Ken Block: Marketing visionary, action sports icon, motorsports star

Ken Block, who died Monday, transformed action sports as a marketing executive before becoming a superstar rally driver himself. Larry Chen

There's a famous image of rally driver Ken Block that is breathtaking for both its beauty and its sense of danger.

The image is ultra-wide, 2-by-6 feet when printed, the result of 25 photos stitched together to form one frame. In it, Block's helmet is barely visible behind the wheel of a 1,400-horsepower, methanol-fueled 1965 Ford Mustang as he navigates one of the most treacherous corners of Colorado's famed Pikes Peak hill climb. Block has taken the corner so fast and so wide that his front tires are smoking, while his back tires are kissing the mountain's edge and tossing a plume of orange dirt and rocks. The potential for disaster is palpable.

Larry Chen, who photographed Block and his family for more than a decade, was perched at the next turn and took the shot in 2016. For years, he says, people have asked him to share the best photo he has ever taken. "My easy answer is always, 'I haven't shot it yet,'" Chen says.

But since 2016, he has known that wasn't true. He knew he took his best photo that day in Colorado. "But I always assumed Ken would top what he'd done before," Chen says. "He always did."

That's because Block was everything the photograph embodies: A calculated risk-taker, a marketing genius and a man who always had something better coming just around the next corner.

"And now he'll never be able to top it," Chen says. "I've been thinking a lot about that."

So too have many in Block's orbit. In the two days since the DC Shoes and Hoonigan co-founder was killed in an accident while snowmobiling near his home in Utah at age 55, those who knew him best are remembering him as much for the impact he had on them individually as for the way he transformed their industries.

And they want to talk about Ken Block the man.

Not the loud, exuberant exhibitionist in the viral videos who became one of the most famous drivers in motorsports, but the person he was when the cameras turned off and the crowds went home.

"I went through my career believing that to be committed to being great in motorsports, you had to give up personal relationships and put aside having a family," says rally driver and TV host Tanner Foust, Block's friend, X Games teammate and longtime competitor. "Then I met Ken when he started rally racing. The more family support he had as his family grew, the more he excelled in competition. The way he lived his life was inspirational. He showed me the way."

That last sentiment was true for many, whether Block was their boss, sponsor, competitor, collaborator, athlete or friend. He was a visionary who didn't just choose the road less traveled; he discovered routes invisible to others, then figured out a way to draw the masses to them. He wasn't content to find the secret passage. He wanted to prop it open for the world.

That started with skateboarding.

When Block and his college friend, Damon Way, started DC Shoes in 1994, neither had a business degree. But skateboarders themselves, they knew what was missing from the market: a technical shoe that held up to the rigors of their sport and had style beyond looking like repurposed basketball kicks. He asked skateboarders for their input and used it to design the first DC skate shoe. Then he created stunning ad campaigns featuring his friends -- pros Danny Way, Colin McKay and Rob Dyrdek -- wearing those shoes.

"Ken was the first person to use beautiful shots of shoes and black-and-white photos of skaters in campaigns," Dyrdek told me a few years ago. "That broke ground in defining what is today a huge market in skate footwear."

Within a year, DC was generating millions in revenue and the company's shoes were skatepark staples and objects of fashion. He'd designed a tool for skateboarders, but his campaigns spoke to kids who'd never done a kickflip. Over the years, he expanded the company into BMX, motocross and snowboarding, sports for which he also held a passion. He sponsored motocross riders in the Nitro Circus and snowboarders who competed in the Olympics. He helped to make those athletes household names and earned a reputation as a marketing maverick and creative genius.

But beyond his creativity and vision, Block had the unique ability to capture what the core community loved about its sport -- and package that joy in a way that connected with the mainstream. At DC, his revolutionary videos and ad campaigns didn't sell skateboarding, BMX or motocross. They sold what made those sports special.

In 2004, after he and Way sold the company to Quiksilver for $87 million, Block began to chase a long-abandoned dream. At the time, rally racing was a sport with scarcely a cult following in North America. He was 37, retirement age for many competitive drivers, when he got behind the wheel of a Subaru Impreza at his first stage rally in Ontario, Canada. He made little noise that day, a privateer unknown to practically anyone in the paddock. That anonymity didn't last long.

Within five years, he was a podium threat. Block's battles with Travis Pastrana, an athlete he'd sponsored for years at DC, fueled a newfound interest in the sport. He brought a stadium-friendly version of stage rally to X Games, showed stars like Dave Mirra and Brian Deegan a new post-retirement path and became one of only two American drivers to score points in the World Rally Championship. He amassed a social media following that rivaled most action sports and motorsports athletes.

Think about that: Block created a successful company, sponsored some of the best action sports athletes in the world, then sold his company and became more famous than all of them as an athlete himself. Along the way, he also showed the motorsports industry and its drivers another way forward.

"Ken changed the way drivers marketed themselves," Foust says. "He revamped the whole automotive culture. He showed that a driver could take control of their sponsorship and brand through creating value off the track. He gave people who wanted to get into motorsports so many more avenues and pathways to break in."

And then there was Gymkhana. If Block's legacy can be summed up in one word, that is it. Block didn't invent the word, but he redefined it and launched it into the motorsports lexicon. A Hindi and Urdu word that describes a place where sports contests are held, Gymkhana is also a form of equestrian competition blending many forms of riding. Block's Gymkhana, a mix of stunt driving, drifting, rally and performance art, is similar in that respect. "It's a dynamic use of a motor vehicle that has never been done before," Block told me in 2010.

Before he dropped the first of 10 viral Gymkhana videos in 2008, few people knew the term. One billion YouTube views later, it's a marketing buzzword.

"I don't know where rally is without Ken," Pastrana says. "He wasn't just an athlete in his sports. He was the sports. He ran them, promoted them, provided jobs, gave people like me a platform to do amazing things. He brought a new level of professionalism and sponsorship. His impact is impossible to measure. He drove an industry."

This past season, Block raced alongside his wife, Lucy, and their oldest daughter, Lia, 16, in the American Rally Association Championship. "It was the happiest I've seen him," Pastrana says.

In action sports, Block remained behind the scenes. But when he became a rally driver, he had to reconcile with being in front of the camera, with people viewing him as an athlete first, businessman second. He responded by becoming the kind of athlete he'd want to sponsor. He showed up early for autograph signings, answered emails within an hour of receiving them, granted interviews to outlets large and small and stayed until a photographer "got the shot."

On screen, Block was effusive and larger than life. He laughed easily and often and seemed to interact effortlessly with the camera. In person, he was quiet and shy, a listener and observer.

"He'd often say, 'Can't you just say it for me?'" says Brian Scotto, Block's longtime collaborator and co-founder of the motorsports brand Hoonigan, the company's name a nod to an Australian term for a person who drives a vehicle dangerously. "He hated talking on camera. It was often my job to coach and coax him along."

Although his YouTube channel was the most popular in motorsports history, Block never became especially comfortable in the spotlight. But he understood its power and respected the responsibility of being the man beneath it.

When the cameras were rolling, he treated every shot like it could be his last.