Not since Sébastien Loeb have we seen such a gymnastics-based approach to pre-stage preparations. Lia Block’s feet replaced her hands on the floor and, right way up again, she pulled on her crash helmet, started the Subaru BRZ and stopped the world of rallying in its tracks.
The 16-year-old is making a habit of doing that. Her speed at last week’s Oregon Trail Rally was one of the best things to happen to American rallying since the World Rally Championship was stateside in the last 1980s.
Second fastest on two stages in a two-wheel drive BRZ was insane. Only defending champion Brandon Semenuk and his WRX STI went quicker.
Typically, Block Jr took it all in her stride and actually looked a touch mystified by all the hype. What was all the fuss about?
“I wasn’t ripping,” she said. “I was just trying to carry more speed into the corner. I didn’t start the stage thinking I was going to really push for a fast time. I just let it flow. Sometimes, that’s how it works: you go into that white space, you drive the car down the road and try to keep it straight rather than being sideways everywhere.”
Then it worked again with a second, second fastest time.
But what about that sideways sentiment? That doesn’t sound much like the Block way, not going sideways…
Don’t be fooled, Ken could drive straight when he needed to. It’s how he came within a whisker of winning last year’s American Rally Association title.
And this chip off that older Block has certainly got it sussed.
In fact, there’s not much Lia doesn’t have sussed.
Block House Racing team manager Derek Dauncey is a man who’s been around the sport for a few years. He’s seen more than the odd driver developing rapidly from a young age.
But not this quick. And not this young.
Dauncey offers a wry smile as he watches the world sync with a message he received a few years ago.
“You could see it when she started karting,” he said. “She was consistent. Lap after lap, she was delivering the same lap time and she was really quick. That’s what we’re seeing in a rally car now. What she’s achieved across the last three rallies is beyond belief.”
That progression started last year, when she grabbed a pair of Open class 2WD podiums and top-10 overall results in Ohio and STPR in her Ford Fiesta Rally4. The shift to a Subaru BRZ brought another ninth overall but this time a second in class at 100 Acre Wood. That Missouri pace was upped in Olympus and last weekend in Oregon, where she won the class both times.
Last weekend was something extraordinary though. Two minutes clear in her class, she was fourth overall.
Her mom Lucy’s asking the same question as you and I.
“How’s she that fast?” Lucy said. “I mean, honestly, how is she pushing that car to go that fast?
“I don’t know how fast that car should go, but for her to get two second fastest times here… that’s crazy! And she doesn’t blink an eye! And she’s doing that in a two-wheel drive car – imagine what she could do with four-wheel drive!”
Dauncey offers some insight.
“She’s confident,” he said, “she has self-belief in what she’s doing and she’s backing herself. Through her time in the Fiesta we saw that consistency coming from front-wheel drive, but she’s now developing real maturity – she’s got a head on her shoulders which goes way beyond her years. And she’s backing it up by being super-quick.”
Having molded, shaped and worked towards world championships with some of the finest rally drivers in the world, Dauncey’s eye to the future is as sharp as his attention to detail.
He said: “When Lia was coming close to challenging for the class lead on Saturday, we were talking about ways to find an advantage in the loop of stages. We talked about swapping fronts for rears (tires), but most importantly we talked about managing the heat issue she had in the car.
“She did all of that perfectly. She was completely calm when the car was getting really, really hot and she totally saw the benefit of swapping tires. Everything was under control. She’s like a sponge, constantly soaking more and more information up. We’re lucky to be able to see a talent like Lia’s; for me, she can go where she wants in the future. People need to take notice. Yes, there will be hurdles coming, but she’s got a very big future.”
The detail of Oregon makes for interesting reading. Saturday’s stages baked the BHR-run BRZ, leaving her with reduced power for the final third of most stages. On Sunday, when the temperatures dropped, the horses returned and her overall stage results went: fifth, fourth, fourth, fourth, second, second, third, third and fifth.
And the final fifth was because she was instructed to bring the car home for the class win. The super-experienced Dauncey is aided and abetted by Rhiannon Gelsomino inside the car. Rhi gets Lia and provides the perfect blend of co-driver and rally mom/big sister inside the car.
This year’s ARA pace has translated into interest on this side of the Atlantic. The Lia story is growing.
It’s far too early to be talking in terms of cracking America, but there’s no doubt she’s absolutely on course.
And her importance to American rallying can’t be underestimated.
She’s a manufacturer’s dream: a young, brave, engaged and engaging female driver who is outstandingly quick. The best bit? She’s all-American.
Europe is very much on the cards. Lia and Team Lia are well aware that despite the geography, America represents something of a smallish pond in rallying. Crossing the pond to test herself against other young rally drivers is on the cards.
Seventeen in October, Lia could be competing in Europe soon enough.
“We’ve been talking about that today,” she smiled in response to DirtFish’s question. “There is a chance, we’ll just have to see. We’re asking the FIA about the licence, but it’s something I would love to do.”
While she’s rapidly developing as a rally driver, she’s also shown tremendous speed in a kart and a race car.
“I would like her to do what she wants to do,” said Lucy. “She’s interested in open wheels. We have a bunch of offers and, with guidance and with advice, it’s really her decision.
“She’s fast and she’s not afraid.”
As you can imagine, Lucy’s seen those character traits from an early age.
From when she first bolted a snowboard to her feet climbed onto a bike or dived into a 1400 horsepower Hoonicorn, the approach has always been the same.
“She has a different perspective on what speed is,” Lucy said. “When I started, I had no idea cars could go this fast. She’s not afraid of speed – you can see that from when she drove the Hoonicorn, aged 14. And karting has taught her the importance of carrying that speed.
“At that age, they don’t question things like we do.”
Europe makes sense. And soon. But what about the bigger picture?
“The phone’s ringing now,” said Dauncey. “When we were planning this season, Ken and I talked about the whole [ARA] year in two-wheel drive. It’s sensible to stick with that. Everything is open right now, but we will switch to four-wheel drive at some point. One thing is certain: people need to take notice.
“She’s the real deal.”
Not only is she the real deal, she’s arguably American rallying’s biggest asset and most worthwhile investment for the future.