Test Drive with Top Gear’s Tanner Foust

A driving lesson on the Top Gear test track is a lot more than just exciting. It’s humbling.

CraveOnlineby CraveOnline

Tanner Foust - top gear

I’ve driven everything from super cars to motorcycles to big trucks and rally cars. I’ve driven race tracks, test tracks and obstacle courses. I’ve taken the wheel across North America, in multiple foreign countries and through the insane daily rigors of Los Angeles traffic. Even though I will always be an amateur, I at least believed I could be a competitive driver at speed. I thought I was a good driver.

John Scott Lewinski - Top Gear

I’m not. Tanner Foust is. After sitting in his passenger seat during a few power laps on Top Gear track in Irvine, Calif., I know the difference.

As the U.S. version of the international hit car show Top Gear kicks off its second season on The History Channel, Crave Online was invited to visit the show’s set for its final day of filming. When in production, the series takes up a full airplane hanger on the grounds of what was once the El Toro Marine base. U.S. hosts Foust, Rutledge Wood and Adam Ferrara use the set as a home base while traveling the world for the show’s endless variety of automotive-themed journeys and stunts.

Top Gear US - Set

“I really had fun this season because we relaxed a little more,” Wood said. “This year, we went bigger and better with our ‘second album’.”

Top Gear tried to immigrate to the U.S. once before, but it never made it out of the pilot phase. Now that History Channel’s version survived its first season off of the assembly line, producers allowed the hosts to explore their own personal history with cars.

“This season, we looked back at our first cars,” Ferrara said. “We also got to recreate out favorite TV and movie cars on a budget. And we had to drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas without using roads. The whole time, I think fans get a good look at how we get along.”

Foust joined the interview a few minutes late from a voiceover session, inviting me for a run on the famous test track – where the show’s mysterious tamed racing driver (The Stig) takes out some of the world’s hottest cars for power lap time trials. The track spreads across the old base’s network of disused runways.

While a visiting reporter isn’t allowed to do a lap from behind the wheel for obvious liability reasons, a run with Foust is a more than adequate consolation prize. Not only is Foust a three-time X Games gold medalist (2007, 2010) and two-time Formula Drift champion (2007, 2008), he holds the indoor speed record and the jump distant record for a four-wheeled vehicle – set at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He’s raced open wheel and rally, while providing stunt driving for The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Dukes of Hazzard, Red Dawn and Iron Man 2.

But, knowing all of that doesn’t immediately convince your cerebral cortex that you’re not going to die riding along as a passenger on one of Foust’s laps. After leading me to a gleaming, blue 2011 Corvette ZR1, Foust casually hopped in and fired up its 638 horsepower engine.

The first trip around the course served to show me the turns and to warm up the tires. As we approached the start line on the second lap, Foust stood on it and showed me that the car’s insane 0-60 time of 3.3 seconds was not mere myth. As we did north of 140 down the track’s straightaways and into the hairpins, every instinct I had told me I was in danger. Humans aren’t supposed to drive this fast – not with a turn rapidly approaching.

Fortunately, Foust is only partially human. He doesn’t see the world the way 99.9% of drivers do. His depth perception and high coordination is vastly superior. The fear center of his brain takes a backseat to the physics computer between his ears that constantly calculates speed, distant and performance capability.

And, if they could put wheels on The Lincoln Memorial, Foust could power slide it. The big, bestial ZR1 should not be able to drift. It’s too long and too heavy. But, I consistently spent more time facing the inside of a turn than speeding around it.

On the second lap, sense eclipsed the adrenaline rush and reminded me that Foust is one of the best all-around drivers in the world – and I was in the midst of a rare privilege. Anytime I have a chance to see a man or a woman who possesses a truly elite skill execute said art in front of me, I just soak it up.

Of course, this is literally a day at the office for Foust. Throughout the laps, he was casually chatting, talking up the car’s specs and the driving techniques he was employing from turn to turn.

By the third lap, I felt as locked into the car as Foust was when he first buckled into the leather seats. Just as the full flow of exhilaration really set in, it was over. That moment was the low point of the day because I immediately realized I wouldn’t be doing another lap like that tomorrow. Or the next day. Or perhaps ever.

I was left with some amazing Top Gear memories and an impossible level of driving skill to shoot the next time I get to turn a racing lap.