TIME BOMB

A near-death ex­pe­ri­ence hasn’t slowed Top Gear’s Richard Hammond, writes Dar­ren Dev­lyn

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HE HAS de­scribed him­self as mad as a bag of snakes, so it’s lit­tle won­der Richard Hammond’s an­tics have on oc­ca­sion landed him in hot wa­ter.

Never has this been more ap­par­ent than in 2006, when his sense of dar­ing re­sulted in a near-death ex­pe­ri­ence — his nose and mouth filled with mud and his brain dam­aged from a hor­rific, 307km/h crash in a Vam­pire jet-rac­ing car.

More re­cently, he at­tracted scorn for his al­leged po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect hu­mour on mo­tor­ing show Top Gear.

Hammond said Mex­i­cans were ‘‘ lazy, feck­less, flat­u­lent and over­weight’’, prompt­ing the Mex­i­can am­bas­sador to Bri­tain, Ed­uardo Me­d­i­naMora, to la­bel Hammond’s com­ments ‘‘ xeno­pho­bic and hu­mil­i­at­ing’’.

Hammond, who prides him­self on laugh­ing hard­est when a joke’s at his own ex­pense, can­not dis­guise his dis­dain for those who took the Mex­i­can gag se­ri­ously.

‘‘ Some­times I think we are an out­let for peo­ple who sim­ply want an out­let to be out­raged,’’ Hammond says of Top Gear.

‘‘ Ev­ery class has to have a scape­goat, ev­ery group has to have some­one who cops all the s---, and some­times that’s us.

‘‘ On oc­ca­sion we make mis­takes be­cause we are work­ing near the line and you’ll only ever know where that line is by some­times step­ping on the wrong side of it.’’

So he’s adamant the com­ments about Mex­ico were on the side of ac­cept­able?

‘‘ Ahh, I think that was prob­a­bly a case of peo­ple want­ing to be out­raged, be­cause the joke was ac­tu­ally on me,’’ Hammond says. ‘‘ As a 41-year-old male, do you imag­ine I’d re­ally be­lieve Mex­ico to be en­tirely pop­u­lated by blokes with droopy mous­taches and big hats and lean­ing against a cac­tus? I was talk­ing about the Mex­i­can char­ac­ters I watched in West­erns as a kid.

‘‘ I was try­ing to be funny, tak­ing the p---out of my­self. Peo­ple took it wrong and wanted to be out­raged be­cause they thought I was se­ri­ously sug­gest­ing that? Of course I wasn’t, any more than I imag­ine France to be pop­u­lated by men in striped jumpers who chase your wife.’’

Hammond, af­fec­tion­ately dubbed ‘‘ Ham­ster’’ by his Top Gear co-hosts Jeremy Clark­son and James May, has had a re­bel­lious streak since he was a kid — leap­ing over jumps on his bi­cy­cle as an eight-year-old in Birm­ing­ham.

It took an­other 28 years for Hammond’s adrenalinecharged ad­ven­tures to re­mind him how frag­ile life can be.

IN A sil­ver race suit, he climbed into the cock­pit of the Vam­pire on a North York­shire airstrip. Dur­ing the fi­nal run of the day, a front tyre blew, the drag­ster veered of­f­course, rolled at 307km/h and stopped on its roof.

Hammond’s hel­met vi­sor was dis­lodged, ex­pos­ing his face to fly­ing de­bris.

He was rushed to hos­pi­tal in a crit­i­cal con­di­tion, with dam­age to his right frontal lobe.

His wife Mindy has de­scribed his five weeks in hos­pi­tal as ‘‘ con­nected to a ven­ti­la­tor pump­ing breath into his lungs, drips in both arms, mon­i­tors stuck to his chest, his left eye­lid four times nor­mal size and deep crim­son— not a flicker of life’’.

When he fi­nally came out of a coma, Hammond re­sponded vi­o­lently, tak­ing his life sup­port sys­tem off and yank­ing out drips and a catheter.

He was ‘‘ clin­i­cally con­fused’’ and suf­fer­ing ‘‘ mor­tally with de­pres­sion’’.

In hos­pi­tal, post-trau­matic am­ne­sia left him with a fivesec­ond mem­ory. He would or­der his favourite meal, and when it ar­rived soon af­ter he’d marvel that the nurses some­how knew it was his favourite.

Hammond, fa­ther to daugh­ters Is­abella and Wil­low, en­tered ther­apy to be­gin his slow road back to emo­tional equi­lib­rium.

‘‘ Brain in­juries hap­pen to a lot of peo­ple and I did mine do­ing some­thing bloody silly,’’ he says.

‘‘ I can’t speak for ev­ery­one who has been brain dam­aged, but the only thing you’ve got to as­sess the thing that you’ve dam­aged (your brain) is the thing that’s dam­aged.

‘‘ That’s par­tic­u­larly tricky be­cause in my case it was mostly the emo­tional im­bal­ances rather than phys­i­cal dam­age.

‘‘ So you’re think­ing, ‘ Oh my god, my emo­tions are all over the place’. Well, you’re the least ca­pa­ble per­son in the world to be look­ing at your­self ob­jec­tively be­cause you have im­bal­anced emo­tions.

‘‘ It’s a lengthy, lengthy process and my heart goes out to any­body em­bark­ing on that road. But I will say it’s a tremen­dously flex­i­ble de­vice, the brain. You’ve just got to hang on in there.

‘‘ A month would go by and I’d look back and think, ‘ S---, I was in a ter­ri­ble state back then and I’m bet­ter now’. An­other month would go by and I’d look over that one and think, ‘ S---, I wasn’t bet­ter then, but I am now’. It’s been a long process, over four or five years.

‘‘ One of the doc­tors had sat me down and said, ‘ Now look, there might be a propen­sity to­wards de­pres­sion and you might end up with a re­ally big tem­per’. My wife just sat there and said, ‘ Well, you didn’t know him be­fore, did you?’

‘‘ I still don’t know. At 41, am I hav­ing a mid-life cri­sis or am I still a bit crook?’’ Top Gear, Chan­nel 9, Tues­day, 7.30pm

On the mat: The wrecked drag­ster.

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