Ken Block has participated in Rally America Championship, One Lap of America, Gumball 3000 Rally, and Time Attack. Put them together with the other sports that Block has done, and you might picture a crazed speed freak out of touch with reality. But who you meet is someone very different.
At a rally, Ken Block seems quiet and unassuming. If it weren’t for his driving suit, you might not pick him out as one of the leading drivers in the points fight for the Rally America National Championship or the man who jumped his Subaru rally car 171 feet for the Stunt Junkies television show. He’s also a successful businessman – the chief brand officer for DC Shoes, the performance skateboarding footwear manufacturing company that he co-founded in 1993.
We talked with Ken Block shortly after he tied Travis Pastrana for the Rally America Championship by winning Rally Colorado in September, leaving the Lake Superior Rally at the end of October to decide the year’s champion.
I’ve always been a fan of motorsports, and the motorsport that attracted me the most was rally. In part, I could identify the easiest with it because I grew up riding dirt bikes. So I liked the idea of sliding and jumping on the dirt. Formula 1 and drag racing and NASCAR® – I’ve always appreciated them, but I haven’t related to them as much because they didn’t look as fun. Driving on the same track over and over and not jumping or sliding just doesn’t have the same appeal to me.
Yes! It’s something I dreamed of doing since I was a little kid, and once I got into it, it honestly was everything that I dreamed about. As I get further into it, developing my competition skills and getting better as a driver, I just love it more and more. I’ve done plenty of other motorsports – from karting to tarmac racing, even to the Gumball Rally – and I can honestly say nothing compares to what I feel when I’m in the middle of a stage, in the middle of a highly competitive rally. There’s just nothing else like it.
I guess it’s really about the flow of the roads, the car control, and the commitment that it takes to go as fast as you can down a dirt road – the feeling of when that commitment works, when you’re going 10 tenths, and sliding 50 feet before a high-speed corner, that you have to calculate everything perfectly – when all of that works, it’s just a feeling like nothing else.
Apparently my favorite venue is the 100 Acre Wood Rally in Missouri, because I’ve won it two years in a row!
Besides that, I did a rally earlier this year in New Zealand called the Rally of Whangarei. That rally has some of the most fun roads I’ve ever driven.
Most of the time when I’m at the rally, some people think I’m just either really quiet or standoffish. Mostly, it’s that I take rally and the racing very seriously. The term for me is “focused.” I block everything out of my head and try to focus everything that I can mentally on the racing and doing the best job that I can. So, any time I’m standing around the service area, around the car, I’m looking for anything I can from an advantage to a possible problem with the car or thinking through strategy – anything like that.
I’ve only been doing this a couple of years now, so I think eventually I’ll get better and better at opening up and separating some of the focus from the racing to be able to open up and talk to people more. Not that I can’t do it. It’s just that I’m trying to focus most of my time and energy on the business at hand.
As a kid, when I was watching rally, I don’t specifically remember drivers. What I remember is the car – and the car was the Audi Group B car in the ’80s. That’s what sticks out the most in my mind, mainly because that’s what grabbed my attention. I think there was some WRC highlight-type things on TV and there was also the Pikes Peak Hill Climb that I think that I saw several times in the mid-’80s. That’s what sticks out in my mind. I was blown away by the car control and how the cars looked and what they did. That was around the time that I was racing amateur motocross, so it really all sort of clicked for me.
And from there, I started paying a little more attention to rally. And then Colin McRae was my actual first hero in rally who really caught my attention in the mid-’90s.
The first day was really fun. The second day wasn’t so great when the rain came. That’s too bad. They had to shorten the event. The first day was really fun, I have to tell you that.
If anything, the way it turned out, even with Tanner [Foust] in 2nd, it made the points really tight. Rally America couldn’t have asked for anything better. If that hadn’t happened – if I would have had a problem, if Andy [Pinker] had a problem – Travis [Pastrana] would have had such a big lead, it wouldn’t have made the final race interesting at all.
It’s actually a strange coincidence that I have really liked that number for a long time. I started using that number when I was racing motocross as a kid. And then as I started working in business, we needed a number for one of my former apparel companies. So we started using the number 43 because we had some athletic-like apparel. I continue using it – the fourth letter of the alphabet happens to be D and the third letter of the alphabet happens to be C. So in a random coincidence, it actually means DC [Block’s shoe company].
No, it doesn’t. When I was a kid, someone told me that number 43 was the most common number in the world. Whether that’s true or not, I have no idea. For some reason I latched onto that number, and later on in my life, it coincided with my business.
Because of my placing in 2005, I had the opportunity to switch over to the number 4 in the Rally America Championship. But I’d been using the number 43 so much personally since I was younger that I decided to stick with it and try to make it a number that fans can associate with me as much as possible through my rally career.
Yes, basically. I work a lot with motocross athletes with my job, and the motocross and super cross championships have done well in branding their athletes with their numbers and letting the guys keep their numbers around, sort of like NASCAR. It’s been nice that Rally America has converted to that sort of system, so that we can build some equity in our numbers – Travis with his 199 and me with my 43. The fans want to know who the drivers are, and the biggest way to do that is the number.
I think sometimes when you talk with a WRC driver, they’ve been entrenched in it for so long that they don’t look objectively sometime at what they’re doing to be able to tell the public how different it is or how dynamic it is. Where Travis and I have only been around a few years, and we’re still discovering the stuff, and we’re getting to these new levels where, “Wow! This is really taking a lot and pushing us a lot more mentally than we expected.” And here’s why and here’s how. Where those guys have been doing it for so long that it’s hard for them to even express it.
It’s actually interesting for us to go and learn, and go talk to people like Petter [Solberg] and [Marcus] Grönholm. It really helps us get a new perspective, and then we can turn around and comment on it. As we’ve gotten better and better, we’ve gotten to a certain level, but now we realize we’ve got to get to the next one.
You know, the two-pass recce [reconnaissance] is becoming more and more important, and when you’re really pushing in an event, it scares the shit out of you. If you’re not scared, you’re not going fast enough. And, then I’ve got to learn when I need to push and when I don’t need to push – and learn to be smart about the racing. That’s all really new for us.
It’s a great experience, and I look forward to learning more.
I think the expectations on Travis have been a little higher than on me – which has kind of helped me, because it gives me a little breathing room to grow and do what I want as I need to, whereas Travis has been pushed a little harder into the PWRC.
I genuinely want to go beyond the U.S. Championship. But I want to do it at my own pace, when I’m ready. I’m not ready for the PWRC next year. Possibly if I’m ready in 2009, then I would go to the PWRC. It’s just a matter of two-pass recce experience.
I think that when you actually get to sit in the co-driver’s seat with one of us and get a ride in the car, that explains a lot of it to someone. Being inside the car is so much different from seeing a video or a photo of us racing.
But that’s only a peek into that world – to actually feel what speed is like on a gravel stage.
But then to sit in the driver’s seat and go full-speed down a competition stage is a whole other ball game. That’s just something I can’t get enough of. And that’s why I’m doing this.
Something like Dakar is really interesting to me. The problem that I have with off-road racing – and Dakar being part of that – is the fact that there’s much more to do with the course and damage that can happen to the car than strictly driver skill. Even when I look at the Baja 1000, it looks very interesting. But there’s so much more that could happen to your vehicle, and there could be booby traps. It’s so long that mechanical failure can come so much more into play than in something like rally.
The reason why I like rally so much compared to some of this is it’s really driver skill. The roads are generally very nice. They’re dirt roads out in the middle of nowhere, in the forests, but … I’m not coming around the corner, and there’s a giant log in the road that can break my suspension. And if there is something like that, we’re double- and triple-cautioned, so we know to slow down and what to do with it.
So it’s so much more about the driver’s skill than the actual survival and/or equipment and booby traps. And what I mean by “booby traps” is something that someone can throw out there to mess you up – like sometimes locals … who don’t like the Baja 1000 will actually put stuff in the road.
The idea of trying to dig my buggy out of deep sand in the middle of the African desert is not appealing. I have complete appreciation for all those events in sports. For me, I only have so much time in my life, and right now I’m focusing on rally and want to become the best driver I can. If I have time to do more events, I’m actually going to go do more rally events.
And as I say that I’m finishing documentation to run part of the Baja 1000. My sponsor, Monster®, wants me to go do that as part of a team of their athletes. I’m not going and doing it as, “I want to go win Baja.” I’ve been asked by my biggest sponsor to go be a part of a team for a promotion.
I have a big variety of vehicles. I have a Ford® truck because I still ride my dirt bike and need a truck around the house. My main daily driver is a Mercedes-Benz CLS 55. I also have a home out in Utah where I have several vehicles, including two STIs and an Outback. In California, I also have an STI that I occasionally use for various events such as time attack and gymkhana – that has 530 horsepower at the wheels.
No, there’s a local shop here called Crawford Engineering – Crawford Performance – that has built it up for me. [www.crawfordperformance.com]
There’s some type of switch, I guess. When we used to show up at a rally, I would make my wife drive me all around, because once I got the feeling in the car, I didn’t even want to drive a rental car. But now I’ve been able to separate it more and more.
Once we get near the stage, I start getting mentally ready for that clock to start. I mentally get into a different state of mind.
Alex [Gelsomino, Block’s co-driver] and I have a routine that we do every time before a stage. It’s very simple stuff. As we get to the stage and we wait, I stretch and get my heart rate up. I go for a little jog. Once we get in the car, he reads part of the stage notes. I have a little routine of what to turn on before the stage, like the antilock and the diff setting – all that sort of clicks in your mind to get you in a certain mental program to be able to attack the stage.
And once I’m done, I’m sort of relieved. Then you kind of go into the process of what did we do, where did it go wrong, where did it go right, what was our stage time compared to the other guys – start analyzing things so the next time – in the very next stage – we’re ready. OK, I’ve got to adjust, I have to go faster here, I made this mistake, so I have to correct it.
It’s really a constant process, and, at this point, I’m in such a routine that turning it on and off is done very methodically and very planned out. You just have to do that over and over and get better and better at it to really develop your skills.
The main thing about me that I don’t think people understand is that there’s a big difference between Ken Block that works very hard and does a business and Ken Block the rally driver. A lot of times, those two stories get too mixed. People don’t necessarily give me as much respect as a rally driver because the other part gets too muddied up in there.
Any time I get into something like this, I try my hardest to excel at it. I do have a lot of talent and a lot of drive to do various things, and I have worked very hard to develop the skills in rally that I have.
To answer your question, I would like people to understand that I really have a deep, true passion for rally. I think that, for some reason, I have some natural talent for it. But beyond that, I’ve worked very hard to try to be the best driver I absolutely can. I want to use those skills to go as far as I can with rally.
That, in its simplest form, is something I would like people to know.
On top of that, because of my background, I’m actually a very good marketing person. I’ve won marketing awards from companies like Advertising Age and SportsBusiness Journal. I’ve been recognized for the stuff that I do.
I’ve been able to take that experience and that knowledge and apply it to our rally team to help generate more interest in the sport here in America, because it needs it, and I see an opportunity to help it. That ranges anywhere from marketing in the way of graphics and team materials and getting publicity for the team and doing whatever I can to help JB [Niday, Rally America’s managing director] and Rally America.
It’s been a wide range of things, and even goes as far as the Stunt Junkies jump and something I did recently down in New Zealand with our snowboarders. There’s actually a photo of myself in a rally car and one of our snowboarders that’s going to end up on the cover of Snowboarder next month.
I think differently, and I think in a marketing way. I’m trying to use the skills I have to benefit not only Subaru and our rally team but just the good of rally in America and help to make it grow.
I’ve been very lucky in my life, that I’ve been able to do a wide variety of things and go pretty far. But at the same time, if you look at the core of what I do – from snowboarding and even having a home up in the mountains with my own snowboard park – a lot of what I do is based on getting the most out of life and really enjoying it, and enjoying it with my friends and my family.
A lot of people seem to think I have ulterior motives with this stuff. There really isn’t. I just truly love being involved in the sports I’m involved with and the companies I’m involved with, and look to do things in the best way possible and have the most fun with them. That’s why I end up jumping my rally car in the snow with my snowboarders. It’s genuinely an idea that I said, “Wow, this would make some really cool photos and video and would be really fun.” I didn’t look to try to sell tickets to it or make money from it somehow. It’s something I do for passion and fun as opposed to a big business.
The biggest thing about having children is it gives you an insight into more of what real life is all about. I didn’t get married until my mid-30s, so I really had a lot of fun in life doing things without a family. And now that I’m married and have kids, I’m actually given an insight into a whole different side of life that I didn’t have before.
I think it’s very insightful and educational, because I couldn’t necessarily relate to that type of life before.
I’ve lived a very full life and enjoyed everything that I’ve done. Now I’m going through a whole new part of life, and I’m enjoying it very much. I just have a new appreciation for totally different things in life that I didn’t before.