The Monza Rally Show in Milan draws serious talent. It's a multi-stage tarmac rally where drivers from around the world test their pedaling skills and mental strengths. This ultra-tight 1-mile course includes tricky chicanes and hairpin esses. For the 2014 event, held in November, speed stars like Valentino Rossi, Robert Kubica, and even NASCAR champ Kurt Busch joined Ken Block to take part in the rainy festivities. It was especially heartening to see the recovered Kubica looking back at home, dive-bombing Busch a few times during shakedown sessions.
For a spectator, screaming Peugeot 208 GTIs, brake-screeching DS Citroëns, and explosive Ford Fiestas make this a most visceral experience. But to truly understand what goes into the cars and what skills the drivers need, Pirelli thought it was a good idea to strap me into the passenger seat of Ken Block's M-Sport WRC Ford Fiesta. After a night session on fog-bound Monza tarmac (now also known as the ride of my life), I watched the video of the experience to study what I said at the time. Most of it was expletives.
First, I need to learn how to keep my head in one place. Second, I have even more respect for Block and his ability to learn, master, and explore the limits of his machine and the sport he embarked upon only 10 years ago.
It's rare for an American to take part in rallying. It's rare for an American to even have heard of rallying, despite it being arguably the world's most exciting form of motorsport. The levels of car control and fearlessness required border on the supernatural. But it seems that Europeans have a lock on it. It's only natural, since they've been racing cars almost as soon as they invented them.
Frenchman Sebastien Loeb has won the World Rally Championship a record nine times, but he could sit in the bleachers at a NASCAR race and not once be bothered for an autograph. Tommi Makinen of Finland is partly responsible for those amazing Mitsubishi Evo cars, just as Scotsman Colin McRae brought the Subaru Impreza WRX STI up to legendary status.
Californian Ken Block, now in his late forties, started off in Subaru rally cars, but moved to Ford in 2010. In his first year (2005) in Rally America, he was named Rookie of the Year, and he's been a strong competitor in various X Games ever since.
Block has done a lot to bring the joys of rallying across the Atlantic. His Gymkhana 2 was 2009's fourth most viewed viral video. Those Gymkhana videos have been criticized by "drivers" who think mastering a track in a gaming simulator is the same as a car on the road. It's not. "I've been in million-dollar simulators and you'll never be able to simulate grip," Block says. "You simply have no comprehension of what it's like to educate, practice, build, manage, market, train, condition, compete, and win in an arena where the status quo of driving experience started at the age of 5.
"There is so much more of this generation who have been playing video games and are looking for something that is still competitive, but still based around fun. We try to show everything as something we truly love doing. And it translates to the fans. When I first saw this all-wheel-drive car, I thought the thing was incredible. But it was always at a racetrack. My thoughts were, 'How do I get this thing away from the track and do more with it?' I think that helps make it more relatable to kids than, say, Formula One. Formula One is pretty technical, and if you're not into it at that time, it can seem not as much fun."
What's next for Block? How will he inspire the next generation of drivers to pick up their keys and hone their skills? He hinted at one possibility that involves classic cars. If that comes to pass, Gymkhana 8 should be one hell of an exhibition.
"To me, keeping the act of driving fun is important. Nobody wants to hear a driver jump out of a race car and explain what's wrong with it. They want to hear how fast it was and how fun it was. As long as I can be competitive and still like it, I'll continue to do this as long as possible. If I'm not competitive at that level, I might end up in a classic Escort."
The 2014 Monza Rally Show was won by Robert Kubica.