Ken Block killed in snowmobile accident

Automotive icon and entrepreneur dies aged 55, leaving behind his wife and three children

Ken Block has died aged 55 following a snowmobile accident in Mill Hollow, Utah. The Wasatch County Sheriff's Office confirmed via social media that it had responded to a snowmobile accident Monday afternoon, where Block's snowmobile had upended on a steep slope and landed on top of him. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Renowned for pushing the boundaries in his viral online Gymkhana video series, his antics garnered over half a billion views over the course of ten awe-inspiring films. He recently handed the reins to Travis Pastrana, but continued his theatrical driving in a new series through a partnership with Audi.

Ken Block was also a savvy entrepreneur, co-founding action sports shoe company DC Shoes in 1994 alongside Damon Way, before selling his stake to shift his focus to automotive apparel brand Hoonigan Industries. Inspired by Colin McRae to pursue rally, Block also competed professionally in both Rally America and the World Rally Championship, achieving a number of wins and coming runner-up for two seasons.

Ken Block leaves behind his wife and three children.

Here’s an interview Henry Catchpole conducted in 2014 for evo:

Ken Block divides opinion. Not least mine. I watched his first Gymkhana video, or Gymkhana Practice as it was called, and loved it. Who didn’t? I loved Gymkhana Five too – the shots of the Fiesta leaping around San Francisco’s iconic streets remain some of the most extraordinary I’ve ever seen on YouTube. What’s niggled me over the years, though, is the perception which has become prevalent amongst some of the population that Block is somehow the greatest driver ever to walk the planet. 

The driving is fun and theatrical, but can these people not see that the car also does quite a lot of the work and that quite a bit of the driving really isn’t that precise? (He clips a lot of barriers.) The idea that he would somehow show Sébastien Loeb a thing or two when he went into WRC was preposterous, yet that’s what people thought and it irritated me. Of course, the man himself might not have had any such delusions, and I still hoped that he was just a proper car guy that had found a cool way to promote shoes, but it was hard to tell behind the lurid liveries and tyre smoke. 

So, when Castrol invited us out to Spain to watch Ken and some footballer called Neymar filming a promotional video called Footkhana, it seemed like a good opportunity to go and see what the real Ken Block is like. Obviously I did due diligence in my research and looked up Kenny from the Block on Wikipedia, but sadly this wasn’t very revealing. According to the font of all internet-based knowledge, the only thing that happened to Block before 2005 was that he was born in November 1967, making him 46 today and 35 when he began rallying. So, the first thing I ask Ken (once he and his latest set of overalls emerge chameleon-like from their hiding place in front of the Fiesta) is what happened car-wise in his life before 2005… 

‘I grew up loving rally for some reason, I wasn’t interested in American motorsports,’ he says. ‘I grew up in southern California, so I was skateboarding and riding dirtbikes and eventually snowboarding, and although rally came along later in my life, it was sort of a perfect mix of what I liked as a kid but in motorsports. Being able to jump and slide and race a car in all sorts of different conditions from the desert to the snow… it was just a perfect fit for me.’ 

His voice is slow and quite gravelly – pleasant to listen to and quite calming. It’s certainly more laconic and his whole demeanour is more laid-back than you might expect from someone whom an energy drink sponsors and whom most people would class as something of an adrenalin junkie. The facial hair is somewhere between stubble and a beard and his expression remains fairly impassive for much of the time, hidden behind huge sunnies. It can seem quite intimidating at first because he’s certainly intelligent and I get the impression he doesn’t really suffer fools. But then he’ll laugh at something and suddenly his whole face will crack open into a huge smile and it’s like a completely different side has appeared.

So what about his car history? ‘Ooh, my first road car was pretty boring, it was a hand-me-down from my mum, like a Toyota Corolla or something. The first car I ever bought was a 16-valve Volkswagen GTI and as soon as I had that car, I was out mimicking what rally drivers did and pulling the handbrake in the snow. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing but I eventually learned!’

He reveals that he’s also had a Mercedes 190E, but for many years he just had a truck to cart all his dirtbikes around in. Then when he became a businessman he had executive saloons, and then in 2005 the Subaru STI from the first video arrived. Certainly not a bad history and it clearly bears the hallmarks of someone who has always been into cars. These days, as well as the Fiesta, it’s all Ford product all the way, as you’d expect – he’s got a Focus ST, and his main car is a Raptor pick-up because he lives up in the mountains. However, there is one other Ford that I know he’s got in his garage and, because I own one myself, I can’t resist asking him about it.

‘I drove a Mk2 Escort for the first time years ago at a Colin McRae memorial rally and it was extremely difficult!’ he beams. ‘I grew up racing all-wheel-drive cars, that’s all I really do, so to go out and race a car like that, just rear-wheel drive, old-school-style, was a huge challenge – and I sucked at it! I wanted to learn more, so I bought one myself but unfortunately the one that I bought was a light tarmac build. I tried to race and play with it on the gravel and it just broke every time I took it out, so I’ve kinda changed it now, turned it into a bit of a Gymkhana car. It’ll be done later this year. But I absolutely love those cars. There’s nothing like that feeling of being in control of a rear-wheel-drive rally car on the gravel. It’s just extremely fun, so one day, when I get done racing and rallying all-wheel-drive cars, I’m going to just enjoy myself in some rear-wheel-drive Escorts… But that’s years from now.’

Honesty, self-deprecation, an appreciation not only for historic Escorts but rear-wheel drive in general – this answer endeared him to me enormously, as you can imagine. I spoke to a few of the Hoonigan Racing mechanics (many of them formerly of M-Sport) that look after his cars and the Escort is by all accounts fairly extraordinary, with a rear end that wouldn’t look out of place on a WRC car. Should be interesting. Talking of WRC, I ask Block about the differences he experienced between rallying in America and in the WRC.

‘You know, when I was growing up I loved rally but I had no idea that it existed in the States at all,’ he says. ‘We have a couple of really good schools and that was my first step to go and learn the basics. I’ve won a bunch of national rallies and I was rookie of the year in my first year and all that sort of fun stuff, but once I figured out I had a little bit of natural talent for it, it was always sort of a dream to go to the highest level. So I went and raced in the WRC and I enjoyed it, but it was always kind of a side project for fun as opposed to trying to be world champion or something. 

‘Coming from America we’re definitely a bit handicapped: we have exceptionally good events, but it’s a small championship and we don’t have the same sort of recce system as a lot of other countries, so I really struggled when I went to the WRC because I was so far behind on that side of it. The thing is, a lot of top rally drivers… we can all get in the car and know how to set ’em up and get them down the stage quite fast, but if you’re not as advanced on the notes you can be miles behind as far as the time goes. 

‘I still enjoy it. Last year I got a seventh overall [in Mexico] and I’m still really proud of being able to race and be in the top ten in the WRC, but unfortunately a lot of other people had these really crazy expectations that I was going to go battle Loeb or something, and believe me, I’m far off ever being able to do that! But it’s been great. I feel I’ve really been able to accomplish something with the amount of experience and understanding of where I come from… To be able to go out and finish some stages in the top five and finish overall in the top seven is a huge accomplishment for me.’

So he was always very realistic about his WRC dream and, to be fair, who wouldn’t want to have a go at WRC if they had the opportunity? There are plenty of people that do, but just don’t have the publicity behind them whipping the press up into a frenzy. The reason that the people expected a lot is, of course, the Gymkhana series…

‘I really appreciate the fact that so many people like watching this stuff,’ he says. ‘For us, coming from motorsport, we were used to what all-wheel-drive rally-type cars could do, but I think to the general public, they’d never seen them represented that way. So it’s been very cool coming up with unique ideas every year to go out and have fun with high-horsepower all-wheel drive cars.’ 

Is there a particular video that he’s enjoyed making? ‘For me the fact that San Francisco let me do everything that we got to do is amazing. When we went up there and did the original scout we weren’t even scouting San Francisco, we were scouting something outside the city – it wasn’t even in my head that we could do all that stuff. In the end the city of San Francisco was just so great to work with and they were actually offering us things… like the Bay Bridge. I never thought the bridge could happen, but they offered that to us. So it was really just a cool experience – I mean it’s one of the most iconic cities in the world for driving, with movies like Bullitt being done there, and so to go and drive there and do the things I wanted to do was literally a dream come true.’

And that’s what comes over above all else during my brief time with Ken Block: he genuinely loves the cars and is deeply appreciative of what he gets to do with them. I think that’s partly because it’s all come to him slightly later in life. He’s certainly proud of what he’s achieved and there’s a steely competitive edge behind the laid-back demeanour, but he’s also nicely realistic about his abilities. The reason that this sometimes doesn’t come across to the wider public is that he’s simply so good at the marketing side of things that the quieter sincerity of the man himself ends up getting lost in the tyre smoke.

This story was first featured in evo issue 197

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