Ken Block focuses on GRC season
DC Shoes co-founder, 'Gymkhana' star, rally driver has sights set on the GRC title
Ken Block and his Monster World Rally Team will be heading into battle Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., for the opener of the 2012 Global RallyCross season. Block -- who is also competing in the 2012 Rally America series and several 2012 World Rally Championship events, as well as preparing to film the fifth installment in his massively popular "Gymkhana" video series and launch the 2012 Gymkhana World Tour, in addition to his day job as chief brand officer for DC Shoes -- says he has made the five-stop GRC his primary focus this year and has his heart set on winning the championship. ESPN.com caught up with him to get a sense of how he's managing it all.
ESPN.com: What's on your mind and what are you most looking forward to heading into the 2012 GRC series?
Block: We've done a lot of preparation for rallycross this year and I'm sort of impatient to get it going. It's been a lot of work to get here but I feel like I'm really well prepared, I'm driving better than I ever have, and my team's done a tremendous amount of work to get to this point. This is the first year we're doing the GRC partnered with SMI [Speedway Motorsports Inc.] and trying to do these rallycross events at NASCAR tracks, so it's going to be interesting to see how all that works out. It's going to be a different approach, for sure.
Have you had a chance to make any first impressions of the course at Charlotte yet?
We did a shakedown of the course on Tuesday but it didn't have a jump yet, it didn't have the water feature they're planning, and there was no gravel on the course yet. It was just the basic setup of the course, but I can say this: It's very fast, and it's going to be entertaining for the fans to watch something entirely different in the NASCAR stadium.
You certainly have some experience driving in some nontraditional rally settings, between all your rally experience and filming the "Gymkhana" videos in places like the Universal Studios back lot and the Battersea Power Station.
I'm very lucky that I get to drive some of the world's coolest cars in championship series around the world, and I love that variety to also be able to go and do my own thing for the "Gymkhana" videos. Going from racing in North America to racing the WRC and then doing "Gymkhana" stuff and now racing the GRC in one of the homes of NASCAR in North America … it's all very cool as far as I'm concerned. I'm very appreciative that I get to do so much cool stuff.
How much of the really flashy, technical driving that you do in the videos translates to practical racing?
There's a bit of fun that I get to have for the videos that I don't get to have while racing, obviously, because being sideways isn't necessarily faster than keeping the car straight. But it's a lot of fun! When I'm racing we're obviously going for the quickest time and that usually means getting as much traction as possible and keeping the car straight. I absolutely enjoy racing and I'm a true competitor at heart, but I also really love having fun with the car and driving it at its limits. I look at it like this: Any driving practice and technical skills I can build are only going to help.
Have you been surprised by how popular those videos have been, and to see them getting millions and millions of views online?
It's really blown me away that this whole "Gymkhana" series has been as popular as it's been. The first one racked up 11 million views on my own website before we even moved it over to YouTube, and now I already have more than 13 million views on my new YouTube channel. But it was those first 11 million views that really blew me away: I had no idea at the time that that type of video and that type of driving would be so popular online. It's really pretty awesome that people appreciate seeing it all together in that form, and I like to hope that it's been really good for building the audience for rally in America and around the world.
Let's talk tech for a minute: How's your car working out this year and what can you tell us about the weapons you have at your disposal this season?
The car we have this year is actually the same car we launched last year at X Games and that I did "Gymkhana 4" with. It's an exceptionally built car. My team was tasked with building a car that could race Rally America and Global RallyCross and also do the "Gymkhana" videos and the Gymkhana World Tour events, so that's three completely different setups built into the one car. It's based off a current-spec car from Ford, but to be able to race in these different genres of rally it really has to be quite adjustable and changeable, so it's really quite unique.
We had some issues with it at X Games last year before we had it dialed in and I was really frustrated, but since then we've done a lot of testing and a lot of development. I went out and won the Rally of the 100 Acre Wood earlier this year in that car, so I'm feeling really confident.
As you're sizing up the GRC competition, who do you see as your strongest challengers and who do you view as potential underdogs?
Tanner Foust is the GRC champion from last year and he's probably got the most rallycross experience of anyone racing GRC, so I see him as the biggest competition. Marcus Grönholm is racing and he's a two-time World Rally champion, one of the most talented drivers in the entire world, so even though he doesn't have as much rallycross experience as Tanner he's still formidable. And then I'd say the biggest underdog -- or, let's say, wild card -- is probably Travis Pastrana. He's an immensely talented driver and even though he's been focused on NASCAR lately I know he'll be coming to the GRC to win. He'll either win with the craziest luck or he'll have the best crash ever: You never know with Travis! This is something new for him and he's in a new car, so he's really the wild card in my mind.
The list of GRC drivers for 2012 includes Pastrana and other X Games stars like Brian Deegan, Dave Mirra, Bucky Lasek and Stephan Verdier. Why do you think the action sports guys have been drawn to the sport and have fared as well as they have?
I came from action sports, too, and as a kid who grew up skateboarding, snowboarding and riding motocross, the main motorsport that I was interested in from very early on was rally. It was just the fact that the cars drive in any condition, from snow to mud to sand to gravel to tarmac, and it's all very exciting and unpredictable. That and the fact that the cars jump! You don't see a NASCAR driver jumping or driving in snow. I have a lot of respect for those guys and what they do, but rally is just much more interesting for me to watch and for me as a driver than a lot of other motorsports around the world. Travis and Dave Mirra have echoed the same types of sentiments: Rally captured their attention because of the aspects they can relate to, the dirt and speed and jumping and sliding. I think that's the simple gist of why it attracts us and why it's caught on with the X Games crowd.
X Games is smack dab in the middle of the GRC series as its third event. What are you most looking forward to about that intersection?
The thing I love about X Games is there's never in the world been another rally event taking place on the streets of a town like Los Angeles. To be able to go and race on the streets next to where the Lakers play and have a 70-foot jump on dirt and go head-to-head against some of the top drivers in the world in that venue? It's just amazing. That and the opportunity to win an X Games gold medal right alongside all my heroes in skateboarding and BMX and motocross … all that put together makes that event very special for all of us.
How much of a culture clash is it for you as a driver to go from events like X Games to the WRC and into that European driving culture?
I actually fit in quite while with the European driving culture just because that's what I've studied and been a part of for a long time. I actually relate more to the European drivers than I do to most of the American drivers because I've been a huge fan of the WRC and a big fan of Formula One racing since I was a kid. That culture is much more like home to me than American motorsports culture, because I just haven't studied and spent the time watching American motorsports like I have with the European motorsports. Rally has really become this big, global phenomenon and it's been great to see Americans start paying more attention to it.
What do you think it would take to get American audiences to fully embrace rally?
I think the main thing is having unique tracks that look great on TV and building up a good long championship series, a great set of competitions like some of these other motorsports in America have, so that people can really get invested in following along. That groundwork of good venues, great tracks, a good amount of competition, and a TV program developed over years and years is what's going to make it. But the reality is that rallycross really is a relatively new sport here in America and it's got a long ways to go. It's cool to have been here from the beginning of it and I look forward to being involved in it for many years, but it really needs to grow. It's fun to be a part of that push to help it get to where it needs to go.
Well, you're certainly doing your part. How do you manage such a crazy schedule?
My schedule is very busy and it's very varied, but the main championship I'm focused on winning this year is the GRC. In addition to the five GRC events we also have a five-stop Gymkhana World Tour in the works, another four rally races in the U.S. and Canada, and three WRC races -- I raced in Mexico earlier this year and got ninth, and next up I'll be racing WRC events in New Zealand and Finland. It's very busy and it's a little bit of everything, but that's the way I like it.
The finale of your "Octane Academy" reality series just aired this week. Now that you've been through that experience in a coaching role, what's your thought on how teachable rally driving technique is versus natural instinct and ability?
We've always kind of seen that anybody with some natural abilities can learn how to drive a car and get the feel, but the challenge is finding the guys who can push beyond that. Something like rally takes years to get up to speed in: To drive the car, make pace notes, drive really fast with pace notes, focus and attack over several days through 20-odd stages, and be the best over a long period of time, that takes real work. I think "Octane Academy" gave viewers a fun look at some of the first steps of all that. The kid who won my camp was good at all the physical stuff -- he was good at getting in the car and actually driving -- but he was also good at getting in the car and keeping his head cool, which is often the bigger challenge. He might have a future in it.
You mentioned that you're already working on "Gymkhana 5." Can you give us anything in the way of a teaser?
I get that question all the time and the answer is … nope. I can't give you anything. But it's going to be good and you'll be glad to have it hit you as a surprise.