I've wanted to be a World Rally Championship driver ever since I saw Prodrive running BMW E30 M3's in the late 1980s. And for a brief moment I was one of those beloved athletes, cheered by fans and professional racers alike. Sadly, it was just a trick.
Full Disclosure: The Monster World Rally Team wanted us to hang out with them at the Goodwood Festival of Speed so badly they agreed to fly Bill out there and put up with him for the weekend. He rewarded them by putting his stickers on all their cars and chucking jars of peanut butter at them. Lesson learned.
It's a rush to have drivers who just raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans say "your driving is fantastic…can I take a picture with you?" The feeling was amazing, but short lived as I took off the hat and glasses to explain that I only borrowed Ken Block's fire suit and that I wasn't him.
I felt bad for fooling them, but man was it fun. Some of the top drivers from around the world actually thought I was Ken Block. I learned two things:
1. I got to realize how much branding Ken walks around wearing on any given day and how much it apparently confounds Europeans.
2. I got to hear first hand what they say to him, how much respect they have for him. They too know how hard it is to do what Ken is doing, to race at the level he is racing at, to even drive in the World Rally Championships.
A few fans ran up so excited they could barely talk and asked for autographs. I think one woman was crying she was so amped up to meet Ken. Even cooler was that Ken was following 50 feet behind and got to watch the whole thing the way we do. When we got to the WRC car he was smiling as much as I was. Man was that fun.
I tried to explain to Ken that to get the proper experience I should probably drive the WRC Fiesta up the hill, full hoon and all. Don't worry Ken, I can handle it. And don't forget Goodwood registered me as a driver, gave me the proper wristband and I regularly pilot an overpowered rear wheel drive BMW. How hard can your car be with all the WRC hotness installed?
Ken was like "sure, do you have your phone on you? We have to call Malcolm and make sure it's OK." For a split second when my heart stopped, I thought I was actually going to drive Ken's WRC car. Then he tilted his head and looked me like I was a ten-year-old asking my dad when I can drive the family car because I can almost reach the pedals. I had to ask. Wouldn't you?
So what's it like to ride his cars? First up, the Gymkhanna 3 car.S
A torque monster that can rotate in a perfect circle. For me, it's probably the coolest feeling outside of super deep powder and really nice skis (or a snowboard I guess). It's one of those things you need to experience to believe, my words cannot do these donuts justice.
I'm not even sure a donut is adequate to describe what's going on inside the car. It just spins and spins and spins and the whole cockpit fills with smoke to where you can't see anything. Like nothing! And keep in mind he is doing in this in the middle of some of the most valuable cars in the world. I watch these cars disappear in the smoke as we were spinning towards them but ken did something and changed our trajectory. It was so cool.
When you're done, it's like four or five minutes before the car stops smoking and it finally escapes the cabin. It's wild. I've done donuts before. Even in fast cars like Corvettes, but nothing is like doing donuts in an AWD monster specially created for the Hoonigan himself. The car is amazing and as the Le Mans racer put it, "His driving is fantastic!"
Next up. Ken's Fiesta World Rally Championship Car where the story started. The Gym car and WRC may look the same, but they are so different. More different than I could have imagined. The Gym car has the engine mounted longitudinally with relatively stiff suspension, but somehow, it still feels like a rally car on gravel tires. It was designed this way so Ken could use rally technique to execute those perfect maneuvers in the Gymkhana videos.S
The WRC car on the other hand uses the traditional Fiesta layout with the engine mounted transversely. It seems more like the Fiesta that left the Ford assembly line. The strange thing is that the WRC car feels more like my Baja 1000 project due to the massive amounts of suspension travel.
Like so much travel that the inputs seem to be really, really sensitive and demand more patience than I think I'm willing to use on a rally stage. A slight squeeze of the brake sends the car ‘s nose down like 8 inches. I know. It wasn't what I expected. Getting into a WRC car and driving it like you stole it? Not going to happen. I was a little disappointed.
So we launch and the car is pretty fast for a little 4-cylinder restrictor plate motor. Ken cuts to the grass and I am like here we go, a nice little crash in front of tens of thousands of spectators. But the car was hooked up! It ripped thru the grass and never slipped a bit. It's not that I doubted Ken, it just the line he took, with the speed he was carrying, would have been a crash if I was driving. I know Ken is on proper Pirelli WRC tires, but they shouldn't have that much grip on slick grass. It was really cool and the fun was only beginning.
At he top of the hill, Ken lays down this ridiculous sweeping burnout/drift around a giant turnaround area before we exit and head to my favorite part of the event. A rally forest stage that took us around 2 minutes, 20 seconds to get through. All of the sudden the car's better, it seems to react quicker, like someone woke it up from a nap…hey, get up, wake up, its time, we're back on gravel!
It's such a strange feeling to take a car off the pavement into loose dirt and have more control, but that's exactly what happened. The inputs were still sensitive and had to be initiated way earlier than I expected to execute a nice smooth corner, but if you needed to turn quickly, like only once, you can cut the wheel and force the car to jump sideways.
I felt it first hand and it was pretty awesome. But after that cut, you are basically working to bring the car back under control. Need to cut a second time right after the first? I think that's when you crash. But what do I know? This is my first time in a real rally car.
Back to the forest stage. The car is so fast through this crazy tight road that I am actually hanging on, grinning ear to ear, but hanging on. Way better than the donuts in the Gymkhana car.
Then all of a sudden the marshals are waiving their hands pleading for Ken to slow down, but he never lifts and finally I'm like "um Ken" into the intercom and all I hear is "I see him" and we come around the corner on a wounded Group B Metro (I think that's what it was, but we were going so fast I couldn't entirely make it out in the shadows of the forest canopy) that barely gets out the way as we hit this jump and blow by him a few feet in the air!
It was all another reminder that I want to drive in the WRC and be one of those guys, not just pretend to be.