While most bosses may have an “all work, no play” mentality, employees of action sports-based DC Shoe Co. know otherwise. One of the companies co-founders, Ken Block, helped build the shoe and apparel company into a recognizable brand worldwide, and after spending years behind the scenes, Block decided a few years ago that he would pursue his passion for Rally Racing.
Block hit the Rally scene pedal to the metal, taking home the Rally America Rookie of the Year Award after five top 5 finishes in his first competitive season. He has since competed in four X Games, several Rally circuits, and has become the first American driver to compete in the World Rally Championships. He also made himself known with the help of a few viral videos, known as the Gymkhana videos, which have collected over 30 million views combined.
Block will be making his fifth X Games appearance, and looks to recover after being eliminated in the quarter finals last year to motocross star Brian Deegan. Ken recently called in and discussed the X Games to the future of Rally Racing, and everything in between.
I was anxious to interview someone who has done so much for their respective sport in a country where the excitement level isn’t on par with the rest of the world. I guess you can compare Block to Landon Donovan in the sense that they both are the faces of their sport to an under-appreciative American audience. Lightning, our resident car expert and digital mastermind, was also there to add in a few questions of his own. Block called in from Paris, France, where he is currently finishing up some PR before heading back to the States for X Games 16.
Cody Black (B): As a kid, people who want to get into motocross will go to the desert. People who want to get into surfing; they’ll go to the ocean. What direction would you take to start getting into rally car racing?
Ken Block (KB): The forest. Most rally car racing happens on forest roads, you know, in various parts of the country. Mainly because that’s the best place you can find windy dirt roads that are 5, 10, 20 miles long.
B: So pretty much us West Coasters get the short end of the stick then? It’s going to be kind of an East Coast trend if it’s ever going to get big in America the way we hope to see it.
KB: Well no, there used to be a great rally in the Los Angeles National Forest just north of LA.
Lightning (L): So you can’t just go up to Big Bear and start rally racing, the forestry service is gonna come bust you. Where would you go race legally in SoCal?
KB: Most of the events are set up very specific and have to have insurance and all that kind of crap, and it takes a ton of people’s effort to close down these forest roads so we can actually race on them. So yea, there aren’t a whole lot of events in Southern California. There’s some up in Reno or up in Oregon and Washington but California is actually a difficult place to do rallies. But there’s a few small ones.
L: What’s an entry level sport? For instance, if you want to go to Indy Racing League, you start karting. But what do you do to lead into this as a kid?
KB: Well there’s actually a rallycross series and there’s also autocross, which those are the grassroots where somebody can take out their car in like a parking lot and do this style driving very cheaply. There’s also Gymkhana events, which is actually where you slide the car around more than just autocross, so those are good places to start. But then there’s a big jump to go from that to a national rally race. That’s the easiest way to start.
B: Those Gymkhana videos definitely exposed rally and stunt driving to a whole new audience of people who may or may not have even known the sport even existed. It helped you become more of a household name, to some sort. Is the sport ever going to build up to where you see it?
KB: I would hope so. There’s obviously a big appreciation for motor sports in America, it’s just that most of the motor sports that Americans have been exposed to is NASCAR and drag racing. Yet Formula 1 and the WRC (World Rally Championship) are the two biggest motor sports in the world. So hopefully someday rally and the WRC will be broadcast here and more people will know it and appreciate it.
B: I also saw on your site that you started the Gymkhana Grid, can you elaborate on that as well?
KB: I started doing some Gymkhana events a couple of years ago and I actually built a specific car to do them, but as soon as I had this car built, the organizer of the events quit doing those events… and that was in 2007. That was actually what prompted me to make the first Gymkhana video was that I had this amazing car but nothing to do with it, so we just went out and filmed a practice and testing session and that’s what ended up being the Gymkhana Test and Practice Video.
L: How many views does that thing have? Isn’t it like 15-20 million views on episode 1 or 2?
KB: Actually that first video has probably got about 25-30 million. It had 12 million views on my website alone before I took the video down because it was costing me so much money to host this video. Then we just put it up on Youtube and it’s built up some but that first video is uploaded all over the place. So it’s got more views, if you go to Youtube it only shows 7 million views but that’s only about, you know, 20-30% of the actual views it’s had.
L: If you had only embedded a commercial in that and gotten residuals, you’d be way wealthy…or wealthier.
KB: That’s the only downside of the viral stuff, you never know when it’s gonna hit like that. That video, I just made that for fun and we put it up expecting a couple hundred thousand views, not 20 million.
B: Well let’s hope you make some more videos for fun, because those things are awesome.
B: So you did things a little bit backwards, you know, most athletes they’ll start at the bottom and work their way into a management position. Now you, obviously, you co-founded DC, one of the biggest action sports companies in the world and THEN became an athlete. What spurred that decision to hop in the driver’s seat and compete against the best in the world?
KB: Well I’ve been a fan of rally since I was a little kid and I always wanted to be a pro at some sport but I was never good enough to be a professional skateboarder or snowboarder or motocrosser, which were the sports that I probably tried my hardest at. But like I said I’ve been a fan of rally since I was a little kid, so when I had the opportunity to start doing it for fun in 2005, I found out I was a lot better at it than I had ever imagined. So I’ve been doing it ever since and pushing to be the best driver I can be. It’s turned out a lot better than I had ever imagined. I’m keeping on it as hard as I can, and I’ll do it for as long as I can.
B: With the addition of SuperRally to the X Games this year, and the fact that Rally as a sport altogether didn’t get cut like wakeboarding and surfing and all those other sports, it shows that ESPN really is backing and has faith in the sport. Where do you see the progression of it going? Where do you see Rally in the next few years?
KB: That’s a really good question. I think that it’s interesting that Rally was even put into the X Games, and obviously now that there’s two events, not just one, it kind of shows that it’s been popular with the kids that watch X Games. So for that I’m actually really stoked, you know, to be in something not only popular in the X Games but it’s actually growing unlike some of the other sports. It’s very cool for me and Travis Pastrana and Dave Mirra and all the other guys involved, but as far as where it’s going, well it’s kind of a tough one because we are racing. It’s not a freestyle type sport. We can’t kickflip the cars, so as long as it keeps being entertaining to the kids that watch X Games hopefully they’ll keep it around, at least that’s what I’m hoping for.
B: It’s definitely cool that guys like Pastrana and Dave Mirra are hopping in the driver’s seat when they’re known for other sports besides Rally. Let’s talk about some WRC stuff. You switched from Subaru to the new 2011 Fiesta, what did Ford have to offer that Subaru didn’t?
KB: Ford put together a great program for me to be able to race, not only in the Rally America series, but in RallyCross and the X Games, and also in the World Rally Championship. My former sponsor was a great partner and gave me a lot of support over the years, but they couldn’t help me in the same ways that Ford has been able to. Ford’s been a great a new partner and I really enjoy racing the new Fiesta and also the Ford Focus that I race in the WRC.
L: How much do you think that YOU being out there in the Fiesta is going to help the Fiesta sales in the US? The bottom line is they linked up with you to help promote their new car, that’s been in the UK for a while and really revamped for the US. Are they going to be using a bunch of new campaigns or are they going to let you do it organically to promote that car? What do you see happening there marketing-wise?
KB: To answer your first question, I certainly hope I’m going to help them sell some products. That’s the side of motorsports that all automotive companies get into these types of things for. I hope that it’s very successful. Now as far as what they’re doing with me, they’ve actually been doing a lot of advertising and they have a commercial coming out that’ll be airing during X Games and in and around other ESPN shows. They’ve been quite successful so far in the amount of exposure that they’ve been getting with me and I know that there’s a lot of other stuff in the pipelines. They’ve been a great company to work with, they have some great ideas and they’ve been a lot of fun to do some creative stuff with so I hope in the long run that we’re actually able to market they way that they want with their new product, mainly being the Fiesta at this point.
L: Are we going to see a Ken Block edition? Forgive me for comparing you to Dub, but are we going to see like enhancement parts and aftermarket stuff that they’re going to offer? Or are we going to see a Ken Block version or a DC car that you can actually buy?
KB: We’re discussing those types of things but there’s nothing set in stone at this point.
L: Because that would be cool. There’d be a lot of kids who would rock a DC car.
KB: Yea [laughs]. Mainly I’ve only been with Ford for about 8 months now so we’ve been mainly focusing on the racing and the international exposure and the development of the racecar products like my new Gymkhana car. So that’s been the general focus since day 1 but as stuff starts to settle down, you know, we’re producing videos and doing all the racing. Hopefully we’ll be able to focus on a few more things like that.
B: Going back to your previous X Games results, you’ve got a couple of thirds, a second, and last year you had kind of a disappointing result, getting eliminated in the quarterfinals. What are your expectations for this year?
KB: [laughs] Well I’ve been putting a lot of effort in with this new car, so my expectations really are to win. I’m going to be pretty disappointed if that doesn’t happen, especially after what happened last year. I really enjoy doing these events, X Games does a great job with making a fun and interesting event. But at the end of the day, I enjoy racing with all these guys, but God I want to win really bad.
B: Who’s your favorite KROQ band?
KB: My favorite KROQ band….wow. That is a difficult question. You know I’ve been listening to KROQ since the early 80’s, which is damn scary.
B: That’s long before my time. Well not long, but a few years…
KB: I think KROQ was the first place I ever heard The Clash, and that’s my all-time favorite band, so I would have to give it up to KROQ for giving me The Clash.
Block will be competing in both Rally Car Racing and the SuperRally events at X Games 16. Head over to the LA Coliseum on Saturday (races start at 4) to check out all the Rally Racing action. Big thank you to Ken for taking time out of his hectic schedule to call in and chat. Get your tickets to X Games here, and get all the info on X including athletes, schedules and events here.