The effort, along with Block's surprising talent, quickly paid off. His first time out of the gate, at the 126-mile-long Sno*Drift rally in Michigan in 2005, he finished seventh overall out of nearly fifty entries, despite running a detuned, novice-spec Subaru. The rally community was shocked, and Block earned Rally America Rookie of the Year honors. Subaru offered Block a factory-sponsored ride for the 2006 season, and he went on to record his first overall win (in just the second race of the season) and produce a string of impressive results: medals at every X Games rally event since, plus second- (2006 and 2008) and third-place (2007) overall finishes in the Rally America championship. More than a few heads were turned, and American rallying suddenly had a new hero.
The remarkable thing, however, is that Block isn't just a case of rally-geek-turns-rich-guy-done-good. He's also a case of rally-geek-turns-even-bigger-rally-geek. Block has become something of an all-conquering, aw-shucks, multimedia ambassador for the sport, and the YouTube videos and his burgeoning name recognition are just the beginning. "Awareness of rallying is certainly at the highest point that it's ever been," says J. B. Niday, Rally America's managing director. "Being part of the X Games is in large part thanks to Ken and Travis." Pastrana seems to agree: "Ken is a very determined, very focused guy. He takes everything with rallying very seriously, which is funny, because he's got this fun, easygoing personality everywhere else. But he bends over backward to help everyone on the team and, really, the entire sport of rally. It's legitimized it."
The X Games connection (and the national television exposure that comes with it) has done rallying a world of good, but the effects are most obvious on the road. Communities that once shunned the sport now welcome it with open arms; middle-aged women and their teenage sons line up for driver autographs; and traveling, ex-World Rally Championship engineers now drift through the Subaru paddock helping Smith's program run better. Other X Games stars, including Vermont SportsCar driver and multitime BMX champ Dave Mirra, have started to filter into the sport, drawn by the seemingly endless adrenaline mainline that a 100-mph blast through the woods offers. On top of that, the name Ken Block now carries enough star power to occasionally surprise its modest owner:
"It's weird. Everything I've done in my life, I've always been behind the scenes. I'm here because I truly love rallying, and it's great to have people appreciate that, but sometimes it's just odd. Yesterday, while signing autographs, I had a cut on my finger and didn't realize it. I accidentally bled onto someone's hat, and I felt so bad, but they freaked out and loved it! They were all, 'Oh my God! We have Ken Block's blood!' "
The blue-suited mechanics drop Block's STI off of its jack stands, and suddenly it's time for him to go. He laughs, shakes my hand, and threads his way into the Subaru's dense roll cage. Watching him drive out of the paddock, I can't help but wonder: What's wrong with a little fan freak-out? What's not to love?