A SIX-POINT seat belt cinches me into a black bucket seat. Around my neck is a carbon-fiber yoke that, I'm told, will prevent my head from popping off if we crash. I feel like I'm in a fighter jet, but this is a Subaru: a custom-built, $240,000 Impreza WRX STI with a 310-horsepower engine and mean knobby tires.
"I may screw around a little to show you how good the braking is," says my driver, Ken Block, over a helmet-to-helmet communication system as we roar down a narrow dirt road. It's a warm June afternoon in northern Pennsylvania, the day before the state's Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally. "Other than that," adds Block, "I'm just going to go flat out."
Flat out has always been Block's speed, though he's better known for operating behind a desk than a dashboard. At 40, the multi-millionaire co-founder of DC Shoes, one of skateboarding's most successful brands, is helping lead an invasion of American rally racing by action-sports stars. Block and X Games motocross icon Travis Pastrana, 25, are top contenders for the 2008 Rally America Championship, a nine-race series that concludes October 17 19 with the Lake Superior rally, in Houghton, Michigan. Pastrana has won the championship the past two years, while Block has come in second and third. Along the way, they've gassed up the obscure sport with fans, sponsor cash, and savvy PR.
Rally, put simply, is auto racing on roads instead of an enclosed track.
It's the original auto race and it remains the most adventurous. Modern professional races last one or two days and tend to work like pro cycling events, with the total distance broken down into stages, and winners determined by the clock. Each stage plays out like a time trial, with cars setting out every minute, sometimes passing each other. Courses follow dirt and gravel roads (or snow and ice in winter), and cars have both drivers and "co-drivers," who warn of upcoming hazards.
While rally has become big business in Europe some 700 million fans there follow the World Rally Championship series it's always been a small niche in U.S. motor sports. Domestic events garner limited television coverage, and spectators, who don't have to buy tickets, peak at about 10,000 for a race. This is partly because you have to work to watch rally. Courses are laid out on closed roads usually operated by the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service organizers regrade the roads afterwards and fans set out for particularly hairy sections where fast, skidding turns and spectacular crashes are more likely to occur.
"We don't appeal to the crowd that's sitting in the stands with a beer and a hot dog,"?says Lance Smith, owner of Vermont SportsCar, which operates the Subaru Rally Team USA. "We appeal to the mountain-bike-and-Gore-Tex crowd. The fans that go out there want to be in the woods."
Since Block and Pastrana began racing, the sport has been changing fast. Pastrana caught the bug first, when he took an introductory course in 2003. An innately talented driver he's won six X Games gold medals in motocross he entered three races for Vermont SportsCar the next year. Impressed with his results, Subaru signed him to a sponsorship deal for the 2005 season. At the time, Block DC chief brand officer since 2004, when he sold the company to Quiksilver for $87 million was also hashing out a sponsorship with Pastrana. Block brokered an agreement with Subaru that got him his own rally training. He was immediately hooked.
"That was the first time I realized I was pretty good at driving," Block recalls. "I said right there, Let's go!' "
Go he did: Block bought a rally car and paid his own way in the 2005 Rally America season, winning the Rookie of the Year Award. Subaru signed him shortly thereafter.
Other action-sports veterans reaching for the wheel include BMX legend Dave Mirra, who began racing last fall, and mega-ramp skater Danny Way, who recently completed a training course. Pro mountain bikers Carl Decker and Adam Craig (a 2008 Olympian), of Team Giant, have also been competing in rallies in the Northwest. According to Decker, the switch from bikes and boards to cars is natural. "It's a skill set that carries over from anything that requires linking turns," he says.
Following right behind the athletes have been some of the bigger brands in action-sports sponsorship. Red Bull, Smith Optics, and, not surprisingly, DC Shoes now plaster logos on Pastrana's car, while Block has deals with Monster Energy, a Red Bull competitor, and Boost Mobile. The media has also tagged along. In early 2007, the Discovery Channel series Stunt Junkies featured Block jumping 171 feet off a dirt ramp. Last December, Snowboarder magazine's cover showed him jumping his car alongside a snowboarder, in a terrain park in New Zealand.
But the biggest boost for rally's image has been its inclusion in the last three Summer X Games, which came about after lobbying by Pastrana and Block. "The first year showed the X Games guys that this can be accepted,"?says Pastrana. "It's something kids like sliding cars around corners and launching through the air."
The kids also have been making their way to rally events. J. B. Niday, the managing director of Rally America, says he's noticed a surge in teenage spectators. "The most important thing Block and Pastrana have done is bring their fans," he says.
Block, forever the capitalist, isn't letting the marketing opportunity pass by. In 2007, DC launched the Pro Spec 1.0, a sleek $200 driving shoe now worn by many rally racers. The DC/Subaru Team USA T-shirt is the bestselling item for DC's online store.
Rally will never grow to NASCAR proportions in this country. But the sport has found new life in the young fans and big dollars of action sports. And as I'm discovering in Pennsylvania, even a little exposure to rallying can win you over. Toward the end of my ride with Block, we blast over a small crest. As all four wheels leave the ground, I blurt out, "This is sick!"
Block just smirks and punches the gas.