Stop any driver in this year’s FIA World Rallycross Championship Supercar paddock, and ask them how they got there; chances are the answer will be reasonably similar. A bold claim, maybe, but when you consider half of the current crop of Supercar drivers hail from Scandinavia, and cut their teeth in the junior classes of rallying, rallycross, or Swedish folkrace, a pattern starts to emerge.

So imagine the shake-up then, when a driver from America best known for his stunt driving exploits – which have shut down the city centers of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and most recently Dubai – announces that he is taking on the 2016 World RX Championship, with full factory backing from one of the largest car manufacturers in the world. Better still, he has come from an action sports background, co-founded a multi million dollar shoe brand, and has marketed his own style of performance driving – known to its fans as ‘Gymkhana’.

The driver in this instance is of course Ken Block, and more specifically we are talking about his decision to step away from the US-based Global Rallycross Championship, and partner Ford Performance to race in the rival FIA series – held at venues throughout Europe, Canada and Argentina.

Sitting opposite the affable 48-year old Californian, talking about his motivation to go racing, it’s easy to forget the impact he has had on car and motorsport culture. His online stunt videos have accumulated 100s of millions of views, and for over a decade Block has been voted as a leading influencer in sports marketing.

“For me, I’ve been a of rally since I was a little kid, so to be actually getting the opportunity to drive a rally car was a dream come true,”
explains Block. “I’ve been a fan of rally through the 80’s and 90’s, and watched drivers like Ari Vatanen and Michèle Mouton. Colin McRae was a big hero of mine. So even though I was into action sports – skate, snow and riding dirtbikes – my real favorite was rallying.

“Then in the mid 2000s Travis Pastrana started doing some stage rallies back home in the States, and that really woke me up to the fact that rallying really existed in the US. Its sounds crazy but I actually thought it [stage rallies] was something that really existed exclusively in Europe. So, as soon as I could, I went to a rally school and got some proper tuition in a rally car. I loved it even more than I thought I would, and had a bit of natural talent for it.

No donuts for Ken Block: factory race dreams come true

“To begin with I was really just racing for fun – but actually pulled in some good results. I got rookie of the year in Rally America in the first year, and then eventually won some events the following season. From there my career just sort of took off.

You started your career in action sports and are now known mainly for motorsports – was it a tough choice between the two in a sense?

Block: “I’ve grown up doing those sports – skateboarding, snowboarding, riding dirt bikes – and have been doing them for a long time. Longer than I like to admit to! So racing cars was not necessarily something I had a goal to go do, but something I wanted to do. So its great that it naturally worked out that way.

Not that I’ve quit doing the other things I was doing. I still snowboard like 50 or 60 days a year. I don’t ride the bike or skateboard as much as I did, or I’d like to. But it literally is a dream come true.”

You looked so fired up after your first World RX event in 2014 – have you always had your eye on a campaign in Europe?

Block:  “You know, rallycross is just a really fun way to use these amazing cars we have. I started off in stage rallies, and although I loved it, I’ve got to be honest I struggled with the pace-notes when I tried to do it at the highest level. But with rallycross, it’s a very different approach. The short races and high horsepower is just a whole load more fun for me.

I’ve had a lot of success; I’ve led the GRC championship several times, won races. The European championship for me is just a bit more established – the built in tracks. One of my issues with GRC is that they had to build a track in these various places we went to race. From parking lots, to the bigger parts of circuits like Daytona. Whereas with World Rallycross the circuits are permanent, built in venues; used specifically for Rallycross. Its something I genuinely appreciate.

I think it works better for me; my driving style is a bit more aggressive. It’s harder to find the pace in the go-kart style tracks they have. I’m not dis respecting them – they put together a great programme – but when there’s more space and run off, you can try different lines, and push harder and drive flat out.

That’s one of the main reasons for coming over. I want to take my skills and test them at the highest level possible, but I also want to do it in the funnest way possible.”

No donuts for Ken Block: factory race dreams come true

Global Rallycross and World Rallycross are very different beasts in a sense – the races are different lengths, the points are different – Are you adopting a different mindset in terms of your approach?

Block:  “Although the formats are different, for me personally it’s about getting out there and doing the best I can. In GRC I was racing against two former Formula One drivers and a lot of other very talented people, so it’s always tough. But it’s still get out there and do the best you can, be as consistent as you can, and try to get into the final! I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve enjoyed my time in GRC, and although the tracks and drivers will be different, my focus level of focus is still at an all time high. I have a feeling that I could have even more success in World Rallycross.”

There’s quite a line up building in terms of rivals this year – Sebastian Loeb has made the switch to World RX, and you’ll get a chance to go head to head with Petter Solberg again – do you give much time to setting targets in terms of who you want to beat?

Block: “It actually goes back to rallying again in a sense. I’m stoked to be racing against two former World Rally champions. These are some of the best drivers flat out in the world, and on top of that the rest of the field in World RX is very strong too. I think it’s a huge challenge. Every year I try to better myself, I continue to get stronger, and I would come to enter World RX if I didn’t think I had the potential to be world champion.”

Gymkhana is a very mentally challenging discipline – learning complex tracks – what part of the learning methods will you take across to World RX?

Block: “All of it is being smart with your racing craft, no matter what discipline. And racing craft for me means everything from how you eat, to how you train, to how you study the tracks, to the preparation and work you put in with your team to getting the right setups. It’s all as important as each other, and I feel like I’ve gotten myself to a very high level to where I learn the new setups and locations very quickly. I have a great team behind me and we all work towards the single goal of trying to win.”

And now this season with Andreas Bakkerud, he’s one more guy that we are going to be strategizing with. This is a team effort. We are of course going for an individual title in the drivers’ championship but we are also going for the team title.

You’ve said how much you enjoyed the tracks in Norway and France.  Where else are you looking forward to racing?

Block: “I enjoyed Norway and France when I raced there a couple of seasons ago, and as long as that feeling I got from those two places, in terms of the excitement of the track designs, and the crowds extend even a little bit across the other venues, then its going to be incredible. I’ve heard about the Swedish round and the insane atmosphere in Höljes, also the Spanish fans turn out in pretty god numbers so hopefully Barcelona will be good too. But honestly it’s the whole package that I’m looking forward to. The competition, the drivers – from Petter and Loeb to competing against my own team mate Andreas. They are all incredibly competitive and it’s going to be a fantastic challenge.”

No donuts for Ken Block: factory race dreams come true

A championship title is the goal for year one though?

Block: “Oh yes! Being realistic this is the first year out – I proven that I can do very well in this series. We are up against some very good competition, and I’m never going to underestimate them. But on the same hand I’m not going to set goals that I can’t top. To get there, you have to put yourself there!”

Your competitive nature must have helped in all this…

Block: “A lot of people know me for the fun marketing projects that I do, but at the end of the day I’m not a stunt driver, I’m a race car driver. I’m here to be in the position to win, and I know I can win. We will do everything we possibly can to hopefully stand at the top at the end of the year. If we’re not, I’m not going to be satisfied, but I’ll at least be able to walk away knowing that we did everything possible to win the championship.”

What can you tell us about the Ford Focus RS RX?

Block: “The car we are racing this year is brand new, and as the name suggests, uses the Ford Focus RS as a platform. M-Sport and Ford Performance are developing it – so this is really where my factory backing comes in to play. In the past I was hiring M-Sport to race one of their cars, and have them build me a rallycross car. It was sufficient for what I needed at the time, but now with Ford fully backing me, and putting all their horsepower behind the technical side of the car, it’s incredibly exciting. They’ve been able to do some truly amazing things with the design and development.

“Of course it’s tight – the car is only going to be 100% ready just before Portugal, so we are throwing ourselves straight into the racing. It’s very cool that I have so much technical backing. Not only do I already have a great team of people with Hoonigan Racing that help me get out there and win races but now I also have M-Sport and Ford Performance as my technical partners trying to make me the best I can.”

So a new car, new team mate, and a different championship. Sounds like a challenge you are up for?

Block:  “It’s a bit of integration. I have a fantastic team director called Derek Dauncey who has been around stage rallying a long time. He was with Mitsubishi when they won four titles in the nineties. So I have that kind of great support and organizational support in my direct team. So now we are adding in Ford engineers to help develop, test, and bring all the systems to the right level. I’m really set up to try and be as successful as possible.

I feel like we are in such a strong position to deliver results to the sponsorship team we have put together – with Ford, Monster Energy, Hoonigan and Toyo – to make this year be the biggest years of my career so far. When I raced WRC – I was just doing it for fun. I never got to do the whole championship, it was a competitive experience but more of a dream-come-true-for-fun. I was sponsored, sure, but I never got the opportunity to go after a world title as a factory driver. It just wasn’t what the program was set up for at the time; but now it is! Now I’m a Ford factory driver. I’m racing for one of the biggest manufacturers in the World, I have the newest car, a great teammate and team; and our entire goal – throughout every single member of the team – is to go out there and get FIA World titles.”

Courtesy of Monster Energy

 

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