The six degrees of Kevin Bacon is a phenomenon whereby any actor can be linked to Kevin Bacon somehow due to his extensive resumé. It’s a similar story with McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown.
Aside from McLaren’s Formula 1 team, Brown has interests in sports car racing, IndyCar, and the Australian Supercars series. Having fingers in that many pies means Brown has a wealth of contacts to draw upon, so when it came to choosing a driver for the new Mclaren Extreme E team, he turned to one of his closest allies, one with whom he has collaborated with multiple times before.
“I’ve obviously known of Tanner [Foust] for quite some time — he’s a very well-known, famous racing driver — but Michael Andretti as you know is a very good friend of mine and a partner, and Tanner drove for Michael,” Brown explained to select media including DirtFish.
“So ultimately I knew Tanner was someone that we wanted in our team but I was able to talk to Michael about Tanner and he gave him a glowing report card. So then I reached out to Tanner and we got down to business pretty quick, and here we are.”
Between 2014-19 Foust drove for Andretti’s rallycross team, notching up 17 of his 24 US rallycross victories, and the most recent of his four titles. But it wasn’t just Andretti’s glowing recommendation or the impressive numbers that led to the Foust/McLaren marriage. No. In Foust, Brown saw the complete package.
“First and foremost, in any racing series that we participate in, we want to get the fastest driver and we think Tanner has certainly proven that many times over in various forms of motor racing,” Brown said. “So I think we have a driver that can win.
“Second, [the] garage environment – I think one of the things that makes a racing team successful is having good people around you, people that are fun to work with, people that engineers and mechanics like to work with, and has a technical understanding of the racing and I think Tanner very much ticks all of those boxes.
There are three criteria when selecting drivers and Tanner ticks all those boxes with very high scoresZak Brown
“And then the third is the fan likeability, commercial excitement that a driver creates around partners and fans and clearly Tanner is [an] extremely well-known TV presenter, [has a] huge fanbase and knows his way around working with sponsor partners. So those are our three criteria when selecting drivers, whether it’s for Formula 1 or Extreme E or IndyCar and Tanner ticks all those boxes with very high scores.”
But what about things from Foust’s perspective? Looking at his track record – if you’ll pardon the pun – Extreme E would seem like the natural progression for the rally, rallycross, and off-road racing veteran, even if it might be an unusual step for a team like McLaren.
“It’s a pretty unbelievable opportunity for a driver from any background to join a brand like McLaren, of the winning history and heritage like McLaren,” he said. “So that side of it is a no-brainer.
“Extreme E is something I’ve been watching pretty closely and [I’ve been] watching that develop. As a driver who makes my living in racing it’s an inevitability that if you want to be a part of the future of racing that you’re going to race electric, and I really want to learn more about that and Extreme E has a unique way of going about the messaging by literally going to the locations. I think it’s kinda fascinating.
“So as little as I know from the outside – even though I’ve been pretty studied – I know every day out there in those different locations is going to be an education.
“But I’m also looking at the vehicles, they look really challenging to get the most out of. So I like that kind of a challenge. It’s kinda got all of the pieces of the puzzle there, so I’m pretty stoked about it.”
For much of the last two years Foust’s focus has been on one-off appearances at events like the Mexico 1000 and Pikes Peak, with US rallycross (where he’s the de facto reigning champion after winning the final Americas Rallycross campaign in 2019) in hibernation as it transforms into Nitro Rallycross.
But Extreme E was very nearly a possibility for 2020, and while that didn’t quite come off, Foust is certain of where he wants to be going forwards.
“It was fairly close actually,” Foust said of his prospects of competing in XE this season. “Zak mentioned I raced for Andretti … I had the conversations but just, we weren’t able to really put it together.
You’re either driving in the future or in the past so I really want to be pushing that directionTanner Foust on joining Extreme E
“It’s one of those things where it’s really proven itself and become an amazing machine for promoting electric motorsport and a lot of other great environmental issues around the world but for me it’s the place that I want to be.
“You’re either driving in the future or in the past so I really want to be pushing that direction so I’m glad this did come about – I think it was all kind of the similar players as last year but Zak kind of called out of the blue and like we said everything happened pretty quick after that.”
That driving into the future soundbite is key. Foust has had a relationship with Volkswagen since 2014, and that brand is migrating to an all-electric product line-up while abstaining from racing.
But Foust will be able to race for both McLaren and VW going forward, as he revealed: “Volkswagen is a very EV brand, they’ve really dropped their whole motorsport department and so they were all for me doing Extreme E with McLaren. Speaking with Zak [Brown], he was fully comfortable with that so I’ll keep the relationship with Volkswagen.”
Foust also notes that in America, the interest in electric vehicles is rising, which is something that can only help boost the popularity of Extreme E stateside as it continues to grow, and help boost the reputation of electric racing as a whole.
“In the States, it’s strange. The whole EV world, I feel that we’re quite forward in it,” he said. “Even driving around Germany here, the only American cars that I see on the road here are EVs so I think people are pretty interested.
“We love racing in the States and there’s almost a fear that if it goes electric, racing is going to go away and that’s one of the great things about Extreme E is that it’s showing that you can still be EV and still be pushing competition to the limit. So I think it’s been well received.”
And what about rallycross? With the discipline he’s been at the forefront of for more than a decade undergoing a welcome reboot, is Foust once again going to be one of its crown jewels?
“[I’m] still considering the rallycross here in the US as well. That I think will probably grow more into an international series also.
“I love doing the one-off things, I love going to Baja, I love doing Pike Peak. Extreme E is an amazing, impactful series but it’s really not too many weekends really out of your year so it really does leave the opportunity to still delve into a bunch of other fun stuff.”
Another fun thing that could be on the cards is one of Brown’s now-trademark car swaps. F1 star Daniel Ricciardo has been promised a run in Brown’s 1984 Dale Earnhardt NASCAR car, while IndyCar race winner Pato O’Ward is set for an F1 test after winning the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway earlier this year. But what about Foust?
“I’m sure we’ll come up with something fun to get our competitive challenges going,” Brown said when asked by DirtFish about such an arrangement. “We haven’t tackled what that is yet but hopefully it won’t involve me doing any of the stunts Tanner has done over the years!”
Foust then chimed in with: “I think it’s a good idea! I think a world record jump by Zak Brown would be pretty amazing,” before adding that “in one of our first conversations [you] mentioned swapping cars with some of the guys, I didn’t forget, just so you know.”
Watch this space.
Before deals and bets are worked out though, Foust is going to need a team-mate. Of course, each Extreme E team has to run a male and a female driver, and Brown revealed that the search is “well underway”.
“[We] hope to have that done in the next couple of months and like any racing series we need to make sure we get a driver of Tanner’s caliber as his team-mate and I’m confident we’ll do that with the conversations we have going on.
“It’ll be a female,” he added with a smile. “That’s as much of a hint as I can give you at this point.”