Ken Block is a gearhead living his best life.
The “ain’t care” attitude fits well. Like any pro driver, he’s wadded up his share of race cars and just keeps moving on.
Block is polarizer. One group of fans adores him and everything he does. The other half thinks he’s a hack who doesn’t deserve a seat at the motorsports table.
It’s easy to talk shit.
From the outside looking in, it’s easy to criticize those whose success you feel you’d handle differently. In 2005, I had no idea who Ken Block was. Not many people in the rally world did. He was just a guy with a ton of money.
Turns out, Block co-founded DC Shoes, a clothing company for skateboarders. Since I don’t skate, I’d never heard of it—or Ken Block. Regardless, his business savvy and success left him with a lot of money and some free time.
Isn’t this something we’re all aiming for?
Respect where respect is due. Block and Company built a business. They saw skating had become more professional and recognized a need for elite, athlete-level skate shoes.
Spot a need. Capitalize on it and profit.
The opportunities are there. Those who spot them can make it happen.
We’ve all heard the saying “If you want to make small fortune in racing, start with a big one.” As it turns out, in addition to skating, Mr. Block really likes rally. He took that DC Shoe Co USA marketing savvy and partnered with the vehicle manufacturer spending the most on marketing on rally at the time—Subaru.
Rally racing goes largely unnoticed in the US. There’s actually no money to be made from winning rallies. But it’s really cool. If you can spin the coolness factor of it into some high quality, highly entertaining videos, and rope in a few high-dollar sponsors—it might go somewhere.
That’s exactly what happened.
Block tapped into early YouTube virality and made a hell of a name for himself. Love it or hate it, it worked. He gets eyeballs on the sport and his brand.
Fast forward to 2018
New England Forest Rally (NEFR). Block, who can run pretty much anything he wants these days, enters a vintage Cosworth Escort Rally car from the group A era. It’s a huge departure from his Fiesta R5-based and Focus GRC cars. Why run it?
Was it cheaper? Maybe fresher? Do Block and team share our burgeoning nostalgia for the 90s? I know I’d, personally, rather watch Group A cars than the current crop of unavailable-in-the-US models chasing WRC glory—even if they ARE faster and better than they’ve ever been.
It was for Block’s love of the sport.
Here’s my ultimate rally fantasy: driving a real Group A Galant VR4. Would I win overall?
Probably not even close, but damn would I live the dream. That’s where Block is coming from. If you can’t beat Team Subaru, have a ton of fun and give the fans something awesome to watch.
While we’re being real here, Team Subaru is boring.
Hear me out, Higgins and Pastrana are fast. REAL fast. It is impressive to watch those cars on stage. However, it’s The Subaru & Subaru Show EVERY event. It’s so conflicting, because the cars are great, the drivers are great, but NO one can touch them.
Rightly so, everyone was super excited to see Block run his Escort.
Here’s how it went down as I saw it.
I stayed till the last car ran through Stage 2 which was the second running of Concord Pond.
I had two friends running their first ever stage rally, starting 54th out of 55. I’d spent a bunch of time wrenching with them and the rest of our friends on their car. Naturally I wanted as many pictures of the Iron Oxide Racing GTi as I could get.
From the end of Stage 2 it’s a 45-minute transit to Stage 3 and 4. Myself and Steve, the other photographer I was working alongside—MAYBE had a chance to make the start of Stage 3 and walk to the spectator area about a mile in. It would be tight and most of the field of cars would already be on their way there after a quick service.
As soon as the the Iron Oxide team went by, followed by Sweep and Course Closing, we hustled my Montero north and rolled up right before Higgins came through.
There wouldn’t be enough time to hike down to the spectator area.
So we posted up at Start and got some shots of of the action. Every once and a while it’s fun to watch Start.
All the cars cycle through. I catch up with my friends on the Iron Oxide team. They’re having a blast. Rallying in the US is almost entirely grassroots teams. Block is a rarity.
Sweep rolls out and Steven and I hike in a mile from the start.
We meet up with our other photographer friend, Ian. We all know this corner and it’s a decent place to shoot from. Last year we all basically shot from the inside of it.
It’s a tight right / left in front of a spectator area, probably something about “Don’t cut, giant rock”, in the notes. There’s a large granite boulder in the apex. NEFR is known for these. They’ve even got nicknames, like “baby heads” and “rockadillows”.
It’s warm out, not too hot. Dry actually. A low-humidity day in an exceptionally humid summer. This means the road surface is dry as usual and gets worked up into a thick cloud of dust by each passing rally car.
Because of the dust, not one of the three of us wants to shoot from the inside of the corner. We all post up at different spots with a nice view of the apex and corner exit.
Some time passes. We all chat, crack jokes, talk cameras.
Course Open appears and we take our positions. Ian is slightly in front and to my left about 25 feet away in the tree line. Steve posts up about 25 behind me in the tree line.
Higgin’s hurdles his Subaru into view swinging way wide of the apex, a massive roost of dirt and rocks churns up behind him. He tracks out toward our positions at the road edge and accelerates past.
Our dust theory is confirmed as another photographer shooting from the apex is enveloped by a massively thick cloud of dust. There is little to no wind and it hangs heavy for a while.
Organizer’s have given the top three cars 3-minute dust windows so it has some time to clear.
Pastrana swings his Subaru in to view. A little more aggressively sideways than Higgins, he’s trying hard to catch him. Another massive roost of dust is left in his wake.
Seahorn slides into view. He follows a line off the apex but not as wide as the two SRT cars.
Then it happened.
I had my camera up to my eye, trained on the apex, waiting like before for the other cars.
Bang! Metal hitting granite.
It takes half a second but I realize I’m not looking at the Cozzie’s hood, but instead it’s skid plate. Instinct takes over and I smash that shutter button as I track the car through the viewfinder.
The car barrel rolls twice landing on the outside of the corner.
Everyone is in shock as they process it. The engine is shut down. No movement from the car.
Ian looks back at me quick with a look of WTF. His head swivels back. I say something like “Holy shit.”
Steve’s talking. Ian’s talking. The spectators murmur. It’s eerily quiet for a few seconds.
The hood ignites into a fireball. FUCK.
I shoot a few frames and Ian and I begin to move quickly toward them. Keep in mind, Ian’s in shorts and a T-shirt, I’m wearing nylon hiking pants and a t-shirt. We’re not exactly equipped for pulling two men out of a burning car.
A spectator marshal and a second local volunteer firefighter who was spectating beat us to the car.
Luckily Block and Gelsomino pop out of the car on the driver’s side. The passenger door apparently wouldn’t open. They appear ok and alert. Close call.
Seeing them out and walking, I shoot more photos, keeping distance from the burning wreck.
Gelsomino runs back with two extinguishers, but since the hood isn’t up, it doesn’t do much to quench the flames. They stop the next competition car and grab their extinguisher.
It’s not enough, the Cozzie continues to burn. Rather slowly it felt like.
The main concern now was the forest around it catching fire as well. Luckily it’s pretty damp in the northeast so only the closest trees burn.
In all of this chaos, the volunteer firefighter calls in the local fire department—a staggering 45 minutes away. Meanwhile the red cross is thrown and the stage is halted.
A fast response fire/EMS team with the rally rolls up. They have some more substantial fire gear and protective clothes. At this point the car is beginning to be consumed.
While they try and put out the flames, it’s not enough.
We all stand back and watch the show. A tire bursts. The smoke is rancid. We keep our distance. Eventually it starts to melt the fuel cell. Another tire bursts. The plexi-glass windows melt into blobs.
That’s one way reduce a car to a shell.
Eventually fire truck shows up.
At this point the rear diff is a white hot blaze of glory. We joke, “Guess the car had a magnesium diff.”
Sometime later after a ton of foam is sprayed on it, and the fire eventually calms down.
Standing with Block and Gelsomino after the incident, Block said gearbox issues and difficulty shifting from 4th to 3rd caused the roll. He said when he finally caught 3rd, the power transfer pulled the car into the apex and they clipped the rock.
The Cosworth, while badass by any measure, does not have the suspension travel of a modern rally car. His R5 would have soaked it up like nothing.
Whether it was a missed note or mechanical limitation or finicky transmission doesn’t really matter. My only criticism is in strategy. Block was on the last stage for the day. He was a mile from the finish.
Instead of pushing so hard, Block could have casually coasted through that corner and been done for the day, had a new transmission swapped overnight, and continued on in the morning.
Higgins and Pastrana of Team Subaru both went wide to avoid the risk. Why didn’t Block and Gelsomino? I couldn’t tell you, they both said it was mechanical. I can only guess that they were possibly trying to make up time with a shorter line. Which didn’t leave much room for error, clearly.
Rally is all about going fast—but also having the endurance to finish.
Block’s Escort Cosworth was an amazing machine; one that a LOT of us would have really enjoyed watching do cool shit in event after event.
Instead we have this impressive set of photos.
To put it into perspective, though, the Cozzie died as it lived. No need to go all Indiana Jones “It belongs in a Museum” on it.