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Tampa Bay segment of 'Top Gear' show features Bugatti Veyron

When Rutledge Wood showed up at the Gandy Bridge in a $2.5 million sportscar last November, he had no idea what was waiting.

Thanks to an advisory released early by state officials, the press and public had learned that the TV show Wood co-hosts — History channel's Americanized version of the British car geek show Top Gear — would shut down the bridge so one of the program's hosts could drive a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport car from St. Petersburg to Tampa.

Given that the Bugatti Veyron is the fastest street-legal sports car in the world, with a top speed of 267 mph and a price tag big enough to choke Donald Trump, it's no surprise the bridge was surrounded with onlookers and local TV news crews, all hoping to get a look at the tangerine-colored wonder.

"For us, it was really cool to see that kind of interest in Top Gear. We had three helicopters around the shoot and they weren't even ours," said Wood, an auto racing analyst and self-described "car dork" from Atlanta who co-hosts the show with race car driver Tanner Foust and comic Adam Ferrara. "I think that's the first time we've had that kind of a turnout for anything that we've done."

The episode Wood and his crew created finally airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday, featuring the three hosts competing to see who can find the cheapest car capable of driving 150 mph.

Along the way, Wood drives the Bugatti Veyron around Tampa and St. Petersburg, starting off at the Tampa Museum of Art, grabbing a police escort through the center of downtown, winding his way along Bayshore Boulevard and eventually pulling the car up to valet parking at the Vinoy Renaissance Resort.

"That car is mostly made for traveling at a really high speed and looking like a baller pulling up to a club," Wood said, comparing the experience of driving it around Tampa Bay to an earlier Top Gear stunt where he wound up piloting a $400,000 Lamborghini sports car through the drive through window at a McDonald's. "That's not a car you can take to the grocery store."

The Bugatti's multimillion-dollar price tag probably helps explain why producers were so tight-lipped during their time filming in the Tampa Bay area.

But the gathering crowd, alerted by local news coverage and social media, led producers to follow advice from local law enforcement and scuttle plans for a Gandy Bridge drive, said executive producer Russ McCarroll.

"This is the first time word got out early enough that we got that big a crowd," added McCarroll. "We try to keep these things secret, more for public safety than for anything else."

Instead, they took the car to a cordoned-off stretch of Highway 27 near Miami, where one of the hosts attempts to drive the car close to its top speed (to avoid spoiling the episode, can't say which of the three is driving).

The American version of Top Gear debuted in 2010 and remains a lower-profile cousin to the British version, which has aired since 1977 in the U.K. — revamped with more attitude and edgy humor in 2002.

History's version is much tamer, with Wood and his co-hosts tackling challenges resembling what college roommates might dream up at 2 a.m. after a few too many slices of bad pizza.

In Tuesday's episode they'll try to nudge used cars bought for a few thousand dollars to speeds the Bugatti could handle easily.

"Part of the experience with Top Gear is to just be a normal person in an extraordinary setting," said Wood, whose scraggly beard and thick glasses leave him looking more like the bass player for Mumford and Sons than an obsessive car geek. "The people at home get to experience the car at the same time you do; which is amazing."

At a glance

Top Gear episode featuring Tampa and St. Petersburg locations airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday on History channel.

Tampa Bay segment of 'Top Gear' show features Bugatti Veyron 02/17/13 [Last modified: Monday, February 18, 2013 11:17am]

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