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."