Interview: Alex Gelsomino – Ken Block’s right hand man
In a 25-year career that has so far seen him contest over 300 rallies, American-based Italian co-driver, Alex Gelsomino, is showing no signs of slowing down.
Most famous for his long-time pairing with media sensation Ken Block, Gelsomino has also sat beside rising WRC2 star Gus Greensmith, and unknown to many, with Subaru legend Colin McRae.
As he prepares to tackle next week’s WRC round in Turkey, Gelsomino spoke to RallySport Magazine about his career in the sport, his association with Ken Block, and his thoughts on the current World Rally Cars.
RSM: Congratulations on your career so far – it’s been one heck of a ride to follow. What initially got you into the sport?
Alex Gelsomino: I was born and raised in Italy, where rallying is big. Growing up, I used to go spectate at rallies and hillclimbs with my mates, and once I reached driving age I participated in a co-driver course organized by a local team.
They then found me the opportunities to start my career.
Thanks for the compliments, it has been an incredible ride, especially after I moved to USA in the mid 90s and then progressed all the way to WRC level.
RSM: Following on from that, how does that lead to a pairing with Ken Block?
AG: Ken got into rallying in 2005. After selling the company he co-founded (DC Shoes), he was looking to start competing, so the team he worked with reached out to me early that year to see if I was interested.
Funny thing is that I originally turned down the ride, as I had previous arrangements with another team in a full season program.
But after that program was reduced to just a couple events, and after thinking more about the opportunity to work with a new driver that was already attracting prestigious sponsors, I called back who was managing Ken’s program and discussed my availability.
We have worked together for 12 years and 109 rallies, of which 21 have been outright wins. Time flies for sure.
RSM: You’ll get to co-drive for Ken in one of the new 2017-spec World Rally Cars in Spain. How excited are you at the opportunity?
AG: I’m very excited to be able to compete in the latest spec WRC car in Spain. We are hoping to be able to test the car comprehensively on both tarmac and gravel specifications.
It should be a fantastic experience because these cars are truly the pinnacle of the sport, even when compared to the Group B cars of the 80s.
Ken and I spent a lot of time in the early generation world cars in WRC and in national events, but these newer cars are the next step way up in performance.
“We are very fortunate to be able to have this opportunity in one of those cars, as they are pretty much allocated only to the factory team in the WRC.
RSM: Are we likely to see more of Ken in WRC events in the future? He certainly has a big enough fan base to make it successful.
AG: I believe you will see Ken competing in one-off WRC events in the future. Our larger years in WRC were 2010 and 2011, with several other participations in the following years, and we collected several top 10 results.
So everything from now on is extra opportunities to compete at the top level of our sport.
RSM: Do you think the current WRC cars will last at the top level, or will the dollar figures become too hard to keep up with when they are filtered down from the works teams?
AG: Running and renting a top-level WRC car is very expensive. They certainly look incredibly spectacular, both on the side of the stages and on videos, and this is what the sport needs.
Having anaemic looking top class rally cars in the world championship would really hurt the sport and all the excitement around it at the moment.
So I hope this extreme top class of cars stays for a long time. And I’m sure the powers at the top of the sport understand the WRC needs those cars.
RSM: We can’t mention Ken Block and this season and not speak about the incredible car which captivated many. How did the Ford Escort RS Cosworth rank on the coolest cars you’ve been in, and how heart-breaking was it to see it destroyed in a fire in the USA?
AG: Yes, the Cossie was always an idea that had fascinated me since the first talks within the Hoonigan Racing team a couple years ago.
The Group A cars are part of a special history of rallying for me and for many, a time when I was in my late teens and dreaming to compete in one of those cars.
Okay, time has gone by and now I have competed in one when they are actually historic rally cars, but nevertheless, the flair is always there.
We had a great time testing the car on a couple occasions in California and Arizona, and also placing it on the podium on its first event in Oregon.
What happened in Maine was heart-breaking for sure, but the most important part is that no one got hurt.
Another of those Escorts can be sourced and built again, and I’m sure Ken is considering that, because the response we got from fans at events and on social media was awesome.
The older fans remember those cars from that epic time of rallying and are very appreciative to be able to witness them (again or for the first time) in person after a couple decades.
The younger fans are curious and infatuated by the history and the wild and unique looks those cars delivered.
I really enjoyed competing in it and I hope to have the opportunity again, if that direction will be followed for Ken’s next rally car.
— Ken Block (@kblock43) July 21, 2018
RSM: A rising star you’ve been with in the past, Gus Greensmith, is making strides in WRC2. You’ll be in Turkey (and GB) alongside him. How is the preparation different, firstly with a different driver, and also to a brand new event?
AG: Gus and I have worked extensively together a few years ago, when he was making the transition from the British Championship to the WRC, so we know well our work methods and personalities.
A couple years ago I decided that I wanted to spend more time at home in USA and compete at national championship level to give myself a break on the travel, but I always felt that deal with Gus in the WRC was left with some unfinished business.
We won many stages in the WRC Fiesta Trophy in 2016, but were never able to capitalize on a win when mechanical issues and punctures left us stranded while leading in Portugal, and while on the podium on a couple of other events.
When Gus’ regular co-driver (Craig Parry) was injured in a test prior to WRC Germany a few weeks ago, Gus reached out to me to see if I could assist with co-driving for him for a couple events.
He’s a very talented young driver and he is following the correct path to the top of the sport with the support of his sponsors and mentors.
I’m looking forward to sit again with him in Turkey and GB, and work hard to help him retain his third place in the WRC2 championship.
As far as the preparation for a new event like Turkey, it’s a bit different from other WRC events where you can use the data and pacenotes from the previous years.
I competed at WRC Turkey when it was last a round of the WRC in 2010. But this year the stages are in a completely different part of the country.
You need to gather as much info as possible, videos from the previous years, even comments from other drivers and teams about the stages.
Then the recce will be even more crucial than normal as we start it with a clean pacenote book, and will have to create a set of notes that allow us to go fast while keeping the car on the road.
From the initial organizer videos and looking at the challenge those stages offer, we can already tell this will be a difficult rally that could actually decide the World Championship.
RSM: Through OzRally Pro, your co-driver training business with wife Rhianon, you have trained numerous co-drivers to become better. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring co-driver?
AG: There would be a lot of advice that I could give an up-and-coming co-driver, but maybe the most important one is that with sacrifices and proper effort, and if you have the talent, you can really have a go at becoming a pro in this sport.
While being at the right place at the right time is something that applies to every career and not just rallying, there are opportunities out there to gain experience and put yourself in the radar of teams and drivers.
RSM: There’s a photo that was doing the rounds of social media recently of you alongside Colin McRae. I believe you were beside him in a test. How did that come about and what was the experience like?
AG: Yes, that was a fantastic experience that I owe to my team bosses when I was working for Subaru Rally Team USA.
Colin was team mate with Ken and Travis Pastrana for the rally portion of the X-Games in Los Angeles in 2006, and I remember that Nicky Grist’s flight was going to be late and he was going to miss the pre-event test the day after.
I was asked by the team manager (Derek Dauncey) to sit with Colin on the day of testing. One thing I remember of Colin was his precision behind the wheel. The car would be always where he wanted it to be.
Today one of the brightest talents the sport of rallying has ever seen would have been 50 years old. It was a privilege to codrive for Colin McRae in a private test and have him as a teammate a decade ago. #legend #ifindoubtflatout pic.twitter.com/NBFmpZTM5i
— Alex Gelsomino (@AlexGelsomino) August 6, 2018
Being complimented by him at the end of the test about my work that day was a career highlight.
RSM: You’ve co-driven in countless countries, and for numerous drivers. What is left on your to-do list?
AG: That’s a great question. I have achieved everything I set as goals when I started in rallying. My goals were to one day to be a factory co-driver and to compete in WRC with top 10 results, and I have done both extensively.
But something still happens at the end of every rally: a few hours after the finish I start thinking about the next rally and when will I be able to get again the same awesome feelings and adrenaline rush I get from flying down a stage, calling pacenotes to my drivers.
It’s been nearly 300 rallies and 25 years in my career, but that feeling is always there at the end of every rally.
So, until that fire keeps burning, I will keep strapping the helmet on.