Ken Block, a pioneer in the action-sports gear business, is hardly a newcomer. But Block is still a new kid on the World Rally Championship block, and he hopes his American racing fans will follow him onto the larger international stage.
"Stepping up to the WRC is a really big deal. It's like going from high school football to the pros. This is a dream come true for me to be in a WRC car," said Block, 44.
On the global stage, the World Rally Championship is kind of like soccer -- huge international attention, but largely ignored in the U.S. In many ways, the World Rally Championship is the anti-NASCAR. The World Rally Championship takes drivers and navigators across 13 countries in three-day races.
There are two drivers -- one at the wheel and the other a navigator, or co-driver. Drivers rely heavily on pace-notes read rapid-fire to the navigator in the passenger seat. Notes are written during a couple practice runs called shake-downs.The team develops code words to quickly convey what's next on the course. Alessandro Gelsomino is Block's navigator.
"In England, there are a lot of corners where there's an area you can drop the wheel into a ditch to give the car more traction," said Block. "I can carry more speed into those turns." Little improved details like that get added into pace-notes and add to Block's experience.
When Block started rally racing in 2005, he was named Rally America's rookie of the year. Block placed in the top five in Rally America events every year from 2005-2009. Over 50 million YouTube viewers watched his four, stunt-heavy Gymkhana videos. Those practice sessions-turned-Hollywood productions show Block's mastery of his car on controlled courses.
His first event at the World Rally Championship was in 2007 and he's gradually increased his number of events each year. This year, Block raced eight of the 13 WRC events.
"I'm the second American to score actual points," said Block. John Buffum, a Vermonter, was first -- 23 years ago.
World Rally cars plow through everything from Sweden's powdery snow and Jordan's sun-scorched desert sand to England's muddy gravel. Cars don't race next to each other because narrow courses often include trees and stone walls -- they race the clock. In Rally Sweden, the first race of the season, fans gathered around Block's car when the Ford drifted off the snowy course. Some 30 fans dug with shovels and pushed the car back on course.
Forget stadium seating. Fans crowd sidelines, close enough to get hit by flying rocks or dirt. In March at Rally Portugal, Block miscalculated his speed in a turn and flipped the car over eight times in the air with spectators a few feet away. Block said it was the biggest crash of his career, that it set him back and forced him to drive more "conservatively."
"What's the point in always finishing stages 10th or 15th place?" said Block. "I want to be the fastest of the fine-tune guys. So really my goal for next year would be to finish in more of the middle of the pack. I want to be more consistent." This year, Block's best finish was fourth in October's Rally France.
Block said his biggest challenge in 2011 was getting used to the new car. He now has 16 World Rally events under his belt. "In the world of WRC, that's nothing," said Block. "I haven't even done a full season." This year, he finished in 22nd place out of 31 drivers. His 2012 schedule will depend on the Monster World Rally Team's budget and sponsors.
Between Rally Portugal and May's Rally Argentina, Block and his wife welcomed a new baby boy hoonigan to the family. "I knew for nine months, so I cleared out the schedule to be around," said Block.
As for responsibilities at DC Shoes, Block is chief brand officer. "I still help look at long term issues, product planning and marketing, but it's not a day-to-day job anymore. I interact with the DC guys between the racing career," said Block.
"I'm a lucky guy with a professional racing career, an amazing family, and continue to work in one of the top action-sports brands. I'm blessed to be where I am, and I do the best that I possibly can."