Chris Harris remembers Ken Block (1967 – 2023)
The motoring world lost one of its true greats in Gymkhana pioneer, professional rally driver and all-round hero Ken Block
He transformed a trade and reinvented it in his own vision. The evidence is all around us and cemented by the immutable fact that his name and his Gymkhana franchise have become a generic term for any film that eviscerates tyres. Or as he called them, tires.
To most of us Ken just appeared out of nowhere in 2008 sliding a Subaru, but his life was already remarkable. He’d founded DC Shoes with two partners in 1994, sold it to Quiksilver in 2004 and was looking for ways to enjoy himself when he happened across motor cars. A huge rally fan, it quickly transpired that Ken had exceptional car control and so his journey began. But like everything he did, he boxed clever.
Illustration: The Red Dress Photography: Hoonicorn archive
This feature was originally published in the March 2023 issue of Top Gear magazine
Rather than throw money at trying to become the next Loeb, he and some buddies shot a video with his Subaru rally car, adopting the gymkhana name from Japanese autotesting. It exploded on the internet with most established car video makers, myself included, thinking – why the hell didn’t I think of that? Perhaps without realising it Ken and his small team had forever altered the relationship between content, sponsorship and brand advocacy. And like all the most profound changes to established practices, it happened accidentally – with a healthy dose of direction and skill. Next came the follow-up, the cleverly named Gymkhana Two. For many this was the real gamechanger. Remember seeing that Scooby scrunch through the flourescent tubes in slo-mo? Surely that’s the moment when many marketing budgeteers said “I don’t care about print advertising any more, spend what we have being a part of this madness”. And they did.
What most people didn’t know is that Ken won his first North American Rally in 2006 and was known to be very handy behind the wheel. The car control we saw in those first two films made sense to those who knew him, but the majority wanted to know how good he really was. It was around this time that I first met Ken – when he was at M Sport to test his new Focus WRC car that he would use for selected rounds of the championship. He was nothing like I’d expected – calmly spoken, modest and a listener. He was also very clear about what he wanted to achieve in a top level rally car – he basically wanted to have fun. He was there with his wingman Brian Scotto, the creative force behind the Gymkhana franchise, and the man often charged with saying things when Ken would rather not. They went on to become a fearsome commercial and artistic partnership.
What he did was turn the sport on its head. There were many negative voices around his involvement in the WRC. Some didn’t like the way he’d bought into a team (that’s the way most motorsport works, it’s for rich people) and the emerging keyboard warrior community said he wasn’t that good behind the wheel. They were of course wrong on the latter, but none of them, including shamefully the FIA, spotted that Ken’s was the most photographed and publicised car on every event. Despite this the Rally Commission never seemed keen to hear his thoughts on how rallying – a sport that was already in trouble back then – might appeal to a younger audience. So Ken competed for a few years, grabbed a notable seventh place finish in Mexico 2013 and then called it a day in 2014.
It’s at this point I should mention the Ford vs Subaru online war, but I can barely bring myself to. Suffice to say, Ken’s switch from Scooby to Ford – where he was deployed as a full-fat brand ambassador – had the partisan car community muttering about him being a Judas. Much of it was unpleasant. The only person who seemed quite unperturbed was Ken. He just let the viewing figures roll in.
By now he was already a star. An appearance on Top Gear terrifying James May in 2009 pushed him into the mainstream and the numbers kept increasing. There was something magnetic about the way Brian and Ken did things. I can’t define or describe exactly what it was, but the effect it had on me was to just want to be there when they filmed. I can remember driving to a disused racetrack south of Paris to see them shoot Gymkhana Three – it might have generated a little story in some magazine, but I just wanted to see it all happen. I became quite protective of people’s criticism of the driving too – knowing what I did about sliding a car, Ken was taking on some very technical challenges and the way he could execute them with very little practice made me realise he was working on a higher level to most of us.
Now the Gymkhana brand was flying, Ken and Brian turned their attention to launching Hoonigan – an apparel movement aimed at the auto community but suffused with some grungy SoCal anarchy. It took a while, but once they found the right voice and content output Hoonigan flew and, again, Ken had another huge commercial success on his hands. More than anyone I’ve met in the world of cars, he seemed to have the Midas touch – everything turned to gold.
On a personal note, he showed me great kindness when I was in a pickle. In 2014 my YouTube funded channel DRIVE was dropped and it left me low and rudderless. He and Brian got in contact and asked me to come over and watch the filming of Gymkhana Seven in Los Angeles, and they’d pay me to make a short film about the new Mustang he’d be driving. They didn’t need me, and they didn’t need to pay me, but it was a shot in the arm that I’ll be forever grateful for. The Hoonicorn went on to become Ken’s most recognisable tyre destruction machine, and in twin-turbo guise flung Matt LeBlanc around London in that amazing Top Gear film from 2016.
I think very few people really knew Ken, me included. He was a private man who was completely devoted to his family. A friend of mine who worked with him recently described him as “a real gentleman, but above all he must have been the greatest dad of all time”. And that’s what makes this loss so awful – the car community is in mourning, but all of our thoughts are with his wife Lucy and their children. Ken’s life was lived larger than most and, accordingly, his legacy will endure, much like his hero Colin McRae.
How the motorsport world reacted
“Ken was a visionary, a pioneer and an icon. And most importantly, a father and husband. He will be incredibly missed” - Hoonigan Industries
Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter. Look out for your regular round-up of news, reviews and offers in your inbox.
Get all the latest news, reviews and exclusives, direct to your inbox.
“What an incredible person to learn from, battle with and to admire over the last two decades. Ken’s influence on the automotive world cannot be quantified. In addition to pioneering a roadmap for the rest of us to follow in the marketing of motorsport — Ken Block was, above all else, a devoted family man” - Tanner Foust
“I grew up watching Ken Block, he and the Hoonigans shaped my personality and interests in cars. The automotive community and world of motorsports are hurting” - Ryan Vargas
“I will forever cherish the almost 20 years of friendship and fun all over the world we shared enjoying our passions. I will forever be grateful for the constant inspiration, opportunities and advice that you offered. Thank you for what you brought to the world that created so many smiles and inspired masses” - Vaughn Gittin Jr
“Such a talent that did so much for our sport. He was a true visionary with his own unique style and infectious smile. Our sport lost one of the best but more importantly a great man” - Jenson Button
“I’m devastated to hear of Ken Block’s passing. He was such an amazing person, always lived life to the fullest. I remember our first time working together and how positive he was. So much talent behind the wheel. Years ago we had an amazing time heliskiing and snowboarding in Canada. We held so much respect for one another. He will truly be missed and my thoughts and prayers go to his beautiful family. Gone too soon. Rest in peace Ken” - Lewis Hamilton
“Ken was a visionary, so passionate and inspiring. He knew like no other how to combine motorsport and a big show. He lived his life to the fullest and I’ll never forget his smile and laugh” - Sébastien Ogier
“Ken was a trailblazer in the automotive industry. When he released Gymkhana in 2008 he had the entire Top Gear office wide eyed in amazement. We had the pleasure to work with Ken on several occasions over the years and his contributions were always so memorable and exciting for our audience. We were honoured to have had the chance to work with him and learn from him” - Alex Renton, Executive Producer Top Gear