In the mid-1980s, Group B rally cars electrified spectators like nothing on earth before or since. Tearing through forests, massive turbo shrieking with 600 hp, the drivers were like gods and the cars their mystical chariots. Inevitably it was a frenzy that needed taming, but at that time, rally threatened Formula One as the largest form of motorsport on the planet.
And like F1, Americans didn't care.
There was one guy that did, however—Ken Block. America's favorite shoe salesman deems rallying the purest form of racing on the planet: "I love it," he told Yahoo Autos. Here's why you should too.
Back in 1985 the U.S. were salivating over Joe Montana and Larry Bird, and from a racing perspective, Rick Mears and Mario Andretti; the rally champions Walter Röhl, Timo Salonen and Hannu Mikkola were total unknowns. Even as the sport aged and Colin McRae hit the gravel in his iconic 555 Subaru Impreza, and more recently with Sebastien Loeb’s domination, the sport never garnered any substantial following stateside.
When I talked to Block about his passion for rallying and why Americans never embraced the sport, he’s quick to point out one thing: “People may label me as a stunt driver or whatever, but I’m a stage rally guy,” he says. “That’s where my heart’s at.”
Ever since Block received the keys to his first car, going around in circles or on designated racetracks or drag strips never sparked his interest—it was twisting gravel roads that did that. After being instrumental in building the DC Shoe brand, Block had some disposable income to pursue his off-road passion, and quickly became very good at it.
Today, stage rallying in the U.S. has a devoted, cult-like following for events such as the Rally in the 100-Acre Wood in Missouri. However it’s a small crowd, albeit one that’s increasing, in part due to Block's growing stardom.
That attention didn’t arrive via stage rallying, though; rather it was his wild Gymkhana “stunt” videos that became a viral success. The emergence of Global Rallycross contributed, too (think motocross in rally cars), bringing legions of new, young fans through the gates. The stadium setting, made-for-TV action and marketing appeal for automakers of street-similar vehicles gave GRC real growth, becoming one of the most popular sports within the X-Games franchise, with all races broadcast live on ESPN.
While Block enjoys racing GRC, drifting and making clicky videos, it’s the allure of the forests that most excites him; he’s raced multiple events in the World Rally Championship, finishing seventh in a one-off appearance last year, driving a Ford Fiesta RS WRC. But sponsors demand viewers, and U.S. rallying has no TV coverage at all. So Block’s schedule is pushed towards stadium racing and marketing gold mines like Gymkhana.
“Growing up, I always knew of stage rallying as a European sport, even though we had an American championship,” he says. “Americans love to watch events that they can go sit down for two or three hours and have a beer and a hot dog. We don’t have sports in the states that are successful where you need to trudge into the forest to watch.”
There’s something romantic about venturing into the woods on a wet gravel road, hiding behind trees, listening for the faint pops and splutters of the approaching chaos. In the ‘80s, the lack of regulations for spectators became so dangerous fans would quite literally line the roads, like when cyclists climb Mont Ventoux in the Tour de France—only in rally, it’s not bikes doing 10mph; Audi Quattros were sideways at triple-digit speeds, and many spectators lost their lives when things went wrong.
Even today, after the terrifying Group B monsters were banned in 1987, regulating a 15-mile stage through the middle of nowhere remains tough; as the American Rally Championship has grown its fan base, the series has struggled dealing with its increase in spectators: “It’s difficult to control people in the forest,” Block says.
And it’s not just America, either. The sport of rallying is suffering as a whole, with many countries now lacking a proper TV package. Rallying is also one of the toughest and most expensive sports to produce for TV, given the vast ground and difficult terrain covered during a multi-day event. “The FIA (the sport’s governing body) seems to treat rally as a step child to F1,” says Block. “And while F1 is the biggest form of motorsport in the world, I feel like rally could be back at that same level.”
How rallying will rebound worldwide remains to be seen, but one sliver of hope for American fans could be the popularity of Global Rallycross. As the drivers’ notoriety grows and the series continues to attract bigger names, more of Block's compatriots may take part in U.S. stage rallies, potentially exposing the GRC fan base to this alternate, original form of rallying.
In all likelihood, however, rallying will remain highly niche within the U.S., leaving manmade drama like GRC to attract the masses. But know one thing: As much fun as it is to drink beer in a stadium while watching awesome cars bang into one another, it’s nothing compared to the raw beauty of seeing man's greatest machines hustling through the wilderness, inches from cliffs and trees. Watching stage rallying is a full day event where in most cases you only see each car for a few seconds. But for that brief period, no other sport makes you feel quite so alive.
As Ken Block puts it, “Driving through snow; sliding and jumping in Africa, or through the crazy roads of Monte Carlo, that’s way more interesting to me than any other form of motorsport.”
They say an image is worth a thousand words, so perhaps a video of the Group B rally era — where the cars were as fast on gravel as Formula One were on tarmac — remains the most evocative way to showcase the beauty of rallying. Put on a sweater; it's about to get chilly.