Racer, stunt driver and "Top Gear" host Tanner Foust has spent his adult life behind the wheel, in front of a camera or both. Between his Global Rallycross racing and the launch of the third season of Top Gear this Tuesday, Foust spent some time talking to us about America's supposedly declining interest in driving and what he's doing to fix it. — Ed.
When I grew up, your 16th birthday was a sacred day, the day you got your license. The most important class in high school was driver’s education, and getting that out of the way was the most important thing you could do before you turned 16. But getting one’s driver’s license is not the most important thing for a 16-year-old anymore.
And that's a phenomenon that scares me.
I read somewhere that when 16-year-olds were polled, getting a license wasn't their most important priority. I don’t’ remember what else was on the list, but it was probably getting a smart phone and upgrading some sort of electronics. Kids don’t need to drive to hang out with each other anymore. You don’t need to drive to someone’s house. You meet online. So the social aspect of being 16 is now virtual. It’s scary stuff.
But I’m on a mission to keep driving fun.
I think when people are good at something, and they take pride in their skill, it’s more fun. Like if you’re a good skier, you enjoy skiing more. I think if kids who are preparing to get their driver’s license can develop skill as they do, and take pride in their skill and in the craft of driving, it can be so much more fun.
It can start early. There are lessons one can learn at a go-kart track as a five-year-old, an eight-year-old, or a 10-year-old, that can be valuable to know as an adult. Where to look in a curve, for example. I was out at a track with a six-year-old girl not long ago, and she came around a corner where another little kid was stopped on the outside of the corner and she crashed into him. I told her, next time when you come around a turn (and this is the same thing I have told adults thousands of time, by the way) don’t look at the obstacle you're trying to avoid, look at hole where the kart ends up. The next time she came around, she turned her head, and the car made it around the corner.
The difference between a six-year-old and the adult is that she never forgot that the rest of the day. She never had to be told that a second time, whereas an adult has to be told time and time again, beating out old instincts. So when it comes to developing driving skills, the younger the better. Besides, the little bit of pride gained by simply being able to navigate that one corner could stick with that six-year-old for the rest of her life.
It's a big part of why I do Global Rallycross. These are affordable cars — or based on affordable cars, anyway — that are small and fun and look like video games, and thus relate to the guys who get those driving chops out of their system on the screen instead of real life. Rallycross is good for a younger crew because everything happens quickly. There are crashes, jumps, and sliding, all within seconds of each other, every single lap. The drivers hail from various parts of the world; there are skaters, there are BMX world superstars, all aiming to entertain a younger demographic.
In the social media world, I have about 400,000 fans all together. I know that if they’ve clicked on my page, that they love driving. I know that they’re car people. I know that those 400,000 people pay attention when their friends drive. They pay attention when their parents drive, they pay attention when they drive. They know the skill of using a clutch and the skill of driving in traffic. They’re interested.
And of course, Top Gear is another way I try to show off the fun side of driving. At every turn, we act like 12-year-olds. We drive in malls and do things you’ve always wanted to do in cars — skipping cars across water, for example — and not take it too seriously.
I also think enthusiasm for driving can run deep without having to get on the track yourself. You see it everywhere, actually. I’ve heard people in grocery stores making racecar sounds when pushing grocery carts. I apex corners with my grocery carts. I think people can have a driving mentality, and that people who get hooked on driving, live by it and think about it all the time. It’s all just enjoying the act.
In this country, there are thousands of miles of asphalt laid out so you can just drive anywhere you want. But any time you see the future in movies, none of that is fun. You get in a pod, you go from A to B, and you get there. Here we are in a country that is driven in large part by the automotive industry, and the idea of that going away just because we don’t need to drive in order to hang out with our friends in the next generation scares the crap out of me.
We live in a time when we can literally walk out the door, get into a car and go drive into the mountains in Washington State. Or drive up to the top of Pikes Peak. And there are gas stations everywhere, so what’s stopping you? It really is an awesome freedom. And having made a life around that — and it started for me when I was three years old — I think a lot of people out there have a space ready to be filed with the enthusiasm of driving.