Regardless of whether you know it, there’s a good chance you’re a fan of Ken Block. The diversity of the man’s accomplishments and the legacy he leaves behind are so broad that, even if you only knew him as the dude that slides cars around in those videos, I’m willing to bet he’s had a bigger influence on you than you think.
To Block’s oldest fans, he was the kid who lived on an avocado grove in Escondido, California. His parents moved him there from Long Beach, unwittingly dropping him into the heart of the maelstrom of early ‘80s skateboarding. He was surrounded by a cadre of future professionals in sports that didn’t quite exist yet. The friends he made there would change everything.
Ken Block had a bigger influence on you than you think
If you were into the skate scene in the ‘90s, the era of early superstars like Tony Hawk, John Cardiel, and Eric Koston, you’re a fan of Ken Block the clothing entrepreneur. After a brief attempt at becoming a professional snowboarder, Block returned to Southern California and dedicated himself to his love of design. He went back to school and started printing T-shirts for friends.
One of those friends was Damon Way, brother of skateboarding superstar Danny Way. Block and Way founded Droors Clothing, each scraping together a $10,000 investment. (Block borrowed from his parents.) It’s hard to imagine they had any idea of how big that investment would indirectly pay off. Why indirectly? Because it wasn’t the clothing that made the brand.
The brand’s clean kicks became de rigueur on the skate scene
If you were a fan of DC Shoes in the early 2000s, you’re a fan of Ken Block the footwear mogul. The brand’s clean kicks became de rigueur on the skate scene, with a focus on quality and durability that set them apart. Block ran the company as president, with Damon Way as EVP, and it wouldn’t be long before the bigger brands came knocking. In 2004, they sold DC Shoes to Quicksilver for nearly $90 million, including $56 million in cash. Performance bonuses over the next few years would nearly double that sum. This is when the motorsports side of the story comes in.
If you were a fan of North American amateur point-to-point stage rallying in 2005, you’re a fan of Ken Block the racer. Block rolled his DC Shoes success straight into his passion for cars, for rally, and for Subarus. “Just for fun” he sourced a rally-prepped 2005 Subaru WRX STI from Vermont SportsCar and used it to place fourth in the inaugural Rally America National Championship, winning the Rookie of the Year award.
The next year, Block formed the Subaru Rally Team USA with Travis Pastrana. The friends traded podium places all season, with Pastrana eventually winning the 2006 Rally America Championship and Block coming in second. Stage rallies were still incredibly niche in the USA, but thanks largely to those two, that style of driving was about to go mainstream.
Block rolled his DC Shoes success straight into his passion for cars
If you were a fan of X Games motorsports action, you’re a fan of Ken Block the action sports athlete. The 2006 ESPN X Games XII featured rally driving for the first time, with Pastrana and Block taking gold and bronze, respectively. (The late, great Colin McRae took silver, famously rolling his own Subaru in the process.)
If you were a fan of Subarus in that era, you’re a fan of Ken Block the enthusiast. Though his star was already ascending, he still showed up at local meets to hang out and sign posters. Block became an avid member of what was then the largest online forum for Subaru-minded misfits, the North American Subaru Impreza Owners Club, or NASIOC, where he’d post links to early videos of himself sliding around in his car.
If you were a fan of Top Gear in 2009, you’re a fan of Ken Block the showman. Really, though, who wasn’t a fan of Top Gear back then? The careers of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May still ride the seismic waves of popularity from those years, and Block’s appearance on Top Gear series 13 launched this new phase of his own.
Block had already released his first so-called gymkhana video the year before, humbly dubbed as a “practice” session in his Crawford Performance-built Subaru WRX STI at El Toro airfield in Irvine, California, filmed by a few friends from school. Though famous in enthusiast circles at the time, it was only when Block took Captain Slow for a quick spin that his ticket to superstardom was punched.
If you’re a fan of gymkhana videos, then clearly you’re a fan of Ken Block. Before him, gymkhanas were obscure (at least in America) driving events inspired by equestrian prance-offs, something like a low-speed parking lot autocross with U-turns. Today, the word has become virtually synonymous with Block and his DC-liveried cars — Subarus for the first two iterations before signing a deal with Ford, which would take him global.
With Ford, Block followed his lifetime dream of entering the World Rally Championship. Block campaigned a limited program over four seasons in a WRC-spec Ford Fiesta. Only entering a few rounds a year meant he’d never stand a chance against competitors who’d been rallying full time their entire lives. Nevertheless, his tail-out driving style earned him a lot of fans. Meanwhile, The Gymkhana Files just kept getting bigger and bigger. That first video, a prologue really, today stands at a healthy 15 million views — though that figure is a bit misleading.
If you’re a fan of aggressively edited action sports clips posted on YouTube, it turns out, you’re a fan of Ken Block, too. That first “practice” gymkhana video that set the template? It was initially hosted by Block himself, racking up an estimated 30 million streams on his own site. Block was paying so much on hosting fees that he had to ask sponsors to help with the cost. To save costs, he eventually uploaded it to YouTube. From there, the franchise went stratospheric, proving to athletes and sponsors alike that Google’s still freshly acquired streaming platform was the place for uploading their antics.
As Block’s views increased and The Gymkhana Files’ profile ballooned, the budgets got bigger and bigger. Block’s franchise became as much of an icon in the enthusiast world as the Fast & Furious films, but unlike that Hollywood blockbuster, Block never lost sight of what made them great: the cars and the driving.
Even a switch to electrification did nothing to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. Block’s Hoonitron, his first video with new partner Audi, raked in 7 million views in just a few months.
Block’s franchise became as much of an icon in the enthusiast world as the Fast & Furious films
All the while, Block was becoming a social media superstar, with over 8 million followers on Instagram, all fans who wanted to come along with whatever vehicular mayhem he was up to. While most people try to look like they’re having fun on social media, even when they’re not, it’s hard to believe that Block wasn’t truly having a hell of a time.
Lately, many of his posts were in celebration of his daughter Lia, giving us all a great reason to be a fan of Ken Block the father and family man. Lia and the rest of the Block family all have my most sincere condolences.
Personally, I’ll always remember Block as a hardcore rally nerd, a humble dude who made it big and lived the dream. I only met him once, in 2013, at CES of all places. He was there doing the Ford PR thing and had clearly run out of patience for the dog and pony show well before he arrived for our scheduled interview. Not wanting to make his time any more miserable than it had to be, I asked him about rallying, about his cars, and about the things he loved instead of peppering him with inane questions about tech stuff. It was a great chat — even if I gave my producers nothing worth cutting into the CES highlight reel.
“That creative side is probably what I will be remembered the most for”
And the man himself, what did he think would be his legacy? In a 2019 interview with the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, he said that his racing antics were a huge source of joy in his life, but “bringing the creativity of skateboarding and snowboarding into the automotive world has probably been the most fun for me, and that creative side is probably what I will be remembered the most for.”
The gifts Block left with the world still feel fresh and fun to watch, but he’s not done giving yet. His videos and his success will inspire creators, producers, and athletes to do better for decades. As of a 2019 interview with The Economic Times, Block was still calling his gymkhana videos an “experiment,” as if they hadn’t yet borne fruit. They have, and as more and more people try to fill the massive void Ken Block leaves behind, they’ll continue to do so for a long time to come.