My phone starts to ring as I step through the door and I quickly set down my bags to see who’s calling. Tanner Foust’s name pops up on the screen and considering that I just walked into his house, I figure it makes sense to pick up.
“I’m going to be a little later getting back than I expected,” says Foust. There’s a clear excitement in his voice and some noise in the background. “This test is taking longer than I expected. I’m really sorry to hold you up like this, but just make yourself at home and I’ll swing by in a few hours.”
It’s impossible to be upset by the change of schedule. Foust is in the middle of taking the practical portion of his pilot’s license exam. It’s something he’s been studying since the beginning of the year, and he’s taken every precious free moment at home to complete the lessons, homework, and flying time necessary to become qualified as a private pilot. I’ve quizzed Foust on aviation facts during downtime in pre-season testing for Red Bull Global Rallycross and he even managed to get his Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross teammate Scott Speed in on the act to help study for these tests.
Flying is the latest in a series of Foust’s activities that many outsiders might consider daredevil, but for the 43-year-old racer, stunt driver, and television personality, it’s just another skill to explore and master.
“Before I got into racing, becoming a pilot was one of the things that I was interested in doing, but things just got busy for 20 years,” says Foust. “It wasn’t necessarily about visualizing how I would use the pilot’s license, but I love learning the process of flying. I loved being bad at it, I’ve loved being in a position to get better and then to get comfortable. I still have so much to master, and I really enjoy being on that side of the learning curve.”
Foust’s dedication to the study of flying mirrors his serious approach to racing. A relative latecomer to the sport, Foust took a nontraditional path to the top levels of competition. After college, Foust turned away from the possibilities of a medical career and instead moved to Steamboat, Colorado, where he learned the subtleties of car control while teaching at an ice driving school. That experience eventually led to an opportunity to participate in drifting when it first moved to the U.S. Two drifting championships later, the motorsport bug had well and truly taken its hold, and Foust turned his attention to making a name in the quickly growing discipline of Rallycross.
The late start in racing has given Foust an even greater set of challenges to overcome while maintaining a career behind the wheel.
“Tanner recognizes that he doesn’t have the lifelong racing experience of some of his competitors who started as kids,” says Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross Lead Engineer Graham Quinn. “He works extremely hard, studying data and video to improve his times. He may not be fastest straight away, but he’s constantly learning each weekend, and he ends up just as fast—if not faster—than everyone else by the end of a race meeting.”
That careful study has paid dividends throughout this season of racing. Foust is already a two-time series champion, but after finishing a disappointing ninth in the standings in 2014, and third last year, the driver of the No. 34 Rockstar Energy Drink Beetle GRC rebounded in 2016, winning four races, and a record-setting number of Heat and Semifinal rounds, culminating in a close, second-place finish in the championship standings, just six points behind his teammate, Scott Speed.
A few hours pass after my arrival to Foust’s house before he returns, triumphant from his pilot’s test. Apologizing for being late again, Foust begins a tour of the abode he helped design with former rally co-driver, Chrissie Beavis.
“One day, she jokingly said, ‘Buy a house, tear it down and I’ll design you another one. It will be great!’ And that’s exactly what we did,” recalls Foust. The driver was heavily involved in the planning process, dreaming up features that eventually found their way into the completed home. The two-story garage features a lift, holding a yellow Porsche 912E that Foust bought from his father. When lifted, the car is visible through a window in the upstairs hallway and through the mirror of the master bathroom. “It’s more valuable to me than it is to anyone else,” Foust reveals. “It’s actually really slow, but it smells like my childhood and reminds me of being a kid. It’s the car that got me into cars.”
Automotive inspiration finds its way into other features of the house, such as the building’s unique cooling solution. “The nice thing about being on the water is that the wind is generally in a consistent direction,” explains Foust. “We used these collapsing doors to open a giant hole in the water-facing side of the house, creating an intake for fresh air. All the other windows and doors can be used for exhaust of our makeshift wind tunnel. There’s no air conditioning, but we can get cool, fresh air to any corner of the house using this arrangement.”
It’s clear that Foust’s attention to detail and technical inclination extended beyond the racetrack and cockpit to this exercise in domestic design. “When you have an engineering mentality toward certain things, it’s kind of nice,” Foust says. “For me, when I’m home, I’m not working, so I spend a lot of time in the house. When designing, you come up with some sort of idea and go through the process of seeing how possible it is. If you end up implementing it, you actually get to live with it and it becomes a part of your lifestyle. It’s awesome. There are parts of the house that were just kind of a thought on a whim that I use every day I’m here.”
Foust’s days at home are few and far between. The driver and television personality estimates he spends between 20 and 30 percent of the year at home—a figure that’s actually increased over recent years. The rest of his time is split almost evenly between his racing commitments and filming duties, stunts, and appearances.
Time off the road has become more valuable as Foust has grown older, establishing roots in his adopted California home. “Before I had this house, if I was home for more than two days, I was pulling my hair out and I couldn’t wait to get back on the road,” he says. “Now, I do look forward to stringing maybe three or four days together when I can, and seeing friends and family I miss while traveling.”
While he tends to avoid speaking publicly about his family, Foust’s time at home is devoted to spending as much time with loved ones as possible. With his hours-long pilot’s test in the books, it’s already been an eventful day during a short stint home, but Foust is happy to see his 11-year-old daughter arrive to join us for a boat ride to dinner. After a short and peaceful trip through the channel that abuts Foust’s house, we arrive at a waterside Italian restaurant to eat. The restaurant employee who assists in tying up the boat recognizes Foust and compliments him on the latest episode of Top Gear while lassoing our craft against the dock. Foust sticks around for a minute or two after the boat is stowed away to talk and answer questions before we head up to the restaurant. Arriving at the front door, Foust is recognized again. The restaurant host thought the name on our reservation looked familiar and was astounded to meet Foust in person.
Another short conversation ensues; Foust and the fan talk about cars and old episodes of Top Gear before we take our seats. Clearly the interactions don’t bother Foust, even though he’s just trying to have a quiet dinner with family he doesn’t get to see as often as he’d like.
“I’m completely flattered when people approach me and say they recognize me from racing or from Top Gear,” Foust says. “It’s great to talk to them because I love to talk cars and that’s what a lot of these fans love, too.”
Foust also takes a measure of pride from these encounters with his fans. “There’s a lot of conversation about, ‘Watching your show is the only family thing we do together,’” he explains. “I think you can be proud to work on something that brings families together or puts people who wouldn’t necessarily watch the same thing in the same room at the same time, having a good time.”
The next day, after a taking a phone interview from his water-side patio, Foust asks me an unexpected question.
“How much do you weigh?”
He punches some figures into his tablet, and soon Foust has calculated the fuel load he’ll need for his inaugural flight as a licensed pilot. Before I know it, we’re off to the airport where we meet his manager—and the other guinea pig for Foust’s newly-earned credentials—Fred Chang.
“Where are we heading?” asks Chang as we ready the small airplane for takeoff.
“We’re off to have a $250 hamburger,” replies Foust with a smile.
The phrase “$250 hamburger” is apparently pilot lingo for flying somewhere just to have lunch. (For the record, our burger flight cost far less, since Foust’s rental plane runs on pump gas). Lunch at a tiny, municipal airport was enough of an excuse to get behind the joystick for someone who’s eager to show off his newly acquired flying skills.
Foust handles pre-flight prep and communication between air traffic control with the confidence of a veteran pilot. There’s a lot going on all at once. Dials and knobs must be set, maps must be consulted, and calculations made—all while keeping an eye out for other aircraft in the crowded, Southern California skies. Foust is excited to explain everything to us through our headsets. The whole endeavor, with the pilot needing to process so much information at once, is reminiscent of a Red Bull Global Rallycross race, minus the frenetic motion of a race car. Foust stays cool under pressure—that racing experience certainly lending a helping hand—and after a smooth, post-lunch landing, he and I rush off to a different airplane for a flight north to Mammoth Mountain, Calif.
Our trip to Mammoth coincides with the Volkswagen USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships, a four day event of cycling races all over the gorgeous terrain of Mammoth Mountain. Foust and the Volkswagen of America video crew are in town a few days early to shoot a video featuring the all new Volkswagen Alltrack alongside the Rockstar Husqvarna Off-Road Team and local mountain biker Riley Mueller.
Driving for commercials and film stunts served as Foust’s introduction to the media world before stepping in front of the camera as a television host. It’s a task he still enjoys, particularly when his only responsibility is behind the wheel—as is the case in the video we’re shooting at Mammoth.
“You don’t have a lot of pressure on you when you’re only relied on for the driving part,” he explains. “It’s nice to be on camera and just be able to have fun. Stunt driving is great when you get to break down the stunts; then you just have to get in the car and execute.”
For Foust, stunt driving is as much of a team activity as racing. “It is a great process to see behind the scenes like that, being with a team and not having to carry things on your own. Then to see the final product on screen after directors, editors, and the rest have had their hands on it is very cool.”
The smile on Foust’s face as he slides the Volkswagen Alltrack around the dirt roads of Mammoth Mountain, makes clear that this is a man who loves what he does for a living. The improbable path from pre-med student, to ice driving instructor, to drifting and rally champion, stunt driver, and TV star has surprised even Foust himself.
“It’s hard to believe that I’ve been so lucky to have a job that’s my favorite thing to do,” he says. “I’ve really relied on a supportive family. My parents and siblings—it’s unbelievable how supportive they’ve been for my ambitions over the last 20 years.”
The 20-year length of Foust’s career is something else that bucks expectation. Despite a youthful air that rivals many of his younger competitors’, there’s no denying that, at 43-years-old, Foust is Red Bull Global Rallycross’s elder statesman. Although not ready to slow down anytime soon, during the last few years Foust has recognized a new phenomenon, unfamiliar during the earlier portion of his career.
“The only time when I actually feel like I’m aging is when I notice that I’m working harder to work less and I’m not eager to be on the road all the time,” he says. “Now that there’s a house, now that I want to spend more time with my family, I find myself really fighting to be home. That’s the ultimate balance.”
There’s no doubt that even when Foust eventually hangs up his helmet, he’ll find new adventures and skills to conquer, taking his passion for lifelong learning with him long after he steps from behind the wheel.