Ken Block was lounging on the balcony of a pleasantly elegant hotel in northern France, enjoying a view of rolling hills and vineyards while resisting the urge to theorize how fast he could rip through them in a rally car. In a day he and Ford would unveil his entry for the World Rally Championship, officially making him the first American to compete full-time in at the highest level of the ultra-popular, ultra-difficult off-road racing circuit.
It was a decidedly long way from Long Beach, Calif., and his formative days as a skateboarder, snowboarder, motocross rider, and an unwitting pioneer in what would eventually become a billion-dollar industry. But Block, at 43, has parlayed a kid's obsession into a lucrative, diversified career. Others follow. A T-shirt and a pair of board shoes are increasingly the uniform of future motorsports heroes in training. Ricky Carmichael, a legendary motocross star, continues to make workman-like progress on four wheels in NASCAR, and friend and rival Travis Pastrana, a FMX/rally/action sports icon, has just begun to explore his interests in America's most popular form of racing.
They're defining the trail again.
"In a couple years when people say traditional sports and action sports, traditional sports are going to include action sports," Pastrana said. "It's getting really, really big. Car racing is difficult. They say you need to be an Andretti or an Unser or something like that to be able to work the connections to make it there. What's been good about action sports is it's given a lot of the younger guys the ability to get these sponsors and travel over. If you look at CORR Racing right now, even rally, one year you had myself, Brian Deegan, Kenny Bartram, (Dave) Mirra, it was kind of action sports guys in these other events and its really brought a fan base with us, which is pretty neat. I don't know how accepting it's going to be, but it's pretty cool."
While Carmichael and Pastrana apply themselves in NASCAR, Block is chasing an international ambition. After finishing 14th in the season opener in Sweden -- 16 minutes, 51.8 seconds behind winner Mikko Hirvonen -- Block will begin his second event of the season today in Guanajuato, Mexico. The circuitous, rugged route of a rally course symbolically matches Block's approach to motorsports as an outlet and a career.
"The way people have done motorsports for so long has been the same thing over and over," he said. "It's fairly cookie-cutter if someone wants to become a pro they have to come through this whole system and learn this whole thing. With Travis Pastrana and me coming in, we just do things different, have a different approach to it. Also, what we saw from rally was this unique thing that we've all done as children, cars that slid around and jumped and it was just more appealing for us because we came from a motocross background and there's more of that.
"Don't get me wrong, I don't have any disrespect for circle racing or oval racing or anything, but for me as a kid, it's just not what was appealing, like supercross and rally. For us, coming from that background, rally just made more sense. And then you try and work around the marketing. In the end we just brought a totally different look and feel to the marketing and when we unloaded it, we brought in a younger generation and crowd to enjoy it."
Even snowboarder/skate boarder Shaun White, the nation's most ubiquitous action sports star, is showing up in fire suits, currently as the centerpiece for a tire commercial. That's not surprising considering the wide horizons of both career ambition and marketing reach are so intertwined with professional and aspiring nontraditional athletes.
"Nowadays if you talk to the average kid, they don't just consider themselves a football player or a skateboarder," he said. "They want to do everything, and they do it all from video games to actually doing it in real life. I think it's a very interesting time in the world, even compared to when I was a kid because there's just so much more of a variety of things for a kid to do. "That's what my dad likes, and I'm not like that." I think it's actually very cool and it's been fun for me to watch it grow, skateboarding from such a small cult thing to a more widely accepted thing children can go do. It's cool."
And it might just make motorsports cooler to a generation that has otherwise ... cooled on more traditional forms of racing. Much of NASCAR's current malaise is due to the loss of youth audience, according to most industry experts, but two of the most popular action sports stars ever have embarked on stock car careers. Pastrana's dalliance is still in the early stages in a partnership with Michael Waltrip Racing -- he finished sixth in the All-Star Showdown in January -- but Carmichael, who retired from full-time motocross in 2006 is fully committed. That's why Carmichael, who calls Pastrana a friend, doesn't want to get too caught up in a pre-fab rivalry with his old motocross foil despite appreciating the value of the publicity for each. Pastrana often refers to his rivalry with Carmichael, even noting in a post-Showdown interview how he'd finished just one spot lower (sixth) than Carmichael in his debut in the same event. Pastrana, Carmichael said, had texted him before the race to get his facts straight.
Though Carmichael laughingly notes "I like Travis a lot" and "there's no sandpaper between us," he unsubtly underscores the seriousness of his career change by emphasizing his route.
"I'm more worried about racing guys that win championships, to be honest with you," said Carmichael, who finished 13th last season in his first full trucks campaign for Turner Motorsports. "I have a lot of respect for Travis. He has a lot of talent. I don't know .... it surprised me when I heard he was coming to NASCAR, but anyhow, I want to be racing guys that win races and win championships because that's my goal. I want to be here a long time. All you guys have seen my dedication and where I want to be. I've worked my way up through the ranks, starting with Late Models, to the East Series. This is my second year in trucks and next year I'm moving on to the Nationwide Series. I want to make this happen. So I want to be race against the guys who win races and championships. Will it be cool to be on the same track with Travis? Cool, because there's a storyline there. But at the same time I want to be up front and winning. If he's up there, then we'll both in the same place."
Pastrana is scheduled to compete in seven Nationwide Series races beginning Indianapolis on July 30, between X Games events in Los Angeles. Carmichael will also undertake seven Nationwide events in an as-yet-unfinalized schedule. Any overlaps will surely lead to a refiring of a rivalry that hearkens back to jumps and ruts and piles of dirt, whether Carmichael is inclined or not.
"Through my professional career as I was able to beat (Jeremy) McGrath, (Pastrana) was supposed to be the guy who was going to knock me off of the block," said Carmichael, who won five supercross championships and a record 10 in motocross. "Fortunately, for me that didn't happen. I kept going and he moved on and had other things he was going to do with the X Games and stuff like that. I was able to beat him one time. It's going to be fun to be on the same track with him. But to be honest with you, I haven't even thought about racing him. I'm just thinking about myself and trying to do the best I can."
And all with their own unique route.