Ken Block goes to Hell and back

ESPN Sport Science takes a look at how friction is a key factor in RallyCross.

Ken Block barely had time to scrape the Texas mud off his boots and bang the dents out of his car door before hopping a plane to Hell.

Just one week after a first-turn dust-up left him out of the X Games Austin RallyCross final, Block was busy on the other side of the world, trading the Texas heat for the icy fjords in Hell, Norway, making his FIA World Rallycross debut with a third-place podium finish.

"I'm very proud to have gone to Hell and come back with a trophy," he said, after spinning a round of celebratory doughnuts on the Lanke track in a nod to fans of his gymkhana stunt-driving videos.

After the smashup at X Games and another one two weeks before that left him on his roof at the 2014 Global Rallycross debut in Barbados in May, Block had nothing but praise for the purpose-built permanent Norwegian rallycross track. The road in Hell, it turns out, is awfully fun to drive on, while GRC tracks are still paved mostly with good intentions.

"I think the biggest advantage they have in Europe is the tracks themselves," Block says. "The track I raced on over there is an old rallycross track built many years ago and built very well. Unfortunately for GRC, there are no permanent rally courses here in America, so they're having to build makeshift tracks everywhere we go. That can be a strength -- we have had some courses that were cool as s---, like the X Games tracks in downtown Los Angeles -- but it's been a learning process."

Josh Duplechian/ESPN

Ken Block leads Nelson Piquet Jr. in the X Games RallyCross semifinals, but engine trouble stalled his hopes in Austin. Block redeemed himself in Norway a week later with a third-place finish in his World RX debut.

Block says the Lanke track -- 63 percent tarmac, 37 percent dirt, and built with plenty of opportunities for passing -- was his first time racing on a "proper rallycross track," and he hopes to bring some of his feedback back to GRC organizers.

The trip to Hell was also Block's first time navigating the intricacies of European rallycross rules in the paddock, on the starting line and on the track, and he says he went in without expectations. He surprised himself by winning the FIA European Rallycross Championship (Euro RX) there and landing on the podium in third place in the WRX main event on Sunday, behind 18-year-old Latvian driver Reinis Nitiss and Petter Solberg, Block's longtime friend and mentor from Norway.

"As a driver you always want to test your skill against the best drivers in the world, and it's a long-established fact that the best rallycross drivers in the world are in Europe," he says. "We have a good series with the GRC and some great American drivers coming up, but it's a relatively new series. Rallycross was born in Europe and because it's been developing there for a long time they have very good tracks and very good competition, with a deep field of drivers. I wanted to go over there and see where I stand against those guys, on their tracks and playing by their rules, so to go over there and finish third was quite validating."

European drivers, including many of Block's personal heroes, have been making the reverse trek to X Games since its first rally events in 2006 and have been a persistent force in the GRC, but the across-the-pond admiration hasn't always gone in both directions.

"I drove five races in America and never, never did the drivers respect each other," Russian driver and three-time European Rallycross champion Timur Timerzyanov told in May about his upstart American counterparts and their aggressive bumper-car brand of rallycross. Still, he was among the first to give Block due props after finishing fourth behind him in Norway, where Block says he was generally welcomed with open arms.

"I wanted to go over there and see where I stand against those guys, on their tracks and playing by their rules, so to go over there and finish third was quite validating." Ken Block

"The top European drivers want their series to grow, just like we want GRC to grow," Block says. "They've been coming over to race at X Games and GRC, and I didn't feel much like a fish out of water racing in Norway. It was cool to see how much my driving experience translated to WRX, even though there was a lot of nervousness because stuff was different. I had some starts that weren't very good because I wasn't used to their system, but driving is driving and you learn to adapt quickly."

Block knows that his Ford Fiesta ST RX43 is arguably the fastest car in rallycross racing. He knows that the M-Sport and Hoonigan Racing Division teams backing him just might be the best in the sport. And, as the undisputed king of viral video stunt driving -- views to date for his "Gymkhana" video series have now climbed past the billion mark -- he's justifiably confident in his skills as a precision driver. He adapts pretty quickly to just about any driving situation. It's the things he has no control over that drive him mad.

"The toughest thing for me is I always have crazy luck," Block says. "I mean, I'm very lucky in some ways: I have one of the best-built cars in the world and one of the best motorsports teams in the world, and I'm really appreciative of those things. But when it comes to actual racing I've had to accept as part of my career that my luck is either really bad or really good. I wish I could control it a bit more."

José Mário Dias/ESPN Images

When WRX drivers talk of the no-holds-barred racing style of GRC, many point to the first turn in the final race at X Games Foz do Iguacu, Brazil, last year. In an instant, several of the top drivers were taken out of the race in a dramatic crash, including Block.

In Block's experience, luck has been a bigger factor in the GRC than it is in Europe, partly because the GRC hasn't quite nailed the formula for an ideal course design and partly because the rules -- and the penalties for aggressive driving -- are stricter in Europe. He and many of the other drivers at X Games Austin complained that the first hairpin turn on the course at Circuit of the Americas reduced the race to a demolition derby dash for the hole shot.

"That was doubly frustrating because in the first drivers meeting at X Games we all told them, 'Hey, that first corner is really dangerous and it's going to take a lot of people out,' and that's what happened, all day long," he says. "I think it's a learning curve issue for the GRC and they just haven't got it figured out yet. I mean, contact is always going to be part of the game, but all of the drivers are there to race. It needs to be about more than a battle to see who makes it through the first corner in one piece."

Block is hopeful that GRC and X Games organizers are learning the lesson, and he may have cause for optimism. This weekend's GRC course at RFK Stadium in Washington is wider through the first two turns, to ease up on the smashup factor, and extra-wide in Turn 3 and Turn 9 to allow for multiple lines through the corners.

"That's where the racing gets interesting, when you have good opportunities for passes throughout every lap, and it takes some of the pressure off of getting that hole shot," he says. "We're learning through our own mistakes, learning from looking to Europe, and learning by just trying altogether new things, which is a luxury we have."

Block is scheduled to compete in two more of the nine remaining WRX events, in France in September and Turkey in October, and aims to prove Norway wasn't a fluke. He's also competing in some events in the Rally America series (he won the Rally in the 100 Acre Wood in Salem, Missouri, in February), but the full GRC season remains his top priority.

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