Tanner Foust and the art of versatility

Walking across the infield of the Pikes Peak International Raceway in Fountain, Colo., Tanner Foust speaks about his early days in motorsports. Back then, Foust had no idea he would be able to make a career out of driving, much less be a top contender in rallysport at the X Games.

"I was just trying to follow the fun," Foust said. "I was trading driver instruction and other jobs to get track time and race entries."

It was an unconventional path, especially for Foust, who came from a family of doctors.

"I went to school for pre-med and then went to work for an inventor, a guy who designed and built carnival rides. I saw this guy doing something he loved, and making a living out of it," he said.

Foust remembers his passion for cars at a young age, though at the time, racing didn't have the hold on his imagination as it does now.

"I was one of those kids who could name any car from the headlights, even when I was 6 years old."

Along the way, Foust's goals changed over and over. Starting out with a dream to go track racing, he saw rally racers who drove on real roads in virtually any conditions. Thinking that would be fun, Foust set a new goal to get into the sport, but it wasn't without some business savvy.

"I could see which sports were up and coming," said Foust, who also had a successful career in drifting, where style is as much a goal as speed. "So with rally and drifting and rallycross, I could see new sports that would be cool, and where I could get to the top fairly quickly."

Despite this statement, Foust isn't short on skill. His abilities have earned him jobs as a stunt driver in various Hollywood movies, including "The Dukes of Hazzard," "The Italian Job" and "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift."

Foust is arguably enjoying the best year of his career and leads the European Rallycross Championship, as well as the Global Rallycross Championship here in the U.S. When not behind the wheel, he's in front of the camera -- and occasionally back behind the wheel -- as one of the hosts of "Top Gear USA," now in its second season of production.

His competitors -- all very capable drivers and names you'll see in Rallycross at X Games 17 -- are eager to speak of Foust's abilities, even if they would rather stand atop the podium themselves.

"Tanner is a very solid driver, he's been tough to beat this year," said Rhys Millen, who competes in a Hyundai Veloster while also developing the car in its first year of competition. Millen faced off against Foust in drifting and rally, where both have enjoyed success. "He's a very crafty driver. He analyzes and watches everything. Tanner's biggest competition will be from his own team, and that's something we've seen before, when he was caught out by Kenny Brack at X Games [15]."

That challenge is no different this year. Foust will be facing off against two-time World Rally Champion Marcus Gronholm and Brian "The General" Deegan, who, although new to the sport, already holds two X Games medals and earned a third-place spot at his first Global Rallycross Championship event.

src="http://a.espncdn.com/i/story/design07/dropQuote.gif" />

X has become the most important week of my year. … For that week, I don't exist for any other purpose.

src="http://a.espncdn.com/i/story/design07/dropQuoteEnd.gif" />

-- Tanner Foust

At the same event, Foust edged Gronholm in what can only be described as a massive upset.

"I thought he smoked me," said Foust, right after beating Gronholm. "Not too many people can say they've beaten Gronholm. He's easily one of the top five drivers in the world. He doesn't make mistakes."

That much is true. Gronholm is known for a calm and precise style of driving that defines the term "textbook." However, during that event, Gronholm had his start, a critical part of rallycross, and finished in a frustrating and unusual second place.

"It was dusty, so I couldn't see," said Gronholm, who couldn't pass Foust. "It is very tough when you're behind a good driver [like Tanner]."

Statements like this are large praise from the very soft-spoken Finn. Gronholm's abilities are so strong that observers could have been forgiven for thinking that his attendance was a bit like bringing a bazooka to a knife fight, and yet success was not a foregone conclusion for Gronholm. Before the season started, Gronholm picked Foust as the strongest competition in the series.

Foust's speed comes from his diversity as a driver, though he's reluctant to admit it, saying any rally driver has the skill set needed to win in rallycross.

"The moto guys are learning the sport really fast as well," he said.

The fact is that Foust has tried so many forms of racing -- and has been successful -- that he's uniquely prepared to deal with the challenges of rallycross. Road racing has taught Foust how to deal with the side-by-side nature of rallycross, while rally racing has given him the ability to drive fast on dirt or asphalt, wet or dry. Drifting has given Foust the confidence to push when the time in competition is limited to a very short run, where there's no "long game" to be played.

"Rallycross is a bizarre sport that ties in so many disciplines. There's no doubt I'm well prepared," said Foust, who enjoys the backing of Ford, one of the most successful teams, as much for their drivers as for their well-developed cars.

Subaru and Hyundai both have strong drivers in their cars, but developing a car for rallycross from the ground up takes time. Ford's development of the Fiesta over the past few years has made it the machine to beat.

Looking ahead to the X Games, Foust reflects on just how far he's come since getting into cars for competition.

"X Games is the center of the year for so many athletes," Foust said. "I had never expected it, but really, X has become the most important week of my year, regardless of anything else. It's a huge amount of fun, and for that week, I don't exist for any other purpose."

Obligations to sponsors make it a busy week, and Foust just wrapped up shooting of the second season of "Top Gear." Despite a calendar that leaves little down time, Foust is excited for what will come next. After countless cars and different forms of motorsports, Foust is still "following the fun."