I was once lucky enough to interview Block at the Goodwood Festival of Speed to ask about what went through his mind at the many peak moments he enjoyed in such an intense career. The below exchange has never been published before and I hope as it serves as yet another worthy tribute to a great man…
Block gained fame by ‘hooning’ rally cars around the world’s most unsuitable locations in his gymkhana videos. His final creations are true works of art but pushing these limits inevitably means you go beyond them too. It doesn’t take much to go out of anyone’s comfort zone on four wheels but the likes of Block spend their entire careers chasing such moments – to the point where they can almost seem pre-ordained or self-inflicted. He was about to recce a WRC special stage in Portugal in 2011 when he was tipped just over the edge.
‘There was a delay and one of the local drivers asked if someone had crashed,’ smiled Block. ‘When I said I didn’t know he said, “Someone goes off big on this stage every year.” I was like: “What? He hexed me!” Then I thought: “I’m going to crash? No way…” So I start the stage and I’m driving really well. I’d just done some really good testing in Mexico so I’m feeling good. Then I went slightly wide on a corner, got onto the marbles and the rear end just kicked out and flipped something. I rolled three-and-a-half times, two of which were in mid-air.
‘So we were in the air for a long time but in the middle of that I was so mad, thinking: “That guy hexed me.” When something like that happens you know there’s a big impact coming. Then it’s just like, “Oh shit…” You just say, “Uh oh…” But time really does slow down. I had time to go through all those thought processes before I thought, “Aarrrggh…” It’s a unique feeling being in a racing car. I wish more people could experience it because it’s very cool…’
Convinced? Me neither. This feeling of time slowing down is a classic report in ‘everyday’ road crashes too, another sign of the human brain’s ability to work at its absolute limit when it most matters. Understandably, most of us don’t feel any strong urge to check that out for ourselves. The payback for those who routinely push to the limit in their day jobs is when the same phenomenon occurs at calmer, happier times. It was in competition rather than gymkhana that Block most frequently found the balance of factors necessary to make it to the ultimate driving bliss.
‘Being in the Zone is a serene thing when everything aligns,’ Block told me. ‘It feels amazing and happens when you’re comfortable with everything, so it is hard when you’re in a new environment as it’s about getting used to things. But when you get enough time and practice in the car and you can just focus on what you’re doing it’s great. Then you have that feeling of total comfort and everything just happens in a subconscious state. There are days when you just can’t be beaten.
‘It can happen in a shakedown but you feel it most when there’s a baseline to compare against. I don’t feel it very often in the World Rally Championship because I’m not so familiar with the car and the events. But back home in America I won the 100 Acre Wood Rally seven times. There you get in, you’re winning and you have that feeling. Then you build on it with confidence and comfort with the car.
‘You don’t really focus in on that feeling or know what it is until you compete at a high level. If you’re playing football with your friends you’re not going to feel it because you’re not at the level of intensity and competition to really experience it. It needs the right situation and the right amount of pressure to be in that moment. That’s when the feeling for me as a car driver is unlike any feeling I get anywhere else.’
Thank you Ken, and happy hooning in the great gymkhana in the sky.