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