[cars name="Subaru"] Rally Team USA principal Lance Smith stares into the woods, arms crossed, his eyes fixed and narrow beneath a dark pair of sunglasses. He leans over and begins to speak, but he gets only as far as, “The thing about Ken Block . . .” before being cut off by the sound of spraying gravel. A Evolution launches out of a crop of trees at 70 mph aimed straight for his chest, only to pitch sideways under braking at the last minute and catapult down the road. Smith, unfazed, picks up where he left off: “. . . is that, out of all the guys here, while he may not be paid the most, he definitely puts the most into it.”
Things grow quiet for a moment, and then the storm begins anew. The popping, musical whistle of a turbocharger’s antilag system and the staccato, angry-farm-tractor bark of a water-cooled flat four fills the air. A black and white WRX STI slingshots between two stands of trees, more sideways and carrying more speed than the Evolution before it, and like the earlier race car, it appears to be headed for Smith’s breastbone. Smith grins a little but doesn’t flinch. A towering wave of gravel spews from the STI’s outside rear tire as it slews into the corner, blanketing the hundred or so gathered spectators with a soupy, blinding fog of dust. As the Subaru flies by, close enough to touch, I can just make out the lettering on its rear door: B-L-O-C-K.
As the dust settles, a couple of preteen boys in the crowd start to chatter. I’m able to catch bits and pieces of their conversation: “. . . he’s a good rally driver . . . I like his shoes, and he’s cool . . . oh, and did you see that snowboard thing he did on the mountain? That kicked ass.”
Ken Block chuckles and adjusts the oversize brim on his sponsor-clad baseball cap. “What we did in New Zealand, with the snowboarders? I was just having fun. The thing is, growing up skateboarding and racing dirt bikes, competition was only a very small percentage of the time that I spent riding or skating. With rallying, it’s the exact opposite – 95 percent of my time in the car, I’m here racing. That’s why I like to go out and play with the car if I can. I just really enjoy it.”
The enjoyment part is obvious. The “snowboard thing” is just one of a handful of stunts that the perpetually grinning, laid-back Block has become famous for. All of his stunts involve his Open-class Rally America Subaru, and most read like a chapter out of How to Win Friends and Blow People’s Minds With Your Rally Car: A 171-foot desert jump for the Discovery Channel’s Stunt Junkies. A 70-foot leap between two dirt ramps, with Subaru teammate and former motocrosser Travis Pastrana simultaneously backflipping a motorcycle above Block, all over a house-sized fire pit. And the snowboard gig, where the idea’s simplicity belies its giddily artful execution – one New Zealand ski park, a professional snowboard team, and a carefully orchestrated dance of jumping, sliding rally car and begoggled, backflipping boarders. All were filmed, edited with a bit of style, and set to music; all became runaway hits on YouTube and had the media beating a path to Block’s door.
At the moment, the forty-one-year-old Block is standing in a New Hampshire parking lot, patiently waiting for his Subaru to be fixed. The New England Forest Rally, the sixth event on Rally America’s 2008 schedule, is half over, and blue-suited mechanics are swarming around Block’s STI, hastily replacing a pair of bent suspension control arms and a broken wheel. Block and Pastrana each hit a massive rock halfway through the previous, twelve-mile stage, each lost a suspension corner, and each came sliding into the repair area on three wheels and a prayer. Both drivers are in contention for Rally America’s annual driver’s championship, and although Pastrana will clinch the ’08 title two months from now in Colorado, New England has been a close fight so far.
Block leans against the Subaru team’s motorhome and bends over to tie his shoe. Like Pastrana, he’s wearing a pair of loud, blue-and-yellow high-top racing boots with the letters “DC” plastered down the side. The same logo adorns the front fenders of his Subaru. Unlike most successful, national-level racing drivers, Block had another, very different, career before climbing behind the wheel – in 1993, the Southern California native cofounded DC Shoes, one of the largest and most successful footwear and apparel companies in the nation.
He and friend Damon Way (brother of skating legend Danny Way) initially began designing and producing skateboard shoes because the ones that their friends were using wore out too quickly. Spurred on by the emerging extreme-sports industry, Block and Way cannily built DC Shoes into a powerhouse. They helped pioneer big-time sponsorship deals for skateboarders and other extreme-sports athletes; they produced durable, cool-looking shoes; and they never left the little guy behind. The hugely successful business (Advertising Age named Block one of the top marketing experts in the country in 2004) that resulted was sold to apparel conglomerate Quiksilver five years ago for $87 million. Block stayed on to oversee the DC brand and take care of his countless sponsored skateboarders, snowboarders, and BMX and motocross riders.
Happily, it was DC that gave longtime rally freak Block the route to the rally stage, with a little help from X Games star and DC athlete Travis Pastrana. Pastrana – a talented, lovable twenty-five-year-old nutjob and extreme-sports phenomenon whose career highlights include landing the first competition double backflip in freestyle motocross – had turned an exploratory rally stint in the 2003 Race of Champions into a full-season seat on Lance Smith’s Subaru-backed Vermont SportsCar rally team. He first inked a sponsor deal with DC in 2004.
“Before I signed with DC, I was friends with Ken, and I liked the company a lot,” says Pastrana. He’s kneeling in front of his Subaru, icing down a knee injury (“My doctor says I can start putting weight on it next week”) and getting ready to climb behind the wheel for the next stage. “I ended up needing a new shoe sponsor, and Ken said, ‘OK, well, we can make you a deal. If you help me get into rallying, we’ll sponsor you.’ ” A week later, Block was introduced to Lance Smith.
Unlike Pastrana, who was so quick out of the box that Smith had to slow him down in order to help him learn, Block wasn’t blindingly fast from the start. But he was good, and more important, he was determined as hell. “We call guys like him gentlemen drivers, right?” says Smith. “Show up, write a check – well, we’ve done this before, and usually, those guys are only so impressive. Ken showed up, wrote a check, and was fast. We were, like, ‘Oh. This is a new twist.’ “
If that weren’t enough, Block was also a down-to-earth ordinary guy, a humble dude from L.A. who just loved the sport – the complete and total opposite of the typical self-centered, rich-jerk racer. Intrigued, Smith put him through the same training program that Pastrana had gone through, including a stint at Tim O’Neil’s rally school in New Hampshire and personal training from both Pastrana and former American rally star John Buffum. Block’s dedication proved to be more than a little surprising: “Every chance Ken gets, he’s at a test with us,” says Smith. “Even if it’s just an hour-and-a-half drive, he flies across the country to do it. He wants to be involved. He’s got a trainer, he eats properly for the rally – this isn’t stuff we asked him to do, and honestly, I don’t think the other drivers are doing it.” Block even went so far as to build a special rally practice course, dubbed the Gravel Lab, near his vacation home in Utah to allow himself extra seat time. (Sadly, due to complaints from Block’s neighbors, the track no longer exists.)
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?