When I first saw and heard of Ken Block, I’ve got to be honest, I really wasn’t sure.
Here’s was this, apparently, rather gregarious chap who was quite good a handbrake turns with a gold tooth. I took the fabulously arrogant European approach of pondering his relevance to the World Rally Championship.
That was 2007 and Block’s unspectacular arrival in the WRC at Rally México.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. And within minutes of actually meeting him, that couldn’t have been clearer.
Block’s one of the biggest rallying fans I’ve met, a guy with huge knowledge and mass enthusiasm for every aspect of the sport. He’s one of American sport’s most successful and savvy businessmen. And he remains one of the handiest fella’s ever on the happy stick.
I rode alongside him at a Gymkhana-style course in London a few years ago and, I’ve got to be honest, it was one of the most impressive experiences of my career. We were in a Fiesta with 600bhp on soaking wet asphalt bordered by solid concrete. Block’s car control was inch-perfect, his focus complete and ability beyond question.
Arguably the most amusing moment came when, entering our umpteenth donut, I giggled at his ability to smoke the tires even on a typically damp British summer’s day.
“David,” he said, “that’s not smoke. That’s steam!”
How cool was that? Ken was boiling water beneath his wheels.
The closest Block ever came to a complete WRC programme was 2011, when he tackled nine rounds in a Ford Fiesta RS WRC and was usually always on the fringes of the top 10.
That wasn’t enough for some of the knockers who looked on from afar and judged him, looking for the devil with little regard for any detail. What kind of a fool would do that…
Block could have made it to the top of the world championship, of that I have little doubt. Problem for him is that he landed on planet rallying too late. That’s not his fault, he was busy building DC Shoes into one of the US’s coolest and most successful brands around while the likes of Sébastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen were chasing each other through the forests.
Block’s commitment to driving is absolute and accidents like his shakedown shunt in Portugal in 2011 show he’s not afraid of holding the taps open.
At 52, his days of putting together a full WRC programme are done. These days it’s all about delivering for partners Monster Energy and Ford. It’s those deals along with his own passion that really shape where he goes and what he does.
And we should be mighty grateful that he’s taking in two WRC rounds on the 2020 tour. He’s not going to win in México this week, just like he’s not going to put any R5 noses out of joint when he takes a Ford Fiesta R5 to New Zealand. But what he will do is bring profile, entertainment and an awful lot of joy to an awful lot of people.
Gymkhana videos must be measured in hundreds of millions now. Show me any other driver – not even his great friend Colin McRae – who could rival that sort of exposure and deliver that sort of limelight.
And I’ve seen the Block fervour first hand. A few years ago I was chatting with him and co-driver Alex Gelsomino outside a control in León. A few locals rocked up looking to get t-shirts signed. A few more came. Then more. Within five minutes Block was literally pinned against his car and forced to sit on the roof to escape. It was insane.
And, even for him, it was a bit much a couple of hours later when one fan followed him into the gents in the poliforum trying to get a selfie while Ken was, er… facing the wall.
I’ve known Block well for more than a decade now and consider him one of the most knowledgable, entertaining and illuminating drivers I get the chance to interview. He’s an absolute asset to rallying and it’s a real treat to see him, Alex, the Hoonigans and that utterly delicious Escort RS Cosworth back in town this week.
And I said all of that without even mentioning his team manager Derek Dauncey – undoubtedly one of the most experienced and superb rally folk in Sutton Coldfield.
I promise we’ll catch up with Derek this week and capture some of his superb stories just for you. And, of course, there’ll be more from Ken.