crankandpiston.com grabs a quick word with former Formula Drift and Global Rallycross champion Tanner Foust to discuss his Top Gear USA work, his life on both the drift and rallycross stages, what it felt like to beat former World Rally Champion Marcus Gronholm one-on-one, why a 1976 Porsche 912E is the perfect car in which to start a motorsport career, and why it took flying 332-ft through the air at 160kph to impress Mario Andretti.We cannot display this gallery
It’s been a busy few weeks at crankandpiston.com, the team riding shotgun with Jaguar at the 2014 Mille Miglia before being invited to attend the 2014 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Porsche. We expect the latter pricked a few eyebrows out there and you can look forward to our coverage coming very soon.
In-between, we even had time to check out FIA World Rallycross championship action at Lydden Hill in the UK, the entry list for which included – alongside one Nelson Piquet Jr – Tanner Foust, he of Top Gear USA fame amongst other things. To say that he is ‘an adaptable driver’ would be the mother of all understatements. Amongst other accolades in a sparkling career, Tanner has secured championships on both the Formula Drift and Rallycross stages as well as six medal-winning runs on the X-Games circuit (the highly-respected ‘extreme’ athletics event that notes Sébastien Loeb as a former gold medal winner). If, for some reason, this wasn’t an impressive enough CV to begin with, Tanner even spent time stunt driving for The Dukes of Hazzard, Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, and various instalments of the Bourne film series.
Yep. There’s quite a lot to get through…
Tanner, most of our readers will know of your many Top Gear US exploits (and some will probably even know them from memory), but you’re also a prolific motorsport competitor. How did you get involved in motor racing?
“There was certainly a family background of competition, but not in motorsport. My dad was a ski racer and an Olympic alternate in ’54 and we raced Hobie Cats throughout my childhood. So strangely car racing was never in the bloodline.
“But I’ve been a student of driving since I was three years old and I was with my dad in his 1976 Porsche 912E (possibly the slowest Porsche ever built, but I grew up thinking it was the mega-ultimate). The tyres squealed going around a corner, so I’ve pretty much paid attention to every shift and every turn since then.
“It wasn’t until I worked for an inventor in college – inventing amusement rides – that I realised the notion of doing what you love for a living could be made a reality. And that’s when I decided to go for a career in cars.”
It’s a career that’s taken you through a huge amount of disciplines too, on and off track…
“Yeah, with stunt driving, drifting, rally racing, road racing and some adventures in off-road racing, I’ve always found that variety meant good practice.”
Was single seater competition ever a realistic possibility…?
“I actually started out trying to chase down a career racing single seat Formula Fords and spec Miatas. But, honestly, that was the path more traveled by race enthusiasts and it was super expensive. I didn’t have the money.
“So instead I looked at rally racing, which was something I thought was an up-and-coming sport in the ‘90s in the U.S. It was also something that could be done for a lot less money than Formula car racing. Plus, drifting came to the U.S. at about the same time, and through some friends I was introduced to that sport in 2003.”
A rather successful career you garnered on the drift circuit too, given that you’re the only athlete to ever win the US Formula Drift championship twice in successive years, in 2007 and 2008. What goes into an achievement like that?
“To earn a championship with new sports like drifting and rallycross, you not only have to be a bit more reliable and consistent than the other guys, you also have to be a little more innovative. Finding the best setups and the most effective way to succeed is a moving target with the newer sports, so there’s an opportunity to innovate and think outside of the box. If you can do that, you can hold an advantage over the rest of the competition.”
So having established that advantage, what inspired the jump to Rallycross…?
“I owe a lot to drifting and I love the sport – the competitors, the cars and the fans – but I was ready to get back to racing the clock. When I saw a video of Marcus Gronholm racing rallycross in Sweden, I was hooked. It looked like about the most fun you could have in a car.”
Interesting that you mention the former World Rally Champion, a man you beat outright at Pikes Peak in ’11…
“Marcus was a great teammate to have in Rallycross [the pair raced matching Ford Fiestas for Olsbergs MSE]. He was a constant fast and flawless driver: the ultimate litmus test. If you beat him, you knew you did something special.”
Joint campaign for you in 2014, including Global Rallycross with Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross and RallyX with Marklund Motorsports. How versatile does a driver need to be to take on separate series competitively?
“There are some major differences between Global Rallycross and World RX including the type of tyre used, which has a great effect on how a driver needs to approach each corner. Also, the format of competition. In Global Rallycross, there tends to be a little more of a Hail Mary into the first corner, while World RX tends to reward consistency over the whole weekend.”
You make the leap from Ford to Volkswagen machinery in 2014 as well. Has been it difficult adapting to new equipment?
“Oh, the Volkswagen rallycross cars are amazing. The chassis is extremely capable, and so is the team. So far this season, I’ve had a little bad luck and made a few bad calls and that has had a big negative effect on my points. But it’s still early in the season and I still have a chance to fight back in the championship.”
I’ll move onto your stunt driving career if I may by putting you in a not-so-hypothetical situation: you’re in a Hot Wheels truck at the top of a 100-ft ramp about to accelerate to over 160kph and launch yourself more than 332-ft through the air. At exactly what point do you think to yourself, “right, why the hell did I agree to this…?!”
“At about the 20-second count on the countdown clock! “It’s hard to avoid the thought about what life decisions were made that got me sitting in that seat. Once that jump was done, I wouldn’t have traded the seat with anyone: even Mario Andretti came up to me and told me he was jealous!”
“The loop felt more full-commitment because there was no practice. You didn’t start with a 30-foot loop and increase to a 60-foot loop: you just sort of did it. And I was much more worried about the equipment in the loop. There are no cars built for 6.8Gs, while the truck used in the jump was actually built to handle some pretty big jumps.
“Hot Wheels Toys For Real, which both of those stunts were a part of, was an incredibly bold campaign that showed sometimes if you imagine ridiculously big, the benefits can be ridiculously big. Those two stunts broke world records, but they also broke marketing and advertising records: the loop saw two-billion media impressions in one week. It was an amazing experience to be part of something that big, especially since I’d been imagining it since I was six years old.”
What goes into preparing for a World Record breaking run that differs to your normal routine for a Rallycross or Formula Drift?
“There’s a huge amount of science that goes into a stunt like that and sometimes some specific physical training. For example, with the loop I did a few days of fighter pilot training to build the core muscles and technique to keep blood in the brain.”
So you’d be tempted to go for another record if the opportunity arose…?
“Actually the push to do another jump almost got put into high gear when Guerlain Chicherit was making his record attempt last winter in France [the Frenchman backflipped – yes, BACKFLIPPED – a MINI ALL4RACING in Tignes last year]. If he’d have broken the record I’d have been all for trying to get it back!”*
* Since our conversation, Guerlain’s attempt to break the world record for the longest car rally jump ended this May with this spectacular crash. Thankfully the former Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge winner sustained only minor injuries.
You’ve competed at the prestigious Race of Champions three times for the US. How did it feel to compete against the likes of Jenson Button, David Coulthard, Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel?
“It was such a surreal experience not only to be lining up against guys of that calibre on the track, but also to be BS-ing with them in the locker room. I was so out of place the first year because I went as a drifting champion: everybody else in the locker room was sharing brochures of Gulfstream V jets.
“Walking the Great Wall of China with Tom Kristensen and Mattias Ekstrom, and playing mind games with Vettel and Schumacher… I don’t know if I’ll get a chance to do it again, but I love the Race of Champions event!”
Bearing all that in mind, which gives you the bigger thrill: competitive runs on the Rallycross stages? Your time as a stunt driver? Your run in a 1000hp electric dragster?
“Driving a 1000hp dragster is like taking a gulp out of a glass you thought was water and discovering it was really Don Julio! That car was so quiet and so ridiculously fast at the same time. Stunt driving is a great escape from the seriousness of racing, and you get to crash cars on purpose. But there’s nothing like competition: measuring yourself and maintaining focus when things are going well, and picking yourself up off the ground when things aren’t.”
How did working on big budget movies compare to your regular TV work with Top Gear US?
“The stunt people that perform in movies are, I think, some of the most multi-talented human beings on the planet and you learn something just by hanging around with them. I learn something in every movie I work on, like how to jump into an airbag or lasso a horse. Plus, the stunts are huge: the movie mentality is ‘if you’re going to build one car, you might as well build nine’. So, when they crash, if it isn’t spectacular enough, the crew just reloads and try again. It’s an amazing mentality!”
Exactly how do these opportunities arise…?
“There’s no magic bullet to a career in racing or in stunt driving. Just like any other career, it’s a combination of hard work, building your resume, word of mouth, and a little bit of luck.”
Let’s summarise then. From a career that began in the driver’s seat of a 1976 Porsche 912E, you’ve since become a two-time Formula Drift champion, a three-time US Rallycross, performed for Hollywood, leapt into the record books, and won your fair share of X Games medals. But is there a championship/title that means more to you than the others? Or indeed stands out in your mind as the most memorable?
“Sometimes it’s hard to describe to a pure racer how rewarding competitive drifting can be. In any racing there’s a lot of science and prep involved, but so much of drifting is about pure guts and visceral technique.
“Qualifying in a drifting event for instance is one of the most nerve-wracking things you could ever do. You’re in front of 15,000 people and a massive media presence, and the closer you come to crashing at 145-plus kilometres per hour, the better your score will be. I was lucky enough to get the award from Formula Drift as the best qualifier over the past 10 years. To qualify well is about facing your fears and I’m very proud to have received an award that recognises that achievement.
Before you go, let us in on the secret: what really happened to Adam Ferrara’s arm?!
“No [laughs]. But I can assure you that he did not wrestle an anaconda and lose!”