During his college years, now-professional driver Tanner Foust’s career plan was for people seeking medical attention to line up in his waiting room. Life didn’t exactly go that route.
Instead, people line up waiting for his autograph — no medical concerns required.
Ahead of this weekend’s doubleheader in Barbados, two-time series champion Foust, 42, sits sixth in the Red Bull Global Rallycross championship standings, and he and his ridiculous yellow 560 horsepower Andretti Rallycross Volkswagen Beetle are unquestionably among the sport’s top stars.
And though Foust holds honors including two Formula Drift championship trophies in addition to his GRC titles, a stash of X Games medals and a starring role on History Channel’s Top Gear USA, he always envisioned a more traditional career path. Foust is one of the most eloquent and casually conversational interviews around between the bits of humor, and that’s because he’s got more than just the car knowledge — he’s book smart from four years at the University of Colorado. But after graduating on the pre-med track, Foust shifted his goal from framing a medical degree to filling up his shelves with racing hardware.
Just how all of this played out is where it gets interesting. So naturally, I called him up and asked.
“Are you sure you want to go down that path?” he laughed back.
Foust took a liking to racing — particularly rally racing — as a kid, learning to drive on country roads while living in Scotland as an American military brat for part of his childhood. But he chose to take the conventional path of attending school and getting a more realistic job, because a gig in the world of racing “just never seemed like a real possibility” for his inner car enthusiast.
“You see people who are making a living racing cars, but that doesn’t seem like a realistic job to go after,” Foust told Jalopnik recently. “It’s just not easy to see the steps between, you know, having a paper route to racing cars for a living.”
The steps he was able to see lied in higher education, so Foust entered the aeronautic-engineering program. In that field, he “could visualize what the job would look like” — it’s almost punny, since he wanted to be the person visualizing airflow off of grooves in a wind tunnel.
But if you’re catching onto the pattern here, college didn’t work out the way he thought it would.
“I skied too often, and I wasn’t a very good student my first year of mechanics school,” Foust said. “So, I got weeded out of that process and ended up in the family business of medicine, doing a pre-med degree in biology.”
The biology major began diverting from his medical-career plan during his last couple of years at the University of Colorado. So rather than spending his extracurricular time in the biology labs, Foust worked with an inventor of (wait for it, wait for it, wait for it...) amusement-park rides.
Neither practicing in medical field nor dreaming up amusement parks would be his ultimate destination, but working with inventor Bill Kitchen gave Foust a new outlook — “making money for what you think is fun,” Foust learned, is contagious.
“I’d been working with [Kitchen] enough that I knew I didn’t want to go be a lab rat and under florescent-tube lights, or go commit nine years to med school and that whole process,” Foust said. “Like, it was the same time commitment to be a fighter pilot as it was to be a doctor — being a fighter pilot was way cooler.”
While he didn’t go through a fighter-pilot period during his career search, Foust did realize that he wasn’t looking for a nine-to-five job. He wanted something out of the ordinary.
By his junior year in college, Foust’s life had already come full circle — the kid who learned to race on the Scottish country roads finally decided to pursue motorsports as a career after graduation.
“As soon as I graduated school, I took a summer off and I volunteered on a [local Sports Car Club of America] race team,” Foust said. “I volunteered with a mechanic in turn for seat time in the cars, and that’s when I really got to do some coaching and actually get some racing under my belt.”
Because he was only volunteering in exchange for the seat time after college and needed some alternative way to make money, “there were three years of basically just a little bit of bullshitting” at the racetrack to compensate.
“I would be in my first or second race, but maybe I qualified faster than, you know, one of the gentlemen racers there,” Foust said. “So, I would tell him that I had a coaching service and I could see where he was losing some time on the track.”
For $120 per day, Foust would coach a group of three or four guys out on the track to help cover the costs of the volunteer lifestyle. And each “student” got faster, with just one main tip.
“I think with most people at the level, it was the same tip: brake later, accelerate earlier,” Foust said, laughing. “The same tip almost for everybody.”
Foust took his coaching to the “nth degree” (all of those years in school at least gave him a way to describe his racing success), teaching left-foot braking, sliding around corners and all the rest to everyone from military programs to casual students while also participating in SCCA racing himself.
“The big step for me was going to Steamboat [Springs], Colorado and teaching at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School,” Foust said. “That’s where I really fell in love with car control and sliding, and got the most sideways seat time.”
“The road racing just wasn’t working out,” Foust said. “It’s so expensive — and everybody had dads who were pretty rich, and it was annoying.
“So, one of my coworkers suggested that I take the road less traveled, which was rally racing — maybe it wouldn’t be as hard to be successful in that sport because there were less people to fight against.”
Foust fought into the higher ranks in 2003, when he began his professional driving career and moved to California to pursue it. It wasn’t rally where he first got his shining moment as a driver, though — it was in drifting. There, he began to understand the business of motorsports.
“The breakthrough in my career was in drifting and in matching a lifestyle sport with a motorsport,” Foust said, “and really getting in contact with understanding how marketing departments influence their brand by associating with a lifestyle sport like drifting.”
Foust discovered with drifting that the best method of survival in racing is to get on top of a sport while it’s still small, then help grow it. As the pyramid grows, he said, others tend to “pay to grow the sport that you’re already on the top of.”
From drifting to rallycross (both abroad with FIA World Rallycross and domestically with Red Bull Global Rallycross, in which he currently competes for the Andretti Autosport group), helping to grow something new has been Foust’s M.O.
“I think when you get into new stuff that’s just ground breaking, it’s fast moving,” Foust said. “So, you really have an opportunity to put your stamp on something, and then that opens the doors for things that you would’ve never had the chance in that time frame of getting involved in otherwise.”
Foust got involved with current GRC team, Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, during its debut season in the series in 2014, and has logged two race wins with the team since. (And while other recently drivers have openly accused VW of possibly cheating with traction control following a video posted on Toby Moody’s Instagram account, Foust denies this, attributing the tire movements to “gear lash and twisting that goes on in the driveshaft.”)
While Foust admitted that it “seems a little sacrilegious to some” to remove the glamour from motorsports and view it as a business, that’s fundamentally what makes sense. The business approach allowed him to see the progression to actually racing cars — something that stumped him for years.
“I’ve really enjoyed the business part of it,” Foust said. “Approaching it as a business has really made it possible for me to enjoy the dream part of it, which is having people hand you really stupid-expensive cars and telling you that you can do whatever you want with them.”
Yeah, that’s definitely the dream. And he recognizes it.
“This is so far beyond anything I dreamed of,” Foust said. “Again, I never could visualize racing cars as a job.
“It looked like fun, but that’s the thing — it always looks fun, but there’s a business behind it. It wasn’t really until I could see the steps to take on a business level in order to make the fun a reality that it really kind of happened.”
Photo credit: Louis Yio, Larry Chen, photo via Volkswagen Motorsport, Tom Pennington/Getty Images, Scott Olsen/Getty Images
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