I first heard of Tanner Foust when he cropped up on an episode of Top Gear and was introduced as one of the hosts on the show’s American counterpart. With the lack of racing pedigree found in the British show’s presenters back then, I assumed he was just another funny TV host. How wrong I was.
Since then, I’ve learned my mistake and uncovered Foust’s impressive runnings in Rallycross and Formula Drift and learned that he worked as a stunt driver for films such as The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and Need For Speed. He’s also taken part in countless X Games events and he holds the world record for longest jump in a four-wheeled vehicle. Nice.
Now, he’s been recruited by famed racing outfit McLaren to partner rally driver Emma Gilmour in the squad’s new Extreme E entry.
“If you walk through the halls of McLaren, they are on a different level,” he says, “Back when I was teaching ice driving and starting to get into drifting, I would never have imagined that this was a possibility in this lifetime.”
Foust and Gilmour have so far taken part in one Extreme E event, the 2022 season opener in Saudi Arabia. The X Prix saw them earn a spot in the final after winning the Crazy Race, and they now sit in fifth place in the standings.
Clearly, it’s an exciting time for the American racer as he adapts to driving in one of the newest forms of international racing.
But Extreme E is an interesting proposition for Foust, who says he has spent the past “20 years not being home.”
That’s because the series, which has a huge focus on sustainability and creating a positive environmental legacy after each race, leaves extended breaks between events. Because Extreme E transports all its cars, equipment and a group of environmental scientists around the world on a refurbished mail ship, Foust and the teams all have weeks, if not months, between races.
This has left Foust with “a lot of off-time between each round” in which to find stuff to do.
“I have taken up flying,” he says.
But Foust admits this isn’t a new passion. Instead, he says that he has had an interest in aviation for years and first took to the skies after finishing his run on Top Gear USA.
“I’ve been flying now since the day that Top Gear ended. After its last day of filming, which was probably like 2015, the next day I started my pilots license. I’ve probably got over 2,000 hours now.”
He says he flies “probably every other day” when back home in California. And while I, and I’m sure a lot of you, expected this famed rally and stunt driver to have taken to the skies in search of even more thrills, it has so far been a much tamer affair.
“It’s mostly for transport and to use, essentially, like a time machine to get you from A to B faster than you otherwise could,” he says.
“It’s a lot of lunches on Catalina island, which is only about a 15 minute flight, and also flying to work and racetracks. Then, I also fly to Denver, there’s family there and there are a lot of work related things that I have to do there.”
That doesn’t mean it’s all been plain sailing — sorry, plain flying. Foust has done some aerobatics training but explains that this was more as a “safety measure to have those tools in my skill bag just in case.”
And, while learning everything about taking to the skies, Foust believes that his close relationships with mechanics and engineers at race meets has stood him in good stead for his transition to aircrafts.
He says: “Race car drivers aren’t known to be the best pilots because they are known to push the limits in some ways. And maybe the personality doesn’t seem to line up with somebody that would always do things exactly the same every time.
“But, I actually think the technical side of racing cars, and talking to engineers to understand how cars work really has been beneficial for being a pilot.”
It’s because of this close tie between the driver and mechanic that Foust says he has enjoyed learning to work on his own plane as much as he can. This, he says, is to ensure that he can “understand every little part about it.”
“So if I hear a noise I kind of know what the problem might be,” he explains. “It is a very technical thing, and I like how calm you have to stay when under pressure as a pilot.”
But what, I’m sure you’re all screaming by now, is the plane that Tanner Foust flies? Is it some exotic airliners, a nimble acrobatic craft or some elegant jet? The short answer? No.
“It’s called a Bonanza, it’s a little four-seater,” he says.
Specifically, it’s the Bonanza F33A that Foust flies. Built between 1970 and 1994, these little single-engined planes can cover up to 595 miles and have a top speed of 200 mph.
It’s a plane that Foust admits is “not technically very advanced,” especially when compared with the Odyssey 21 race car that he competes in Extreme E with.
“When you get into the Odyssey, there are so many computers and everything,” he explains. “You literally can control how much power goes to the front or rear tires based on how much steering angle you have. You can do so many cool set up things with it, and it’s 100 times more advanced than the airplane.
But when Tanner Foust can access the raw performance of McLaren’s Odyssey 21, and no doubt an ample supply of exciting cars to get him from A to B on a daily basis, what is it that keeps him heading back to the skies?
“The freedom is a whole other layer,” he enthuses. “We may be the last generation that is able to enjoy this freedom, frankly. Because you just literally get in a plane and you can go fly somewhere, you don’t really have to tell anybody.”