He’s one of the most recognizable people in Hollywood, turning heads at every boulevard.
Jay Leno was the face of late-night television for more than 20 years in the United States during which time both the comedian and his generously-proportioned chin have attained iconic status.
But that’s not always why people stop and stare. More likely, it’s because every day you’ll see him behind the wheel of a classic car — one that he has personally and lovingly restored back to its former glory. There are hundreds in his collection and he drives all of them on a regular basis.
The cars are stored at his sprawling garage in Burbank, California. It’s an Aladdin’s Cave of automobiles and motorbikes from the last century.
Under just one roof, driving historians could chart the design and technological developments of an entire industry.
F1 leads advances
Leno is a massive fan of the benefits of technological progress, believing that engineers have — and will continue — to make our world a cleaner, safer and better place.
It is why he has long been fascinated by Formula One, a sport that has long prided itself on its technological innovations.
Indeed, much of the auto technology that we all now take for granted in our daily lives owes a lot to the trailblazing designers in the racing industry and Formula One especially.
Later this month the F1 circus arrives in Austin, Texas for the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas racetrack.
It’s a track Leno has driven many times and that experience has left him in awe of the professional drivers who race for a living.
“People don’t think of racing drivers as athletes, the way they do perhaps soccer players,” Leno told CNN.
“They just appear to be driving. The hand-eye coordination from a guy like Lewis Hamilton is unbelievable,” Leno added, referring to the reigning world champion.
“It’s so far beyond our comprehension. It would be hard for the average person to join F1 because you’d hit a tree before you realized anything had happened.”
‘It’s so complicated now’
Look under the hood of any modern road car these days and it will be almost unrecognizable from many of the classics that Leno has nursed back to life.
Such is the pace of development that arguably we’re already in a place that would have seemed pretty fanciful in sci-fi movies not too long ago.
Driverless cars are already here, and the major manufacturers in the US say that nearly all new cars by September 2022 will have automatic emergency braking systems installed as standard; in theory it should be impossible to crash.
But for a country in love with its cars, F1 has struggled to make a lasting impact in the US. The US Grand Prix has been on and off over the years, though it seems to have found a home in Austin, where October’s race will mark a fifth anniversary.
Ironically, Leno thinks the reason for the indifference is that it’s too advanced, that it’s “overly technical.” He suspects the average car enthusiast simply can’t relate to F1.
“I think in America — and in Europe, too — people like to see race cars that they can buy. It’s so complicated now, it’s almost spacecraft! With the exception of paddle shifters, there’s not much the average guy in his garage can really do to make his car emulate an F1.”
Competition from Indycar and NASCAR
Leno is speaking for himself here but he may have a point. The evolution of the sport has also made it harder to penetrate the US. F1’s heartland has always been Europe, most of the manufacturers are based there and fans have grown up with it for decades. But in America, it’s different and there’s also competition from Indycar and in particular, NASCAR.
Leno remembers the good old days of NASCAR when car enthusiasts felt a much closer affinity with racing.
“In the 60s NASCAR used high performance cars that you could actually buy. So if your dad was a Ford guy and Ford won that week, you’d go to school and say ‘yeah we picked the Ford!’ Now it’s a little different.”
Perhaps things are slowly changing.
The North Carolina-based Haas team is the first American team in F1 for 30 years and the sport has a bespoke home at the Circuit of the Americas in Texas.
Even so, there still isn’t an American driver in the sport and hasn’t been for many years. The last American champion was Mario Andretti in 1978.
Leno thinks F1 could do more to help itself though. He personally gets excited by “anything that rolls, explodes and makes noise” and he says it’s time F1 really embraced that. “You need to make the engines a bit simpler, a little bigger and a little noisier — people love the wail of the F1 engine.
“The idea is supposed to be about performance, that’s what people like to watch. Remember the turbo charge that was really exciting — you had flames coming out the back and the cars were fascinating to watch. But now, not so much.”
If he hadn’t been telling jokes or asking questions for a living, Leno’s love of cars might have steered him down a different road.
But he has mixed feelings about whether he would have made much of a racing driver, or even whether he’d have been any good.
He says he has too much respect for any car to beat it up on a track, but added: “I’m not one of those people that wants to make my hobby my work. I like to make love but I don’t want to be a gynecologist!”