Proving Grounds Host Sam Smith on Making the New Show—Plus One Never-Before-Seen Clip
Good news: NBC Sports has another cool car show in its lineup.
Good car TV didn't start with Top Gear—as much as it can feel that way sometimes—and it certainly hasn't ended there (as much as it feels that way, sometimes). Since we, like you, are always on the lookout for entertaining shows about fast, fun, and outrageously goofy machinery, we're happy that Proving Grounds has hit the airwaves on NBC Sports. (Hey, we have a show there, too!)
Hosts Sam Smith, Parker Kligerman, and Leh Keen are, to put it mildly, wildly overqualified. You know Sam Smith as Road & Track's editor-at-large and a columnist for Car magazine; Kligerman from the Number 75 Chevy Silverado in NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series; and Keen from series like Rolex Sports Car and American Le Mans. Every week, the trio assembles some of the best and wildest machines around, and run them through their paces in a typical proving ground scenario—usually that would mean mundane things like maneuverability and grip tests, but here seems to entail smoking as much tire as possible and crashing into things. Good television, in other words.
But we think good TV is often a product of how much fun was had in the making, so we asked Sam Smith to tell us the backstory of some of the better behind-the-scenes moments, including one never-before-seen clip of Sam being an overcaffeinated goofball. (Note: countless other clips, recordings, images, stories, and lithographs of Sam being a goofball are known to the world, but this one is brand new.)
Corvette Z06 Reverse Burnout
You learn things while screwing around with cars and waiting for cameras to reset. Who knew the Corvette Z06 would do killer reverse burnouts? I mean, it makes sense: gobs of power, a lot of tire but not too much, short wheelbase. And that hellacious noise. Plus Leh, who can make a car do pretty much anything. That’s genuine laughter, because most reverse burns don’t last that long, lay as much rubber, or roll like that. He drove up after we had finished shooting a segment and was like, “You guys! Look at this! Look what I found this thing can do!” Face like a little kid.
I’d be lying if I said any of it felt like work. It’s all down to Parker and Leh and the great crew we have—Proving Grounds comes from the same production team behind NBC’s DRIVE, an amazing and talented group. At its core, the show is just three guys in the desert, with a lot of rope to be themselves, talking about cars in the way that normal people talk about them. Top Gear template aside, it turns out three is just a good number when you’re throwing a handful of humans into a constantly changing environment. Somebody’s always quiet, somebody’s always loud, somebody’s always off in a corner trying to steal the keys to the Hellcat or jump the minivan over a gully or whatever.
The best part is, we’re decidedly different people. Parker is Connecticut polished and curious about everything; I grew up in the South and Midwest, my hands dirty as a mechanic and club racer; Leh defies the road-racer stereotype, because he has a healthy dose of humility and is actually interesting to talk to. The dude lives in Georgia. Georgia people are lovely, because they have manners when you’re looking, and then when you’re not, they’re off somewhere breaking rules and having a better time than you are. I need to spend more time in Georgia.
Buick Regal GS "Crash"
That’s me. It was hysterical, and I can only say that because it was zero risk—the cardboard boxes I hit were empty—and we got it on camera. Total brain fart, not on purpose. I’d been standing in the desert sun for hours while we shot different takes of stuff. Definitely a bit fried. Hadn’t driven the Buick before. The producer asked me to run through at speed, and I just ripped into the thing balls-out. The last car I’d driven through there was the Miata, which works a hell of a lot differently in a corner. I just went in without thinking, tired, and braked a tad late. Way too fast to get the car to point. It was like riding an elephant off a cliff—you realize pretty early on that things are going to end cartoonish, but you can’t do much about it.
The boxes held a bit of sand at the base, to keep them in place, but they were otherwise almost entirely air. The crew fell over laughing. I couldn’t speak when I got out of the car, just in hysterics. All the panic of driving head-on into a brick wall—none of the consequences. Buick didn’t get a scratch on it. Disney should build rides like this for Epcot. If you could bottle that feeling and sell it, you’d make a million dollars.
Sam Smith Goes Full Kentucky
Me, in the Z06, just being obnoxious during a lull in filming. They told me to go drive around and get used to the car, but I’ve driven a zillion seventh-generation Z06s, so I just started riffing on this silly NASCAR-announcer caricature I came up with years ago. Which is really just the voice of this guy I used to go to high school with in Kentucky, talking about cars and rambling on about lord knows what. My senior year, this dude and I went to a house party at a horse farm outside Louisville. The guy who threw the party worked as a caretaker on the farm and made apple moonshine in a bathtub. You actually had to pull it out of the tub in mason jars. We sat around and made loud noises while talking about horse racing and car racing and punk rock until three in the morning, Kentucky as hell. Probably the single most Southern moment of my life.
I love NASCAR—there isn't a form of motorsport I don’t like—so this comes from the heart. Every Cup driver buys a Corvette when they get big, right? And then sends it off to some tuner for turbos or whatever so it can make a billion horsepower. We didn’t have room for this clip in the final cut of show—the Corvette is in episode two of the first season, which aired October 28—but I think I’m going to hang onto the file. Maybe put it on the TV on repeat for a few weeks and make my kids watch it over and over, just to see how much their eyes roll back into their heads. “DAD YOU ARE THE WORST PLEASE STOP I WANT NEW PARENTS.”
Long story short: Corvettes make people feel like children. God bless America.
"Proving Grounds" airs on NBC Sports at 8:30 PM ET following the NASCAR Cup race. This week they're driving a Widebody Challenger Hellcat, Subaru WRX, Cadillac CTS-V and a heavily modified pre-runner Toyota Tundra.