Ken Block: Dirt, tricks, kicks and donuts

By Matt Greenop

Viral gymkhana and general hooning videos have helped sports shoe mogul Ken Block indulge an ever-growing World Rally habit with the Monster Rally Team.
Viral gymkhana and general hooning videos have helped sports shoe mogul Ken Block indulge an ever-growing World Rally habit with the Monster Rally Team.

There was a time when we were impressed by a motocross bike going over a big jump. Now, if it isn't half a mile off the ground with a barely controlled backflip thrown in, crowds respond with a yawn.

The same hasn't quite been as true with cars, but the likes of DC Shoes founder Ken Block and his mate, extreme sports icon Travis Pastrana have stretched the boundaries of four-wheel tricks and spawned an interest in rally-derived sports like stadium rallycross in the US, where mud racing, monster trucks and tedious NASCAR were the norm.

Block is in town for Rally New Zealand - one of the three WRC rounds he'll be running his Monster WRC Team Fiesta in this year. While rallying is a passion, it's the sensational YouTube gymkhana videos that have turned him into a superstar. Seeing the 44-year-old balancing his Fiesta on a razor's edge somewhere in that blurry area between fast and upside down is always impressive.

And watching Top Gear's James May going for a ride with Block - and quickly discovering that adrenaline is actually brown - is utterly hilarious.

Driven caught up with Ken Block just before he hit the gravel for recce for this year's event.

DRIVEN: What came first for you - the madness of gymkhana, or stage-by-stage rallying?

BLOCK: I've been a fan of rallying since I was a little kid - I've always loved it. Travis Pastrana started doing some rally stuff in the States back in 2004, and at that time I didn't even know that we had stage rallies there. We actually have quite a good championship there - the roads and events that we have are quite good, it just had no exposure. Motorsport enthusiasts in America are, um, a little different to those in other place around the world.

I started getting more interested in rally as far as actually doing it, when Travis started doing it. So I called the team that was running him and said 'hey, I'd like to go and race with Travis', so they sent me to school and did all that, and I ended up being a little better than I thought I'd be. I started racing with Travis in 2005, and actually beat him in the championship and got rookie of the year.

So how did that lead you into gymkhana?

The gymkhana stuff came about because I just loved doing what I was doing so much, and I wanted more time in the car. To me there was never enough seat time, and on top of that we didn't have any tarmac rallies in the States. I was such a fan of watching those old 80s and 90s videos with the cars sliding around at Monte Carlo and Corsica - I wanted to do that. I started doing the gymkhana stuff as a cheap way to compete and have fun and get that experience of driving a rally car on tarmac. As soon as I built a car specifically to go and do that, the guy that was running the gymkhana series in Southern California stopped doing it. So I had this great car and nothing to do with it, which is why we made that first video.

I went to the same place that I'd actually done a gymkhana even, El Torro, and we just filmed practising and testing for one day. I looked at the footage a couple of weeks later and though 'holy s***, we've got some really good stuff here, this is fun!'. So we went back and got more footage and made that first video. It was literally just me having some fun, having some ideas of things that I wanted to do with a car and to get more seat time.

And it's a hell of a way to promote DC Shoes?

The funny thing is, coming from skateboarding and snowboarding, making videos as ways to promote the company or athletes is just what we've been doing. It's been a big part of those sports since the 80s and to me that seems very natural, it was a very simple thing for us to do at DC, but the motorsport people were like 'What are you doing? This is not what we do'. Things have changed a lot now.

Are you ready for Rally New Zealand? It hasn't been too kind to you in the past.

There was also a noteworthy nasty moment while filming a DC snowbaord promo near Queenstown, on the slopes in a Subaru rally car.

No it hasn't! The roads here are just such a unique challenge, and that's why I'm here. I love rallying on these roads, some of the most fun times I've ever had in a rally have been here - but they can bite you real easy too.

I've learned a lot since I was last here. The last couple of years of racing have upped my experience level when it comes to making notes and learning roads. I think I can do a lot better here than I've done in the past, but it's also quite difficult because I haven't been in a WRC car since Mexico.

The FIA rules are basically that you can only do your testing in Europe, and I like in the States. Getting into the car for this event, I would have had to fly to Europe and then to here, and I didn't really have the time.

The rules have changed a bit with qualifying , and the privateers end up sweeping the roads for the factory teams and I'm not really a fan of that rule. It's really unfortunate that they're actually hampering the guys that are scrambling for sponsorship to go out and race.

I haven't really seen a big advantage to the rule change - the shakedown and qualifying are a bit more interesting, but the flip side is that guys like me who haven't had time in the car get two runs in shakedown and then straight into timed qualifying.

I'm not really nervous about it - it's just a bit of a challenge. As a privateer it's hard to do something interesting - when the factory guys were sweeping the road for us, it was easier, but now it's hampering us and doesn't make us look so great.

It's not too hard to look good in a WRC Fiesta though, is it?

The Fiesta has made me very, very happy ever since I set foot in the car. The Focus was such an amazing car - the 2-litre, the paddle shifter, so much power and so much torque - that when we went to the Fiesta I was kind of scared with what we'd end up with.

The power delivery has been really great for a little 1.6 turbo car and the chassis is just so good. It really surprises how much power and dynamics they get from that package - it's been really fun for me to use.

Is earlier experience here going to help you out?

The set-ups that we've been using in past events have worked quite well, I'm pretty happy with it. These roads are a little bit different, especially the transfer of camber from turn to turn - if you don't have the car set up right for that you can lose a lot of time.

A lot of it for me comes down to the combination of set-up, your experience, and notes. So I feel pretty confident with notes that I've developed in the past here and the stages that I've done before. There are a lot of new stages this year though.

What are your favourite stages here?

The stuff up north this year looks pretty interesting. I did Rally Whangarei a few years ago and absolutely love those roads - but they're a unique challenge in their own way too.

I actually slid off the road in that rally because I was trying to carry too much speed through a slower corner - as soon as you get off that line, it's marbles and when you're going too fast it lets go quite fast. One thing though, I haven't driven here in much rain, so if it's raining this weekend it will be very interesting.

I've always been amazed at how fast your locals are here - Hayden (Paddon) and Richard (Mason) and those guys are just so fast.

That experience of growing up racing on those roads just means so much. Hayden's going to have a good road position too - a nice clean swept road, I'm pretty jealous of that!

I really like Hayden and it's really good to see what he's been doing over the last couple of years.

What are your rally plans for the rest of the year?

I had Mexico, then there's this and next up is Finland - I've got a very busy year, and that's all we've been able to fit in. In my opinion they're three of the best rallies in the world.

Mexico is a lot of fun, great roads down there; and New Zealand definitely has some of the best roads in the world and Finland is just an epic place to go rallying. I've never been able to do it because it's always the same weekend as X Games. It had to move this year because of the Olympics, so I get to go racing there. It's going to be a real challenge.

- NZ Herald

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