I would recommend people drive it. And I’m actually going to add the Dodge Hellcat Charger
to that list. I love what Dodge is doing with the Hellcat Charger. It doesn’t really have that much refinement and it doesn’t pretend to have any. But what it does is it sums up for me what I feel about America: powerful, fun and with a sense of purpose. And the Hellcat is just insane, putting on 707 horsepower in a family car.
Q. Since you started racing in ’88, is there a race car that stands above the rest?
JB: Yeah, it’s kind of like when people ask about your favorite track — it’s normally places or cars you’ve done well in. For me, I think 1995, racing with my father at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the McLaren F1. The first year the car came out, in terms of racing, it was highly sponsored and high profile. We led the race to about halfway, but lost it in the last couple of hours because we had a mechanical issue. We finished third overall, but it’s still pretty cool to be on the podium at Le Mans with your dad who won it five times before. So that would definitely be one. The Oreca Dodge Viper, racing all through the end of the ’90s. We won a lot of races, competed in the World Championship and in Le Mans. I mean the Viper had a very soft spot in my heart, or I have a soft spot for it. I’m a big fan.
When you’re in a good car and you’re going 200+ at max speed, everything gets a little bit calm, actually. The car’s glued to the ground and you can look around and check out what’s going on. I recommend it.
Q. All those high-horsepower cars couldn’t have been easy to drive. Which was the hardest to tame and get a handle on?
JB: Funnily enough, the Viper. Like a lot of things in life, the things that are tougher to master are often the ones that are most rewarding. And I think, to this day, the Viper remains a car that is challenging for the driver on the road — but if you become good at it, you know you’re driving really well and you’re at one with a really cool car. So the Viper definitely has always provided the most challenges on and off track.
Q. Going back to Le Mans and the McLaren F1 GTR. Obviously, there’s times you’re racing in the dark. What’s it like to blast down the Mulsanne Straight at over 200 mph in pitch black?
JB: You know, that’s so funny, because as anyone who’s driven on the road at night knows, your sight is narrowed down to what you can only see in the headlights. It’s a very singular, very focusing experience and at over 200 mph it becomes even more so. When you’re in a good car and you’re going 200+ at max speed, everything gets a little bit calm, actually. The car’s glued to the ground and you can look around and check out what’s going on. I highly recommend it.
Q. Being a TV presenter and a motoring enthusiast, what’s your take on the whole situation with Top Gear?
JB: Oh, great question. Like every other human being on the planet I’m a fan of Top Gear
UK, not the US version. I think Jeremy Clarkson has done an amazing amount for someone like me because he brings cars into mainstream TV
. And I imagine that he is every bit as arrogant and pompous as he looks on camera. I can’t imagine he’s any better in person. But in a world of homogenized people, he’s a character, and I love that. I think it’s very sad that it came to an end for him like that, but I was really impressed, and he got a lot of brownie points, when he put out a tweet that basically said, “I’m a dinosaur and dinosaurs must die.” So I thought that was really clever, he didn’t find anything else. He just faced it head on. Maybe the show should stop, maybe it’s over, I mean anyway what are they going to do, drive a Mini on the moon? I don’t know what they can do. There was a fun little Twitter campaign and people were like, “Oh Justin Bell should be on that show.” Believe me, I have made the right phone calls to try and make that happen, but so far let’s just say it’s not lookin’ good.
Q. Rhys same question. What do you think about how Top Gear panned out?
RM: I’m obviously aware of Top Gear
in the UK, and I think Jeremy Clarkson was incredible at his delivery, his position, his strength within the three of them and how well they all complemented each other. Big shock to see that shake up, it will be interesting to see where the cards fall there. The US version, although my good old buddy Tanner Foust is a part of the show, I don’t watch it. And I think one of the things that I tried really hard at with Shut Up and Drive
was just to not be plastic. To come across as who I am and do a good job. I watched the first show and I was shocked how well the editing was done, the production value came across with the helicopters and the tools that we had. And I think that’s the passion of the crew. They just did an incredible job, from camera angles to editing to Justin’s experience, it was just great to see the final product.
Q. And over the decades you’ve driven your fair share of race cars — which is at the top of your list?
RM: You know, I’ve had the opportunity to drive many vehicles at all different levels, but I would have to say, from a unique standpoint, it would be the Pikes Peak unlimited car that we built a couple of years ago. That was a vehicle constructed a hundred percent under my company’s umbrella. It was a two-frame, four-wheel-drive, turbocharged
V6, but a carbon body that weighed 1,800 pounds. It had 900 horsepower and to date is probably the most powerful vehicle that I’ve ever driven.
Q. And with the stunt driving, do you think that your skills as a stunt driver are used in racing or vice versa? Do you think one has a benefit on the other?
RM: They both balance and complement each other, really. Reflecting on that when I’m doing the commercial world, there’s a lot of repetitive moves where the camera will change, lanes will change, camera position, and so forth. What it allows for me to do as a driver is to tweak my input. So, the steering input, the throttle input, the weight balance input. So in the course of a day I might do six shots, but I might do that same shot 50 to 100 times, and it’s an incredible opportunity to just kind of push the skill set in the shot. When you come to a racing environment that requires a setup change or a quick reaction it’s just a natural transition. So, the two help each other tremendously.
Q. Of the movies you’ve worked on, which is your favorite?
RM: I have a favorite movie but it’s not one that I worked on [laughs]. Most of the ones that I’ve driven for in the past, I’ll pat myself on the back and say myself and the other drivers did an incredible job, but the story lines usually fall short of incredible. But if I had to pick one, Dukes of Hazard
in 2005. Growing up in New Zealand
as a six-year-old boy, Friday night laying on the floor, legs crossed, chin in my hand I was watching the General Lee flying around the track, dirt roads and doing jumps. And to randomly, some 20 years later, being given the opportunity to go to Warner Brothers Studios and try out for a driving position, I outperformed six other top formula drivers and got the opportunity to drive the General Lee. It was just an amazing experience to connect those two points in time and drive that car as sideways as possible and do some spectacular driving. So yeah, it was a highlight for sure.
Q. You competed in Global RallyCross the first few years of its existence. Since the WRC and stage rallies aren’t that big in the US, do you think the GRC provides a boost to that type of racing, stateside?
RM: Yeah, if you take your helmet off and put on your business hat, stage rallying for me is the ultimate. I did it for eight years, but from a business standpoint it’s a struggle. You don’t want to promote it because then the liability and risk goes through the roof as more people come out, get exposed and maybe get hit by the cars. There’s no butts in seats, so you can’t draw a revenue from it either. So it’s the adventurous types that want to go out and witness the stages and see the spectacle of driving. It’s one of the best times you can ever have, but taking those elements of rally cars fighting, dirt flying, jumping and all of that, and I think the ingredients that GRC brings to the stadium style format has all of that and it’s successful. Especially now that you have big names like Andretti Motorsport and Chip Ganassi getting into the sport, I think it’s going to tip it over that edge and really push it forward.
It was a two-frame, four-wheel-drive, turbocharged V6, but a carbon body that weighed 1,800 pounds. It had 900 horsepower and to date is probably the most powerful vehicle that I’ve ever driven.
Q. You’ve also raced at Pikes Peak for more than a few years, how has it changed over the years, in terms of racing and the atmosphere?
RM: Yeah, 20 years I’ve done that event, my rookie year being ’92. And I have definitely seen that change. In the early years, ’92 to possibly ’98, those six years, it was an all-dirt course and it required you to know every inch of the road and use every inch of the road — sliding with a slip angle and using a rally skill set for speed through the corners. 2012 was the first year the road was fully paved and we successfully won overall there that year. Although I don’t really consider myself a pavement driver, nor do I have passion for pavement driving — because I love going sideways — we had a good victory there. And in the last couple of years my desire for the event has gone away a little as the race has changed. But a newfound interest and a new challenge for this year is an all-electric vehicle. And it’s a great opportunity to kind of bring those two worlds together in an environment like that. So yeah, very excited to be going back to the mountain this year, and we’ll be piloting a vehicle built in Latvia by a private company that produces 1,367 horsepower, 1,500 lb-ft of torque and will be four-wheel-drive. So yeah, my excitement for Pikes Peak is back.