Nobody who knows anything about the wider world of motorsports would refer to Tanner Foust as “inexperienced.” But for a few days in September at the Speedworld Off Road Park round of the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series, he was exactly that. If the name doesn't ring a bell, you haven't paid much attention to drifting or rally, especially X Games Rally.
The last “rookie” we checked in with was Austin Kimbrell. Kimbrell's not a rookie to short course, but on that same weekend he was competing in Pro Lite for the first time in addition to his usual ride in Unlimited UTV. The two drivers' stories are similar only in that they were both, to some degree, out of their element at Speedworld. Foust was trying short course for the first time, driving the Metal Mulisha/Rockstar No. 69 Super Lite truck.
Foust is no stranger to driving off pavement and jumping – he teamed with Brian Deegan at the 2010 X Games Rally and won the gold. He's been competing – and winning in – Rallycross events in Europe and the U.S (check out this video of Foust winning a rallycross at New Jersey Motorsports Park in his Rockstar/etnies Ford Fiesta). Driving sideways through a corner? He's got that covered, too; the guy's a two-time drifting champion. Beyond that, he's a stunt driver in commercials and movies and a television host for Battle of the Supercars on SPEED Channel and the upcoming Top Gear USA on The History Channel. The man knows what to do with a steering wheel and throttle.
Still, even the most experienced and skilled driver may find a few surprises when trying something new. That may even include a little trepidation when facing the unfamiliar, as much fun as that unknown may be.
“The first time I lined up on the jump, I was cruising around at slow speed learning the track on a quad. I couldn't imagine taking those jumps at speed in a truck,” he says, recounting his conversation about each jump with teammate Brian Deegan as going something like this:
Tanner: “Uhhh…is this one full throttle?”
Brian: “Oh yeah, no problem.”
Tanner: “This one…are you sure?”
Brian: “Yeah, no problem.”
“I just doubted him,” Foust goes on. “Sure enough, you get in these things and it's no sweat. You're just flat-out, flying through the air, 70 or 80 feet and it's amazing how they land. It's kind of like three-dimensional racing.”
Rather surprisingly, Foust says the helmet visor tear-offs and visibility were the one thing that actually tripped him up. Once he figured out that the moment that he's flying through the air and he's got a free hand is the right time to rip them off, he did OK. There were other tricks to learn, though, like what happens when trucks collide in mid-air.
“For that moment, when you have no grip, there's nothing you can do. Once you're rotating in the air, you just have to wait until you hit the ground and then keep going,” he says.
The sports of European Rallycross and short course off-road racing have many similarities – both are conducted on circuits made up of non-paved surfaces (although Rallycross often throws in some asphalt for variety), a variety of turns and jump. But in short course, the surfaces are rougher and the jumps bigger and more plentiful. That requires some pretty big differences in the competition vehicles.
“In the Rallycross stuff I've been doing in the Europe and now in the States, there's a bit more precision to it, because the cars are stiffer,” Foust explains. “So that means they react to every movement of the driver much faster. With a more manicured surface, you can anticipate what's going to happen. Even though they're very quick, you can be precise with them. These trucks, with so much oil in the shocks, you have to turn that steering wheel like a second before you think you should. The oil transfers, it rolls over to the side and then it turns, eventually. And so you're sort of guessing when to turn the wheel every time – or I am, with very little experience. Then you tie in the factor of the ruts forming, almost every lap, and there's an incredible amount of reacting going on. It feels busy behind the wheel. It makes it a kind of non-stop chaos.”
Foust picked it up pretty quickly, especially in finding speed. He qualified third on Saturday and second on Sunday. But he ran into some trouble during the races. He was black-flagged for contact on Saturday (“Three of us came together and I ended up pushing through one guy and while I was doing that, I ended up spinning the guy the guy in front of me.”) and finished 10th. On Sunday, he ran as high as fourth before leaving the race after seven laps with a suspension problem.
He had his moments, including a big bicycle in the fast Turn 1. “On the slow corners, no big deal – steer into it, drop the tires back on the ground and go – but I came into Turn 1 and had it go on two wheels there,” he says. “Your first instinct is to look to the outside to see what you might hit. Bad instinct. I corrected and brought it back down, and felt like I was driving into a white trailer parked way off in the distance. At that speed, a roll would be just epic.” Despite that one moment, and that he probably won't make short course a regular part of his racing repertoire, he enjoyed the experience.
“It feels like all the juvenile parts of motorsport packed together,” he says with a grin. “You have the sliding around, the jumping, the bashing, mud flinging everywhere. It's kind of pure fun. If you think of what you would do with four wheels and have a blast, this is it.”