When rally icon Ken Block went to Japan in the early 90s, he once spent $200 at an arcade playing a racing simulator. The title? Sega Rally, the classic racer that would help hype up the sport to a future driver who would eventually take rally cars to places they've never gone before.
"Even before I was a rally driver, that was just the type of racing I would like to do in video games," says Block. "Going around a regular track just wasn't as interesting to me as sliding around and jumping a car.
"So when they wanted me to be involved in DiRT 2, I jumped at the chance. I was really stoked that they were interested in me as an athlete, and they were interested in incorporating the stuff that I do with the rally cars into the game. It couldn't be a better situation for me."
And Codemasters isn't just taking Block's image and sticking it into the game -- they actually flew him back and forth to England to consult on everything from the game's track design to how the cars handle.
I sat down with Block recently to get his take on everything from DiRT 2 to why he jumps his car in the snow. After he got over the shock that ESPN actually pays me to play video games for a living, here's what he had to say:
The Mag: How important was it for you to carry on the video game tradition of the Colin McRae series with DiRT 2?
Ken Block: For me, to be a part of the Colin McRae legacy, that's incredible to me. Anytime my name is mentioned anywhere near a legendary name like Colin McRae, s—, that's amazing. To me, Colin is one of the main reasons why I'm even involved in rally, so it's just a huge honor for me to be involved in this game. In Europe, it's actually called Colin McRae's DiRT 2, but in the U.S., it's just DiRT 2. Same game, it's just the fact that his name is known a lot more in Europe because of how big rally is there. But it's still the same game with the same heritage. What's funny is I think most people in America, when they hear the name Colin McRae, they think he's just a video game character. But in Europe, he's known as a legend because the sport has so much more exposure.
What exactly is your role behind the scenes with Codemasters in developing DiRT 2?
I was brought in as a consultant so that the game can reflect more of a modern direction --some things like X Games with a super special jump in the middle of it. We wanted to add those types of things in the game, so they used me to make sure that when these aspects are added, they're added correctly. I also consulted on the actual gameplay and how the car drives and reacts. The game engine being used for DiRT and GRID, it's really one of the best ones out there and one of the most critically acclaimed driving engines. But on my end, I was trying to help it feel fun, but at the same time react even more like a rally car.
The Web has really helped fuel your fame with all these videos of you doing insane jumps in the snow alongside snowboarders. Where do you get your inspiration for these videos?
I grew up snowboarding and skateboarding and riding dirt bikes, and in all of these sports, so much of it is going out and playing and practicing and having fun. I've never competed in a skateboarding contest. For 10 years of my life, skateboarding was just about having fun. It's the opposite with rally. 95-percent of my time in my rally car, I'm racing. Only five-percent of my time do I get to go out and practice or play. So any chance where I can setup situations where I can go and play with the car -- it's an incredible and really fun vehicle -- so I try to make up excuses to shoot videos where we can take the car up on a ski hill or out on a motocross track and actually go play with it. There's just so much that can be done with these cars, but nobody else seems to think this way. For some reason, I seem to be the only one who wants to go and do this stuff. I'm just trying to inject a little more fun into the sport as I try to get the most out of these vehicles.
What's the craziest stunt you've tried in your car so far?
The stuff on the ski resort. How often does a ski resort let a car drive around on it? [laughs] It's really amazing terrain, a ski resort, because you have these big, wide-open runs and the car really slides around well on the mountain. That was incredibly fun.
What are the physics and the calculations you need to make before doing a big jump in the car? How do you figure out what you can make and what might get you killed?
It's really all physics. I have a friend who writes these mathematical equations that calculate all of this stuff out. There really is a science to it. All of the jumps that we've built, including the X Games, you have to do it right, because if you don't do it right, there are going to be some bad consequences like what happened with my crash in New Zealand. I was trying to jump a snowboard jump and it was difficult. Had it been a car jump, I would've just changed the dimensions some. So I knew there was a big risk, but I didn't think it would be that bad -- it ended up really bad (Block broke his back!). That's the good thing about the video game. You can try some of my jumps and there's no risk of injury. Crash your car as much as you want and there's no consequences. That's a lot cheaper and a lot less painful than what I do.
How have you been able to step into the rally scene and become of the face of the sport in the U.S. so quickly?
I think one factor is that I've done a few things that are different. Most competitive rally drivers, all they do is go race. That is a great way to get sponsorship and hone your skills and prove yourself, but as far as building your name, you really need to do more than that. I've been lucky where I've gone out and done some fun things with the cars that have been popular on the Internet and that's really helped me grow my name and increase my sponsorships. It's been a really good situation and it's been really fun to make those videos.
When you're doing a big jump, what goes through your mind while you're in the air?
It's fun and frightening all at the same time. It is incredibly fun, but at the same time, the consequences are pretty bad. I enjoy doing it, but pretty much the bigger and faster you go, the more dangerous the consequences are. I enjoy doing it, especially at the X Games where it's part of a competition, but beyond that, when you try to go much bigger, it gets pretty scary.
It's a long way from The Fonz jumping over cars at Arnold's.
That's for sure.
In DiRT 2, they have a whole story mode in which you travel the world in your RV, trying to impress the other pros so they'll invite you to bigger and better races. What's the lifestyle of a rally racer like in real life?
For me, I have a nice small family that likes to travel with me and I work at a great company called DC, so I get to hang out with a lot of other pro athletes. I get to travel the world and go to these events and compete and hang out and party with all of the other people who are competing at these events. It's a pretty amazing life that I lead, and I'm very fortunate and I appreciate it as much as I possibly can. There aren't many people who are in the situation I'm in, so I'm trying to make the most of it. I'm not home very much -- I'm on the road 80% of the year, but it's definitely a good life.
How about in the game, what do I need to do to impress you so you'll invite me to a race?
It will depend on your success. You need to learn the tracks and get faster and faster on them. Then, as you progress, new races will open up. They tried to make everything really fun from the start where you don't need to struggle through boring cars in the beginning. They give you the goods up front, but you still need to earn your way through the tracks. I think they realize that a lot of people really enjoy driving with the cool cars and don't want to spend 20 hours just to unlock something fun. You might as well start with the best.
If I'm racing you in the game, what should I expect? Are you the type of guy who is going to bump me off the road?
Well, I'm not going to make it easy for you. It's about knowing the courses, going as fast as you can and knowing how to get the most from your car. They made it incredibly fun, but if you're playing me, you'll have to earn it.