Being Ken Block
In November of last year, just after his 41st birthday, Ken Block was driving through the backwoods of Bancroft, Ontario. Unfazed by the snow-covered pine trees whipping past at more than 100 mph, or the snow-covered roads under his wheels, he drove the way he's most comfortable driving: flat-out. But when his co-driver Alex Gelsomino spotted Antoine L'Estage off the road, fixing a flat tire, the whole calculus of the Rally of the Tall Pines changed. Rally, after all, is a motorsport in which you battle for seconds over hundreds of miles. When you see your main competitor for the North American Rally Championship changing a flat in the last race of the season, the only sane thing to do is back off and drive happily to victory. Block accelerated. Gelsomino shook his head.
A few miles later, with the speedometer inching toward 60 mph around a perilous turn, Block and Gelsomino flew off the road in a spectacular explosion of shattered glass, bumpers and components. Crawling from the wreckage and out of the ditch where the car came to rest, they stepped onto a road so icy, both nearly fell. While L'Estage cruised by on a new tire, en route to the championship, Block and Gelsomino "had a nice talk in the forest," Gelsomino recalls.
Block's co-driver may not have his ability or intuition behind the wheel. Few drivers in North America do, and despite a reputation among his peers for a win-or-die-trying attitude that often gets him into trouble, there's plenty of evidence that Block is the fastest driver in the championship right now. But Gelsomino does have decades more experience in a rally car than Block, and as they sat in the freezing Ontario night, surrounded by the wreckage of the season, he tried one more time to drive the point home.
"He just pointed out how stupid of a mistake it was," Block says now, "and how it highlights something I have to work on. I drive very well flat-out, but when it comes to backing off that speed, your turning points change, the way the car grips the road changes. I don't know how to do it. In the world of rally, I'm still an intermediate."
With just four seasons of competition under his belt, Block might be rough around the edges, but his potential goes well beyond the U.S. or North American championships. Block has the potential to change not just how American rally is perceived in the sport's European epicenter; he has the potential to change how the whole sport is perceived globally.
"When I see Ken's car with all these sponsors, I laugh," says professional skateboarder Colin McKay. "When they go to do a deal, Ken's probably like, 'Here's what the terms are. Here's how we're going to roll me out, here's your reworked logo for my car, here's where it will go. That's the deal. Sign it.' It can't be like anyone else they deal with."
Ken Block has changed the sport of rally racing.
McKay would know. He met Block in 1992, two years before Block and Damon Way would completely reshuffle the deck in footwear with the launch of DC Shoes, and McKay was DC's second pro after Damon's brother Danny. DC was actually Block's and Way's fourth brand, but while Eightball, Droors and Dub clothing were all respectable businesses, none had the game-changing potential of DC. Clothing wasn't ripe for the sort of innovation Block and Way would unleash on the shoe industry.
Part of that innovation was technical. DC was the first skateboard shoe company to take seriously the idea of skater as athlete. This simple philosophy led to novel materials and construction techniques like polymer-coated leather and heel cushion pockets, which guaranteed the shoes both performed better and lasted longer than their competitors. But the fact that DC's shoes were bomber was nothing compared with the marketing bomb that Block was sitting on.
DC's timing was perfect, coinciding as it did with skateboarding's leading position in the youth culture explosion that action sports represented in the mid-90s. Block took the standard skateboard marketing script, in which a credible team represented the product in well-photographed, action-centric ads, and added layers no one else had considered. Shoes were featured in advertising as if they were high-end accessories; athlete portraits were half-fashion model, half-superhero. Even as DC expanded into snowboarding, surfing, motocross and BMX, Block masterminded teams that were among the most respected in each sport.
Block was also a master of cross-promotion. He kept his finger on the pop culture pulse and his product on the feet of high-profile artists like the Beastie Boys and underground trendsetters like DJ Greyboy and Goldie. Danny Way, Damon's brother and DC's first pro, was an adrenaline freak with a never-ending list of never-before-seen ramps to build and records to break on them. Block made each one a DC-produced event, ensuring the logo received consistent attention in the mainstream media.
On the strength of DC's product and Block's marketing savvy, the company went from five employees with two shoe models in 1994 to nearly $100 million in sales by the end of 2003. In 2004, the company was purchased by Quiksilver—at the time, the largest action sports conglomerate in the world—for $87 million plus acquisition of debt.
"When we started DC," McKay recalls, "behind Ken's desk, whenever you met with him, there was a quote hanging there. It said something like, 'Money affords you the opportunity to find out what you're really good at.' That's exactly what happened."
Block was obsessed with motorsports at a young age. He was a successful amateur motocross racer and learned about the European sport of rally racing before he had a license. As soon as he could legally drive, he was driving illegally. "That more aggressive style of driving, using the whole road, is the way I grew up driving," he says with a grin that suggests he's putting it diplomatically. He's sitting in his office at DC in Vista, Calif., surrounded by blown-up versions of marketing campaigns past and scaled-down proposals of marketing campaigns future. In his capacity as DC's chief brand officer, he still oversees the company's marketing.
It was in his capacity as rally fan that he accompanied his friend—and DC's highest-profile athlete—Travis Pastrana to Tim O'Neal's rally school in New Hampshire in 2004. Pastrana had recently made the decision to pursue rally racing as the next act in his unprecedented action sports career. And while Pastrana's team, Vermont Sports Car, had him training with British rally champion David Higgins, Block had the opportunity to drive with O'Neal himself. "I can do a lot," says O'Neal now, "but you have to be a good student to begin with. Ken had good natural balance and ability, and he was just a sponge. He soaked everything up." By the end of the four-day course, Block decided to try his hand at competition.
Block's friends have always respected his athletic abilities on a bike and a board; that those friends happen to be pros like Pastrana, Way and Travis Rice suggests they're good evaluators of talent. Still, no one saw his rise through the Rally America ranks coming. After experiencing some success in 2004, he committed to the full Rally America Championship in 2005. Despite it being his first year competing, despite personally covering the considerable expense involved, Block established himself as a threat in nearly every event. He finished fourth overall, earning rookie of the year honors in the process.
In 2006, Block joined Pastrana on Subaru Rally Team USA in Rally America's premier category, the Open Class. In the three seasons since, he's won between two and five events a year and finished either second or third in the championship rankings every time. In the process, he's developed a scorching rivalry with Pastrana, who has won the championship all three years. There's some irony in the reasons behind this. Pastrana might be famous for his fearless pioneering of freestyle motocross' outer limits with the backflip, 360 and double back. He may have turned himself into an MTV brand with his stunt/prank show "Nitro Circus." But it's Block who has developed the reckless streak behind the wheel.
"There's a lot of guys in the racing world who pay their own way with companies they've sold and as a racer you tend to write those guys off," says 2007 X Games Rally champion Tanner Foust. "Ken has made the transition to not just being a pro himself, but being pretty much the fastest guy out there. He and Travis go back and forth, but if he doesn't have a problem with the car or go off the road, he generally wins the rally. And it's just because he's that fast."
In the spring of 2008, Block took a specially tuned '06 Subaru WRX Sti to a decommissioned Air Force base in Irvine, Calif., where he'd set up an expanded gymkhana course. A form of autocross, gymkhana requires a driver to perform a series of precision turns and drifting maneuvers through various cone and barrier obstacles. What Block set up was essentially that, on steroids: 15 obstacles spread across roughly 100 acres of weed-covered runway, empty warehouses and abandoned office buildings.
The 4½-minute video Block produced that day features him firing through gears between zero and 110 mph, blasting down empty runways, performing 720-degree turns around stationary cones, flying sideways through warehouses, and generally doing what any kid who's ever owned a Hot Wheels car has dreamed of. It was posted online and went viral instantly; to date, it's been viewed close to 20 million times.
Two years before the gymkhana video, there was the episode of Discovery Channel's "Stunt Junkies" where Block established a record by jumping his car 171 feet. While Block the marketer understood the obvious benefit of his DC-emblazoned car on a popular mainstream media platform like Discovery, it was DC's own footage, shot by an assistant, that helped him truly appreciate the value of viral. After all, this was 2006, when YouTube was just approaching the critical mass to reach the kind of viewer numbers that can dwarf a basic cable outlet like Discovery. To date, that clip has been seen more than 12 million times.
Then there was the closing segment of the DC Mountain Lab snowboard movie, featuring Block and his Subaru ripping around New Zealand's Snowpark with the DC snowboard team (2.6 million views). And the "Gymkhana Two" video, which dropped in June of this year and, at 4.2 million views and counting, is on pace to beat them all. Put simply, Ken Block has gotten his rally cars and rally-style driving in front of more people than any American driver in the history of the sport.
"Ken has changed the sport of rally," says Gelsomino. "It used to be an underground thing, and he's brought the immense experience of the DC marketing team to it. All those stunts don't just increase his own exposure and make his sponsors happy. He's changed how his competitors have to market themselves to keep up. And it's not just in North America. His name recognition in Europe is surprisingly high, considering he doesn't even race there."
In rally terms, the U.S. is still Class A, struggling to be Double-A. There is no comparison with European rally racing, in terms of the ability of the drivers, the resources invested by manufacturers and the size of the fan base—a single season of World Rally Championship draws a cumulative audience of 816 million viewers in 180 countries. Since the World Rally Championship began in 1973, there have been a total of six American drivers, none since 1988, and none has ever finished in the top 15. Block, Pastrana and the rest of Rally America's top drivers have raised the sport's profile in the U.S., but they're also raising their game on the road. No one's asking the question of crossover loudly, but the whispering has started.
Block himself is far too modest to suggest himself as a potential World Rally competitor anytime soon. First, there's his healthy respect for his limited experience and unpolished ability. Second, there's a financial hurdle that gives even a well-sponsored, self-made millionaire pause. A year on the Rally America circuit costs between $200,000 and $1 million, depending on the level at which you're competing. A World Rally car alone is $1 million, with a competitive campaign on the circuit starting around $3 million. "Unless you're going to fund yourself and you have very, very deep pockets, you have to have sponsors willing to commit that kind of money," Block says.
So, while hard-core fans speculate as to whether Subaru would commit that kind of money to Block before Pastrana or vice versa, the X Games competition remains the most widely exposed venue for new or casual fans to see their rivalry on display. And just like in Rally America Championship, it's Pastrana who holds the firm upper hand. In the three years that the event has been contested at X Games, Pastrana's taken two golds and a bronze, while Block has two bronze and a silver.
The one-off event comes at the midway point of the Rally America Championship, in which Pastrana is on track for his fourth straight win. For his part, Block is learning the lessons of his crash at Tall Pines, but has nevertheless been bedeviled by mechanical problems this year. In five events, he has two wins and three DNFs. To say Block's gunning for his friend would be putting it mildly: "My toughest competition at the X Games every year has been Travis. He's the golden child. He's got the abilities and deals very well with the pressure. Things always seem to work out for him. So I'm looking forward to beating him."