If you're a race car driver in the United States and you want to become a household name, you've got three career paths to choose from: a) you can race in NASCAR's Sprint Cup series; b) you can win the Indy 500; or c) you can channel Tanner Foust, the king of the world of extreme motorsports.
"Go-karts to formula cars is the path more traveled," he says. "But I didn't have the resources to compete with eighteen-year-old kids with a lot of family money. Also, it seemed that even if I made it up one or two ladders, I'd still be too far from the top. Rallying and drifting were the paths less traveled. They were low-profile sports, so there was an opportunity to move up pretty quickly and hope I was near the top when the wave hit."
Handsome, articulate, media-savvy, and sponsor-friendly, Foust is one of the few recognizable faces in disciplines generally regarded as the backwaters of motorsports. He's a 2007 X Games gold medalist, last year's Formula Drift champion, and a leading competitor in the Rally America series. He's done outrageous stunt work on everything from car commercials to The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. He hosts several niche TV shows on ESPN and Speed, and he just filmed the pilot for the much-ballyhooed American version of the British cult fave Top Gear. If the show is picked up by NBC, which commissioned the pilot, Foust will become a prime-time presence on millions of American TV sets.
Paired with radio/cable TV funnyman Adam Carolla and TV home improvement hunk Eric Strommer, Foust is the show's designated driver. In the Top Gear pilot, he's the hero drifting an Aston Martin V8 Vantage. This type of seemingly out-of-control hooliganism has become the Tanner Foust brand. Yet it belies the fact that he owes his success as much to his clear-eyed business acumen as his heart-stopping driving skills.
"People don't spend money on racing because they want a sticker on the fastest car," he says. "Every sponsor I've worked with has had a different definition of value, whether it's hospitality, TV exposure, eyeballs in the stands, or whatever, and you have to deliver a product that caters to them. Also, you're not dealing with the sponsor as a company. You're dealing with the individual marketing manager, who has a job on the line, and you have to minimize his or her risk. So when I got started, I always made sure I had a photographer and detailed schedules. I even wrote press releases. I made myself an easy choice when budgeting came around for the next year."
Foust, 35 but looking younger in a T-shirt, plaid shorts, and skateboard sneakers, is hanging out in the Rockstar Energy Drink rally team's motorhome after an X Games practice session in the sweltering Southern California summer heat. Last year, an estimated 27 million people watched the event on TV, and Foust expects the exposure he gets this year to pay for his entire Rally America program. But live attendance for the rally component of the X Games promises to be relatively paltry, and the event feels more like a glorified club race than a major league motorsports event.
The rally teams occupy a makeshift paddock in the parking lot of the Home Depot Center in suburban L.A. Although Foust is the reigning X Games Rally Super Special gold medalist, he's playing second fiddle to motocross legend and odds-on favorite Travis Pastrana - dubbed the Golden Boy by the TV announcers - who's driving a quasi-works 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STI prepped by Vermont SportsCar, which is the Penske Racing of American rallying. Foust, meanwhile, is making do with a two-year-old Subie crewed mostly by guys who fly in for races.
Practice was what Foust charitably describes as "chaotic." The engine was overheating, the turbo wasn't developing proper boost, the front end wasn't turning in, and the rear brakes weren't biting. So at the moment, Foust is multitasking with a vengeance - conducting an interview, helping another Rockstar-sponsored athlete find a missing cache of logo hats, discussing possible mechanical fixes with team manager Andy Pinker, and working his iPhone and laptop in search of, among other components, a stiffer rear antiroll bar.
"How should I pay for it?" Pinker asks after Foust gives him directions to a vendor.
Foust grins. "Offer him some [X Games] tickets and see what happens."
Foust has been working angles ever since he fell - or, actually, flew - into a career in racing. Although he grew up in a family of physicians and went to college as a premed student, cars have been his passion since he was a six-year-old kid identifying them by their headlights. After graduating with a degree in molecular biology, during a flight to Denver, he spotted a club-racing track - Second Creek Raceway - shortly before landing. He rented a car, drove straight to the circuit, and, on the spur of the moment, wrangled a job working on race cars in return for seat time. "I ended up becoming one of the worst mechanics ever," he admits. "But I learned to speak the language of motorsports."
After competing in his first race at the advanced age of twenty-three, Foust took an odd but handy detour: he went to work at Pikes Peak International Raceway, selling everything from title sponsorships to VIP suites, and got a crash course in the underbelly of racing. "I saw how convoluted and political most of the racing deals that you see on TV really are," he says. "But at the same time, I realized how close I was to making a career in racing."
Putting his own racing aspirations on hold, he coached club racers, instructed at an ice-driving school, ran ride-and-drive programs for manufacturers, even served as race director and lead instructor for a Formula Mazda racing series. His calling card was spectacular car control, a skill he'd begun honing back in college, when he got fired from a ski-bum job in Vail for doing donuts in a snowy parking lot at the wheel of a 50-foot-long bus after his late-night shift was over.
Inevitably, he was drawn to rallying, which is real cars on real roads at really insane speeds. "It's not like drifting or road racing," he says. "You don't have just a couple of moments over the race weekend; you have dozens of them - big, hairy ones. When you finish the last stage, you're like, 'Man, I wish they could keep these roads closed for another couple of days and let us stay out here.' But at the same time, you're wiping your brow and thinking, 'Man, I'm glad that's over with.' Because you know you got away with something."
Rallying remains Foust's first love; his dream job is a factory ride in the World Rally Championship. But he recognized that rallying was barely a blip on the American radar. Drifting, on the other hand, was a brand-new sport with an unlimited upside, and it was still possible to be competitive without spending a fortune. Foust redeemed all his frequent flyer miles coming out to California to test various cars, and when he finished third in his first event at Laguna Seca, he quickly realized that he had the skills to make it in drifting.
"The judges typically sit at the 'wall of death' - the place where you will impact if you make a mistake," he says. "They're drivers. They can feel what's happening in the car, and they know when you're going to crash. You want to make them feel that you're about to hit that K-rail [concrete barrier] and push it into their judging stand, then whoosh right past them throwing up dust and rubber. And you've got to do it sideways at 90-plus miles per hour. Basically, the closer you come to crashing - crashing hard - the higher your score will be."
Through drifting, he befriended fellow rallyist Rhys Millen, the son of one of Foust's two racing heroes, Rod Millen. (The other was the late Colin McRae, whom Foust outlasted at the X Games in 2007.) Rhys Millen invited him to move to Southern California and introduced him to the lucrative Hollywood stunt-driving scene, starting with a job on The Dukes of Hazzard, with Foust driving the villain's car while Millen handled the General Lee.
"I needed somebody I could be confident wasn't going to be a danger to me or the crew members," Millen recalls. "Tanner has a lot of natural ability. He's one of the few people I know who can jump into anything - front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, all-wheel drive - and master it after one or two laps."
Their careers followed similar trajectories until Foust got an unexpected break - a job hosting an obscure cable show called Auto Access. This led to gigs on somewhat higher-profile programs such as Import Racers, Redline TV, Supercars Exposed, and RM Auctions. Foust was clearly learning on the job, and the shows provided more exposure than income. But the experience made him a natural choice when BBC Worldwide America started auditioning talent for Top Gear.
The pilot was assembled this past summer. BBC barred the media from the studio taping, but fans who attended the session - most of them die-hard devotees of the British show - generally gave it high marks. Foust insists that, even if the show becomes a hit, it will take a back seat to his racing career. Still, as his manager, Steve Levy, points out: "Top Gear pushes him up the ladder as a presenter. And, obviously, he isn't going to be a race driver for the rest of his life."
At the moment, Levy is standing on the floor of the Home Depot Center a few hours before the rally portion of the X Games will commence. In front of him is the daunting, motocross-style jump that's the signature element of the event. Behind him, the Rockstar crew is working frantically to replace a broken sump guard and repair a front suspension deranged when Foust clouted a wall during practice a few minutes ago.
Foust's car suffers more damage during each subsequent run. But he's not the only one. "Carnage" is the watchword for today's competition, and hardly anybody makes it through the entire course - which features awkward jumps and sections of dirt, pavement, and polished concrete, all circumscribed by concrete barriers - without breaking something. Foust advances through the quarters, the semis, and, eventually, into the final against Pastrana.
Foust opens the heat by nailing the jump. But then, thanks to damage suffered earlier, he understeers into a wall, which gives Pastrana a huge lead. Down on power and hampered by a tweaked suspension, Foust fights back, and an increasingly untidy Pastrana tags several barriers as he feels the heat. At the finish, Foust is close but no cigar. "I saw what happened to you," Pastrana tells him later, "and I said to myself, 'Just drive conservatively.' "
For Foust, the silver medal is a bittersweet prize. "I really wanted the gold," he says with a sigh. "But to be honest, I'm just glad the car made it through all three runs."
A photographer grabs his attention. Foust snugs his Rockstar hat back on his head and smiles for the camera.