Known for drifting, rallycross, The X-Games, stunt driving, and being a host of Top Gear USA, Tanner Foust has become a household name. I sat down with him at his home in California to talk about his career what I came away with were themes for how to approach life.
Many drivers grew up in motorsports families where they started driving go-karts before they were six, that wasn’t Tanner’s story.
“I was never a motorsports fan because I didn’t grow up in a family that followed it. I had a doctor for a dad and a [Navy] cyrptologist for a step-father, my step-mother was in the medical field and my mom was an actuary.”
It wasn’t until college that racing started to become a career path.
“I was working for an inventor who invented amusement rides and got that entrepreneurial mindset. Figuring out what the most fun thing is that you could possibly do and then figuring out how to do it. That’s when I first started thinking that maybe racing cars would be fun.”
Foust studied molecular biology which is the study of genetics. After graduating and realizing that he still had “another 9-years of fluorescent tube lighting in my future to be either professor or a doctor”, he decided that he would figure out how to become an entrepreneur in the racing world.
The Alchemist, it’s a classic fabled book… in that book, it talks a lot about… paying attention to omens
While sitting in a window seat on a flight home from Florida, he saw a racetrack. That afternoon, he would drive to that track and volunteer as a mechanic in exchange for “seat time in Spec Fords, which are generic pinto engine purpose-built race cars,” says Foust.
Tanner needed to become a student of the racing, and as he calls it, he was looking for “omens.” “I knew nothing about the industry and I was reading this book which I had read like four times. It’s called The Alchemist, it’s a classic fable book… in that book, it talks a lot about stuff that was going on in my life, which was just paying attention to omens or just another way of saying ‘don’t deny your instincts’ for which way to take when there are forks in the road.”
He says, “I think there are a lot of people that have an interest in chasing down some sort of dream… [they] have a lot of the connections right in front of them, it just takes a couple of seconds of courage to pick up a phone or do whatever to sort of make that connection get traction.”
“I didn’t have skills, but at least… I was heads-up enough to know that the more I learned about racing, the more I realized I didn’t know, and so I was very humble, and I took it as an exercise in learning. The whole process of getting into this industry, still to this day, is a learning experience. I’m still a complete student of car control, a student of driving, a student of business.”
Foust spent a few years racing in Spec Fords, while spending his winters working at The Winter Driving School in Steamboat, Colorado. He also worked at Pikes Peak International Raceway—he was doing everything to quench his thirst for knowledge and “to learn the business of why people spend money on racing.”
As Foust gained experience he was able to market his driving skills for exhibition events. He started instructing in “ride and drives.” Ride and Drives are “marketing events that virtually all car manufacturers put on,” says Foust, “sometimes they set up autocross tracks in parking lots, they’ll come to give you a little talk about vehicle dynamics and then send you off on the track with an instructor. It’s a place to feel the performance of the car that they’re selling—it’s a marketing thing.”
During that time, a new motorsport had made its way from the East. Drifting events started popping up around the US, and Foust’s fellow Ride and Drive colleague, Samuel Hubinette, was immediately enamored with it.
“[Samuel] rented a bone stock [Nissan] 350Z from Enterprise” and along with Rich Rutherford and Nick Kunewalder, they entered their first drifting competition. They split their time in the car, but Samuel actually qualified with that rental car, “which of course wouldn’t happen now,” says Foust, but “they were blown away by the cars that the Japanese guys brought, and the skills that they had, and the whole sport in general.”
Drifting is a car control competition… It’s not about time, it is about speed, but it’s more about pairing up to another car and the car control itself required was extreme.
Foust went to the next races and competed in half of the championship season of the newly formed Formula Drift Champion. He raced a Nissan 240Z. Drifting was Foust’s breakthrough as it gave him exposure and it would lead to his first paid racing job.
In 2005, Stephen Papadakis hired Foust. Papadakis, a drag racer, had been trying his hand at drifting, but he felt that he needed to get behind a driver who had shown promise in competition, and he felt that this new talent was Foust. Papadakis put Foust in an AEM sponsored Nissan 350Z.
Money and racing usually have a complicated relationship—most drivers don’t make money and most teams struggle to find sponsorship. Foust had been “rally racing in the forest, basically for free, for a Subaru dealer” for years, but with the emergence of drifting, he was shocked in how easily the money was flowing.
With drifting, the big difference was that companies saw it as an opportunity to rebrand themselves for a new generation, so instead of the motorsport director, the marketing director was running the show.
“The marketing director has the real money to spend,” says Foust, “and they saw drifting as a lifestyle event that would change their image as a company, not just get them impressions in return for money, and that was a valuable lesson.” He says, “if you align yourself with something that moves the needle for the whole company in the average age of the buyer or the perception of the company in general, then you can make a business out of it, and it works.”
Foust leveraged this new landscape raising money and inking a sponsorship deal with Rockstar Energy Drink in 2006 that combined sponsorship in drifting with running rally cars in the X-Games.
I got more nervous before a qualifying run in drifting than anything, and I felt that nervousness and facing it really prepared me for other stuff…
“Drifting is a car control competition,” says Foust, “It’s not about time, it is about speed, but it’s more about pairing up to another car and the car control itself required was extreme.”
You would think that drifting would be a perfect fit for the X-Games, but according to Foust, “it would be the exact same people winning in the X-games as every weekends drift events,” and that’s because drifting looks a lot easier than it is.
“That was the thing, the handful of people that were at the top would stay at the top—it was just that difficult, and at the time, the pool of competitors was just that small.”
In 2009 Scion sponsored the team, putting Tanner in a TC. The TC was far from stock, it was a custom-built race car with a NASCAR outlawed Toyota V8 making 600 horsepower, a Supra rear end, and 42-degrees of steering angle. The wild creations added to the excitement of the sport, “The cars are extreme, the driving is extreme, on tv the driving does look a lot easier than what it is, but it draws some sort of a lifestyle element that was really important for its longevity.”
Drifting did teach Tanner how to deal with nervousness, “I got more nervous before a qualifying run in drifting than anything, and I felt that nervousness and facing it really prepared me for other stuff. It prepared me for public speaking, prepared me for all the things in life that you get nervous about, you learn to believe that you can harness that nervousness to be more positive energy.”
His love for drifting waivered as the driving style changed, “Drifting started to go more towards angle and less towards speed, and the lines started to get much less like a racing line, and much more of a desperate line to get a back bumper close to a certain section of the track to get a score. It’s come full circle and seems to be going back to the style I liked, but at the time it had a sort of obstacle course vibe. I liked the speed and commitment vibe.” He needed another challenge, something that fitted his view of competition, and a YouTube video gave him inspiration.
“I saw a video of Marcus Grönholm driving a Ford Fiesta in Sweden, a rallycross car, and they were ridiculously quick. They’re sliding around because they’re on old bias-ply tires; they’re four-wheel drive so they still can go fast while they’re sliding; they are jumping, gravel, pavement—it looked like everything that I loved to do in cars, and so I told my manager at the time ‘if we can figure a way to get into one of those cars, I would stop drifting for sure.’ It’s a perfect time now to bring that sport to the US because nothing makes small cars cool in the US, there’s no sport that does that so this is an opportunity to do that, so maybe that’s the marketing side that we can be connected to,” he says.
The two men went to Ford trying to sell the idea. Ford had recently launched the Fiesta and they needed to get young people to be excited about their compact car, but Ford wanted to take it to Pikes Peak.
“We worked for 2 years to get them to introduce us to a team that would let us rent a European Rallycross car for one X-Games. It was like pulling teeth. I was doing X-Games in Subaru rally car and I knew the Fiesta Rallycross car would crush. [Ford kept saying]—’No, we’re going to the do Pikes Peak. It’s going to be great with these Ford Fiestas.’” Foust and his manager responded to Ford saying, “’Okay, the week after, we’d like to get the cars to do X-Games.’ They wouldn’t be a part of it.”
Eventually, Rockstar funded the X-Games effort. They rented the Fiesta rallycross car directly from the European team. The owner of the car entered another Fiesta driven by Kenny Brack, and two Fords finished first and third in 2009 and “made a huge splash.” They now had Ford’s undivided attention and their full backing for 2010. “Ford did the biggest sponsorship of X-Games that any company has ever done I think it was a huge win for everyone, it definitely turned into a bigger deal than Pikes Peak,” says Foust.
It was a good melting pot sport, there’s a lot about Rallycross that made it easy for someone who wasn’t a racer to come in and do well: old tires, all-wheel drive. With bias-ply tires, there’s nothing perfectly tidy about getting around a track…
Foust and his new manager, Brian Gale, combined forces with one of Foust’s colleagues from the Ride and Drive industry to create the Global Rallycross Championship. While Foust’s did not maintain an ownership role of the series he says it was the perfect fit for the US, “Rallycross cars were gnarly and mean, and it fit perfectly. It’s funny because it’s sort of a Scandinavian mentality sport, but it’s funny how—they’re V8 crazy up there. They love big muscle cars. They love things that are wide and strong, and we do too, so it’s funny how we’re kind of connected to the Scandinavians in that mentality.”
Initially, Rallycross was driven by Ford, but they also had the perfect lineup of drivers. “You had Ken Block, David Mirra, Travis Pastrana, Buckey Lasek—you had all the ingredients to make that work and it did, and Ford became the youngest manufacturer [in demographics]. They sold the crap out of the Fiestas… so we really thought we had the tiger by the tail.”
“It was a good melting pot sport, there’s a lot about Rallycross that made it easy for someone who wasn’t a racer to come in and do well: old tires, all-wheel drive. With bias-ply tires, there’s nothing perfectly tidy about getting around a track, and with all-wheel drive, the bias-ply has amazing acceleration and braking just like drag racing tires and not a lot of lateral grip, so it was best to get the thing rotated, pointed through the straightaway as early as possible and then let the forward bite do its work. It really marshmallowed the line between black or white into this gray area that meant a lot of people could be 98% fast.”
He also credits his fellow competitors being professional learners. “Dave Mirra, I watched him pick up a bike that he had never seen before that had this weird hinge in the middle of it, and he was a different person. Like he’s guy smiley and then he’s like ‘Everyone stand back, don’t touch me, I got to figure this thing out.’ He literally focused on it till he was a master on it, which took about 4 or 5 minutes, but you could see he’s obsessive about learning.”
“Just like Bucky, that’s why he’s still beating on those whipper-snappers on a skateboard, and Pastrana is surprisingly calculated for as kind of cavalier as he seems. The bits that made them who they are in their individual sports is what helped them learn rallycross so fast, could they jump into a Formula car or a sports car, probably not as easy as they could jump into rallycross. It played into my hand, certainly because I had sampled rally racing, ice racing, and pavement stuff, so I could usually get up to speed a little bit quicker. That didn’t last long. Travis always said ‘with age comes a cage.’ And so, Rallycross became the retirement transition for X-Games athletes. All those guys had a great fan base, they were the first on social media, they had sponsorship money that was already allotted to them year-after-year, and then they were tired of beating themselves up on their own skateboards, bicyclists, and motorcycles and would love to sit in a car. It just worked to funnel those people and sponsorship into rallycross.”
While competing in rallycross he also started working as a stunt driver. In Hollywood, some directors started going outside of the normally closed group of stunt performers, looking for drivers that had special skills in racing situations. With his racing background, he was the perfect fit. Fellow racers Rhys Millen and Rich Rutherford brought him into the movie-stunt world.
“I love driving for the camera,” says Foust, “I’ve always loved photography so it was really fun to visualize what the camera could see and learn to get better at giving the camera what it wanted without risking something somewhere else. Unlike racing where you’re just going 100%, it’s like you don’t need to do anything until the camera sees you and then rah-ba-ba [engine sounds], get the job done and once you’re out of frame, calm down again.”
You’re almost like acting with the driving which was a new concept for me and was so much fun…
He was on Dukes of Hazard, but his most famous drifting movie was Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift. “I was DK (Drift King); I was in the gray 350Z. I was the evil guy, honestly which means I had the easiest job because he just had to be buttery smooth, the character was a skilled drifter the whole movie.”
“Fast and Furious was one of the most fun projects I’ve ever done. Sixty nights of just drifting around and really kind of acting with driving, and that’s the great thing about drifting, it’s really more about style, and your personality can come out in the driving.”
Foust’s most recent film was Ford vs. Ferrari and last year worked on “The Art of Racing in the Racing,” “Hobbs and Shaw,” “Free Guy,” and “Magnum PI.”
Top Gear USA
Racing interviews opened the door for roles on the small screen, WATV offered him a hosting job on a small television channel called MagRack that was only available as free content in hotel rooms. Foust hosted the show and reviewed cars. “[It] turns out, I did burnouts in every single car, no matter if it was a Ford Taurus or a Corvette.” He did more television shows, Import Racers on ESPN, Redline TV on Speed, Battle of the Supercars, and Supercars Exposed. The latter, Supercars Exposed, “was just taking supercars out and going to the Texas Mile, drifting up the Corral Canyon with the Carrera GT—I got to drive so many cool cars, they were so good at getting the newest cars as soon as they hit the shores.”
As his filmography grew, he got noticed by Top Gear. Top Gear showrunner Andy Wilman and NBC wanted to capitalize on the success of Fast and the Furious. They planned on launching a primetime US version on NBC. The show would accompany the network’s other car show, Knight Rider (2008). He was selected to host alongside Adam Corolla and Eric Stromer; however, the show didn’t go past the pilot because Knight Rider failed miserably in the ratings. “Knight Rider bombed; that was the nail in the coffin for Top Gear for NBC. They pulled the plug.”
History Channel had an option to buy the show. They purchased it, but the two other hosts were no longer available. They teamed up Foust with Rutledge Wood and Adam Ferrara.
“I loved the UK [show] too. I had not seen full shows really until I started to get involved in Top Gear US. I had only seen films—you know, the race against the Eurofighter or the shuttle launch… I think most people who are Top Gear fans in the US, think of those individual films that they had access to on YouTube. That’s how we watched it.”
Top Gear US was controversial to the fans that loved the UK version. One thing that was in question was whether the hosts would be able to criticize cars while being on a US Network that is dependent on ad revenue?
“With NBC it was always said that we would be fine, but when we got closer to the show being bought people started to murmur fears about that since there are obviously big-dollar advertisements… We were never pressured to say or not to say anything.”
“We had scripted content that you had to get word-for-word in the studio which doesn’t work with a show like that, I don’t think. Nothing else we ever did was scripted, but the studio was rough because it was this scripted thing and it didn’t come off as the guys’ clubhouse.”
Foust says that his racing contracts allowed him to be honest, “I was racing for Ford at one time and I was racing for Volkswagen at another time, in both contracts it said I can say whatever I wanted about the cars, which is pretty unheard of for an auto manufacturer to have that written in a contract that their spokesperson can say ‘It’s a pile of shit’ if they want to. I wouldn’t represent products that I felt that way about anyway, but it was great freedom to not have to sellout in-order to be on TV.”
Adapting the UK show to the US market was hard, “There were a lot of interesting differences—in the UK they didn’t have a set time—their show could be 48 minutes or 56 minutes or an hour and 10 minutes.” The US show had to be 44 minutes plus commericals, said Foust. “The first year we tried to do the studio thing like the UK show, that would be the last thing that we would shoot each episode so the timing of each bit came down to the second.” The studio segment didn’t work as it was scripted, “To get the timing, we had scripted content that you had to get word-for-word in the studio which doesn’t work with a show like that, I don’t think. Nothing else we ever did was scripted, but the studio was rough because it was this scripted thing and it didn’t come off as the guys’ clubhouse.”
“There are no three better people in the world at talking interestingly about nothing than Clarkson, Hammond, and May—but man, did we have a good time making the show in the US,” says Foust. He, Ruthledge, and Ferrara were able to find their own way of presenting Top Gear. They ditched the studio and introduced recaps to keep viewers up-to-date. “From what I heard, it did well for History, it lowered their mean age by quite a bit. According to the History channel’s data, only 5% of viewers had seen the British show. The show did well in England, strangely. It aired on Dave, which is the disruptive network there, it did pretty well.”
“We had six seasons and 750 days of shooting to do 72 episodes and it was super fun,” says Foust.
I learned about being honest with yourself and how much lower stress that is.
The show ended when the creative differences between the government-owned British Broadcasting Channel (BBC) and the History Channel could no longer be bridged.
“I learned about being honest with yourself and how much lower stress that is. I had done all this TV before—seven years of TV. I had been in front of the camera in interviews but never really admitted the things that I was embarrassed about. For example, I can recite most words and most movie quotes up until about 1997, and then I don’t know a damn thing. Rutledge on the other hand literally knows every Taylor Swift song there is, syllable by syllable, and is incredibly on point with pop-culture of any kind. I kind of hid that when I was with X-Games. X-Games is all about music and they’d be like ‘what’s your theme song, what are your ten favorite songs? What’s on your iPod?’ ‘I don’t even know?—Genesis?’ I didn’t want to sound like an old man, but… when I started racing, that’s when I basically stopped paying attention to basically anything else in the world.”
“With Top Gear you couldn’t get by faking it, you just had to be yourself. If you felt cocky about something, then you just had to do it. Sometimes exaggerated a little bit for the sake of TV, but just do it. Don’t know something, just do it. If you are super nerdy, I’m super nerdy about some things and being a biology major, I love talking up the random facts that I remember from school. Incredibly boring as I think it could be sometimes, it could also come off as funny, but just ‘being honest’ in front of the camera was super liberating for me, and I got that from Top Gear.
“When Top Gear ended, there were a lot of things on my list that I wanted to do. I had been traveling 320 days a year for a long time. I have a daughter that I can never get enough time with, I had just finished building a house that I wanted to spend some time in, and I wanted to get a pilot’s license.” The day after Top Gear filming ended, Foust began flying lessons. Since then, he’s gotten his instrument flying rating and he bought a plane. He says that flying gives him a sense of freedom and responsibility that is hard to find nowadays.
He says he doesn’t miss his former harsh schedule, but he does miss hanging out with his co-hosts, but they stay in touch.
Electrification and Racing
“[Since then], I’ve pushed more on the business side, and have gotten more imbedded with Volkswagen as a spokesperson in Europe with the VW R group and here in the US doing SEMA builds where I’m hoping to be involved in a project for the BAJA 1000 which they haven’t done in twelve years, and then getting in the forefront of their electric technology for racing, which is inevitably over the horizon.”
There are a lot of advantages to electric. Rallycross just happens to be a sport that takes basically all of those advantages: high torque and acceleration, short races, small cars…
With electrification of cars and even self-driving variants being inevitable, Foust isn’t scared about what it means for car enthusiasts. “We’re always going to have cars that burn fuel in our garage as long we’re allowed to,” says Foust, “There is something about that, that connects us to the driving experience; however, I love the idea of automated cars that actually work and are safe for cities.”
“There are a lot of advantages to electric. Rallycross just happens to be a sport that takes basically all of those advantages: high torque and acceleration, short races, small cars—they look like cars—yes, they are meaner and wider, but they look like cars. There is a lot of advantages to being involved in Rallycross and being with a manufacturer that is putting 39 billion euros into electrification in the next 5 years. Connecting those dots and also connecting the dots of the fun factor in electric will probably be one of my tasks over the next 5-years.”
“I have driven an electric car with slicks on it, and when those tires are warm, and they have grip—unbelievable acceleration. Everybody pretty much knows, who’s an enthusiast, that the fastest car at the traffic light is the Tesla, and as upsetting as that is, it’s just a fact. There’s some fun and disruptive attitudes that can be poked at with that reality.”
Not just for commuting, he thinks about what the 21st century of Hot Rodding will become, “I love this company called EV West. They take old retired Tesla drivetrains and stick them in Porsche 912’s, Volkswagen Busses, and old BMW’s 2002’s—clean installs, but they do burnouts for days. I think that’s so hilarious, that dichotomy coming together and it makes awesomeness is what it does. Those kinds of projects and those kinds of tattooed up fabricators using electric power gives me a bit of hope for the enthusiast’s side of electric for the future, but I’m always going to have a Porsche that has the potential to leak oil and spit out some carbon dioxide just because that’s the way I was raised. Maybe the next generation may not care about that as much.”
The thing that does concern Foust is how technology is taking the responsibility away from people, “The fear for me on the human condition standpoint is that sometimes I worry that so much responsibility is being taken away from the individual, that we actually evolve from being responsible.” He points out how no one remembers phone numbers because they don’t have to—our phones do it for us.
He says things like saving a skid in a car, kids his daughters age, “will always have a car that will save them, they will wonder why the car doesn’t spin the tires when they hit the gas because they’ve never driven something without traction control—never had to take responsibility for their own feet and hands really.”
That lack of responsibility takes away the experience of being a full-fledged human. “There’s this human protentional that everybody has, and I think the less responsibility on the daily that you take on, accomplish, and move on to the next day, the less you really realize your own human potential—and it’s one of the great things about car racing, honestly.”
It was like they introduced a drug for the driver… They would deliver this drug, and you had this little dial on the steering wheel of how much of the drug you could take and the drug was: power—[it] was responsibility
He says that “with automated cars, that’s one thing that could go away. I hope the skillset of driving and the craft of driving doesn’t go vanish.”
This responsibility can manifest itself in many ways, one example that Foust gave was knowing your limits. He recalled an episode of Top Gear when they drove a Ferrari F12berlinetta. He talks about how an episode of Top Gear was going to cover how responsibility is being taken out of cars, but instead it focused on how cars are more like a narcotic.
“We re-wrote what that show while the camera was rolling. What I felt in it was that these engineers, especially with Ferrari… It was like they introduced a drug for the driver… They would deliver this drug, and you had this little dial on the steering wheel of how much of the drug you could take. The drug was: power—[it] was responsibility, but the way that they administered it was through the sound, the steering, the feel of the seats, even the smell of the leather was something that helped secretes this drug into your blood and it was this thrill that literally was intoxicating to the point that you would just drive yourself into wall and die.”
“You had to be trained in order to really handle that much of the drug. This thing screaming at 9000 rpm, sliding around, smoking tires—it was so intoxicating and even from the passenger seat. I gave people rides and they’re almost OD’ing on this drug just screaming. It’s amazing, they are wielding this power of delivering us this enthusiast drug for the passion of what driving can be, but we have to check ourselves so much because we don’t train ourselves how to deal with it, and we don’t have the tolerance for it and it kills us—simple as that.”
Foust has done a lot of things in his life, but none of it would have been possible without failure.
“I failed a lot. I failed a lot, and I mean recently. I had to completely go back to the drawing board just a few years ago when Scott Speed and I teamed up on Volkswagen it was the same year when the series went to radial tires from bias-ply.”
Eventually, you have to convince yourself that your natural instincts are wrong. And that’s the same process that everyone has to do whether it’s dieting—everything.
Speed a former Formula 1 driver quickly took to the new radial tired era of rallycross, Foust on the other hand, had to completely re-learn how to drive these cars.
“I never thought I was going to win again when I was so far off the pace when things went to radial tire, I had just gotten concreted in my ways after all of this rally driving and drifting stuff, I had narrowed down onto rallycross, it was the only racing I did, and then I got concreted to only going fast on one tire and one car, which is exact opposite of how I wanted my career to be. So that was really a come to Jesus moment.”
Foust studied the data, learning the subtle difference between himself and Speed. “I was still quicker on the gravel which was my only saving grace, but the races were basically all tarmac.” He had to retrain his body. “[I] had to stop doing everything that my body thought it should do with a steering wheel… Eventually, you have to convince yourself that your natural instincts are wrong. And that’s the same process that everyone has to do whether it’s dieting—everything.
Tanner revamped his driving and last year won the 2019 Americas Rallycross Championship.
“For me, it’s been a weird road. I would say the secrets to success and I still feel like there is a long way to go, even though this is the first year I won’t do a full race championship, possibly, in 20 years.”
From molecular biology to being apart of the birth of drifting and rallycross, to stunt driving to hosting Top Gear in the US, Foust has had a big impact on modern-day auto racing and with electrification, seems to be willing to be apart of a new era in Motorsport.