Meet Ken Block, the rubber-burning, tight-turning, high-flying, stop-on-a-diming, sideways-skidding trick driver whose Gymkhana videos have 110 million hits on YouTube. You might want to fasten your seat belt extra tight for this one, kids.
The mountain town of Guanajuato is like no other in Mexico: a warren of pedestrian-only alleyways built into hillsides. And on the opening night of Rally Mexico—North America’s only stop on the World Rally Championship (WRC) circuit—those narrow alleys were packed with thousands of cerveza-fueled Mexicans waiting to see their favorite drivers careen around insanely tight corners. The WRC is a massively popular European-based racing series whose top drivers earn millions in prizes and endorsements. And yet in America the circuit is virtually unknown; it’s been nearly 25 years since an American driver even attempted to race on it full-time.
So why is it that on this chilly March night the man getting the biggest and most raucous cheers is a 43-year-old American?
Because the driver is Ken Block.
If you were to write a textbook about how to be a rich guy, you would certainly want to devote a chapter or two to Ken Block. The founders of DC Shoes, Block and his partner, Damon Way (brother of pro skater Danny Way), sold the company to Quiksilver in 2004 for a massive pile of money, and Block stayed on as chief branding officer. Ever since, Block has played that role with verve, spreading the fun-loving gospel of skate shoes around the world as he snowboarded, rode dirt bikes, and taught himself how to race rally cars.
“Racing rallies has been a dream of mine since I was a little kid, because those were the cars that slid and jumped,” he explains. In 2005 he paid his own entry into the Rally America series, finishing fourth and earning Rookie of the Year. A year later Subaru signed him as a sponsored driver alongside Travis Pastrana, and Block made the very unusual transition from being a guy who signed and promoted professional athletes to being a professional athlete himself.
Over the next five seasons, he got better and better, winning a silver medal at the 2007 X Games and showing surprising creativity—and balls—in conjuring up unbelievable stunts in his Subaru racecar. He jumped a car 171 feet for the TV show Stunt Junkies and launched a massive kicker in a car in a New Zealand snowboard park alongside pro snowboarder Eddie Wall. The shot graced the cover of TransWorld Snowboarding.
Both stunts were pinged around the world as kids forwarded stills and videos, paving the way for something even bigger: Gymkhana 1, a video of Block pulling off high-speed slides, donuts, and other tricks on an abandoned California airfield. (The term gymkhana comes from horse trick riding.)
Block got the idea after participating briefly in a series of autocross-style driving events, which he liked so much he had a rally car specially modified for them…and then the series went out of business. “I had this amazing car specifically built and nothing to do with it,” he says. So he headed to the airfield, invited along a film crew, and just went nuts as the cameras rolled.
His friends went away, edited the film, and sent him a cut two weeks later. “They said, ‘Holy shit, this looks great! Let’s do more.’¿”
So the whole team went back and shot a second day, improving upon some stunts and perfecting others.
“I knew I liked the footage,” he continues. “But I didn’t understand how excited people who had never seen a car do that stuff would be.” He posted the video on his personal site, and it blew up, getting 11 million views and crashing the server of his Web-hosting company. “They were calling me and asking, ‘What the hell is going on?’ It was very expensive to do those 11 million views,” he says, laughing. “Eventually we moved it to YouTube.”
By year’s end Gymkhana 1 had more than 30 million views; it was later chosen by Advertising Age as one of the top 10 viral ads of all time. Two sequels followed—each a little nuttier—and Block was suddenly one of the most popular drivers in the world. “I was at the right place at the right time,” he says, “with the right concept.”
By this point he had his sponsors’ attention. DC started a line of Ken Block rally apparel, which is now the biggest athlete line at a company that also has Travis Pastrana, Danny Way, and Rob Dyrdek. “Obviously, it’s a very unique situation,” says Nate Morley, the senior vice president for marketing and creative at DC. “It’s like Phil Knight playing for the Chicago Bulls.”
Furthermore, Ford lured Block away from Subaru with a shocking promise— the company would partner with Monster and make Ken Block America’s first WRC driver since the 1980s.
Jamie Allison, director of Ford North America Motorsports, says Ford was losing touch with the youth market. “And here comes Ken Block. He connects with that generation.” Yes, a 43-year-old father of three is the face of the digital generation.
Which is all a very long way of explaining why Ken Block—veteran of not even a year—is as popular as any other driver on the circuit. Why, on the dusty streets of Mexico, there are children in bootleg Ken Block gear and motorcycles painted with his Monster Car livery.
“If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be racing in WRC, I’d have said you were nuts,” Block says. “I’m still not sure I feel like a professional athlete, but I guess I am.”
John Buffum was the last American to compete in the WRC, more than 20 years ago. He thinks it’s hard for fans to appreciate how difficult the driving is. There are trees at every turn, not to mention boulders and cliffs and drunken fans.
Buffum predicts that Block will have his share of crashes.“His problem is finding out how to pull back from the limit.” He laughs. “But I don’t think fear is in his dictionary.”
The Norwegian driver Petter Solberg, one of the most successful drivers in the WRC, says Block’s arrival is great for the rally. “There’s no doubt that Ken brings a lot of spectators to the sport,” he says, and he need look no further than his own home to see this. “To my son,” Solberg says, “Ken is almost God.”
Imagine what could happen if he actually starts winning races on the WRC.
Block makes no apologies for his struggles (he’s yet to finish in the top five) and hopes fans understand that it takes time. “I’m really just enjoying finding the greatest capabilities of my cars,” he says. But as fun as it is for him, he doesn’t want to finish midpack forever. Every morning at 5 a.m., he rises to do a rally-specific gym routine meant to train his mind and body to operate independently, which is critical for a sport in which a driver must execute delicate maneuvers on uncertain terrain while listening to the instructions of his codriver and considering what decision to make next. To accomplish this Block does three things at once—for instance, balancing on a medicine ball while catching or juggling balls and answering math problems. (Seriously.)
“I have not worked with any other driver who prepares for a rally so well,” says his team director, Derek Dauncey. “And I think the stage times speak for themselves. In Mexico he was 1.3 seconds a kilometer off the world champion, Sebastian Loeb. If you stand back and see that this is only Ken’s ninth WRC round, it’s pretty amazing.”
Block’s run in Rally Mexico was hampered by electrical problems in his Fiesta, but still he finished the race with a flourish—soaring farther than anyone else over a massive jump on the so-called power stage, a stunt that is broadcast live to an audience of more than 100 million worldwide. A few days later he was back home in Park City, Utah, finalizing plans for Gymkhana 4 (out this summer), which he says will be, naturally, bigger and better than all the others.
“I know how lucky I am,” he says. “I used to read about these guys and play the video games, and now to compete against them…” The thought trails off. “I couldn’t have written a better script, man.”