Q&A: Ken Block on Gymkhana 9

We talk to the internet's favourite tyre slayer about his latest vid and the future of the Hoonicorn

Vengeance. That’s the secret to Ken Block’s latest Gymkhana video, ‘Raw Industrial Playground’. When he and his Hoonigan team went on YouTube earlier this week and hit ‘Publish’ on the ninth instalment of the frightfully successful Gymkhana series, it was viewed by over two million people in less than 24 hours.

So, even after nearly a decade of self-confessed tyre slaying around the world, there’s obviously still a palpable online audience. All keen to soak up and feast on amazing visuals, incredible driving and a complete disregard of tyre sympathy. We have to admit, we’re guilty of being one of them. 

But as Ken revealed to us in an exclusive interview, it was his beef with a certain BMW commercial that helped fuel his enthusiasm and take his driving to the next level in Gymkhana 9. So over to the man himself for more…

Words: Rowan Horncastle

Photos: Hoonigan/Monster Energy 

Ken Block: I was really annoyed with a BMW commercial. It’s the one where an M4 drifts around a fake aircraft carrier. It bugged me because lots of people thought it was real. That’s unfortunate for someone like me, because I work so hard to do all my driving for real and in a cool, authentic and original way.  

So to see someone drifting right at the edge of an aircraft carrier – which, admittedly is extremely cool – but was all fake, and then for people to believe it, hurt. So I wanted to better it and do it for real. 

Top Gear: Is that why you tried to hang your wheels off an edge of a precarious pier – mid-drift – in Gymkhana 9?

KB: Ha! Yeah. That’s just one of three sketchy ones in the latest video. It was a second gear slide, over the water, with a 20-foot drop. 

TG: Sheesh. How many attempts did it take you to pull it off? 

KB: About ten. I actually nailed it a couple tries in, but it wasn’t good enough. It was extremely close to how we wanted it… but wasn’t perfect. So I kept going. It was really quite difficult because I couldn’t see the back of my car. Let alone the wheels. So I had to basically make an educated guess. Of course, I’d go and watch some of the footage and the director Brian would tell me how close I was. He’d tell me ‘three inches here, six inches there’, so I’d use that as a mental guideline next time I went.

TG: But… six inches the other way and you’d have a very expensive race car in the drink.

KB: Exactly. It was quite sketchy and we had to take some pretty gnarly safety precautions in case I did fall in: there was an oxygen canister in my car, and divers in the water just in case. 

But that’s just the sort of thing that you have to do when you’ve done nine of these. You get to the point where you’ve really got to up the ante and come up with greater and more dangerous stunts. Gymkhana 9 has some genuine sketchy moments and that’s what kind of sets this one apart from some of the others. It was a huge challenge to pull off.

TG: Your first Gymkhana video aired in 2008. Over the years your audience has changed. Do you think people’s perception and expectations have changed as to what they want to see in the Gymkhanas?

KB: The funny thing is in the past nine years, think of all the videos you’ve seen online. The perception of what people watch nowadays has changed dramatically in that time period. People want to see stuff that’s more shocking or more interesting. If it was just the same thing over and over, they would tune off quite quickly. For us, that’s why it’s a big challenge to continue to make things that are interesting. I think there’s a fine balance between doing something that is going to entertain motorsports fans or car enthusiasts, and something that will interest the mainstream populous. They’re two different people. 

TG: Are they mutually exclusive?

KB: No. It seems like we’ve been able to marry the two with the first eight. That’s the only reason why people come back and watch it every time – they enjoy the creative concepts and storylines of what we are doing with the car, be it from the very unique track we founded in France for Gymkhana 3, to San Francisco with Gymkhana 5, to the ultimate Gymkhana grip track in 6. Plus, just seeing an all-wheel drive car driven like this is unlike what people are used to seeing. 

I feel like we make something that does speak to the core because this is real driving. There is nothing fake in these videos whatsoever. It’s the core driver and motorsport guy that can watch it and appreciate the fact that this is all genuine. But then for the general population, they look at it and see something that they just don’t see anywhere else.

If you watch Formula One you don’t see anything like this. You watch drifting competitions you don’t see anything like this. The package that we put together, you know, the basic motorsport eye candy, we really do it in such a way that’s trying to entertain people and do it in such a way that does keep your attention. 

TG: You’re a man who’s really one-of-one in this game. Do you think you’ve become a better driver over the series?  

KB: If you go back and watch Gymkhana 1 there’s still some very original stuff in it. But the car was really basic. It was a street car, with a key in the ignition. My skills have come a long way in the last nine years and the cars that we use have dramatically improved too. Seeing an all-wheel drive car driven like I do is unlike what people are used to seeing. Even in the motorsport world. Drifting has become quite big, but to see an all-wheel drive car driven this way is completely different. I’m really the only guy in the world doing that. And between the Hoonicorn, the Fiesta and the brand new Focus RS, we have some of the best all-wheel drive cars on the planet.

TG: The Focus RS is your rallycross car, not a specific Gymkhana build like the Fiesta, Subaru and Hoonicorn. How was it for Gymkhana-ing? 

KB: This car was phenomenal. I have to admit, it was the first time actually driving it in this way and we focused so much on building an amazing car to go rallycross with, it needed some changes. We had to adjust the suspension, the turbo, engine, all that sort of stuff because the entire tuning of the car was all for the rallycross circuits. We needed to make sure it operated properly for Gymkhana. 

The one thing that was different with the RS is that it has a different type suspension setup than the typical rally suspension I’m used to. So we had to really work to dial out some of the grip at the rear because it just wanted to hang on more than my other cars. That was the only real challenge.

TG: In comparison to everything else, how heavy was it on tyres? 

KB: For me, there wasn’t enough tyre smoke in Gymkhana 8 in Dubai. That’s because their roads were too nice. There wasn’t enough abrasion on the tyres to give it a lot of smoke so that video to me was lacking a bit of smoke. But in this one, I made up for that. Toyo produced a special compound for me that really worked for what I like to do in these videos. Normally, we tear through about 40 tyres per video, but I think we went through almost 50 with this one as I drove this one quite hard and wild as we really wanted it to look as dramatic as possible. 

TG: The Hoonicorn is probably one of the most extreme cars to ever hit the planet. Are there any plans to better that in any way or go more extreme?

KB: That car is definitely my favourite car to drive. The main thing is that car is so incredible that I cannot just leave it alone. I keep playing with it. We are taking that basic concept to create something even better. But when that’s going to happen, I’m not really sure. The Hoonicorn to me is such a good base and has the best balance and power delivery of any car. I want to make it better and we have some ideas, but it’s not ready yet.

TG: Would you add more power?

KB: I can always use more power. The problem with more power is that it starts putting excess strain on everything else. I would like to experiment with more power within an all-wheel drive car because some of the drift cars and supercars are 1000-1400 bhp. The Hoonicorn is down in the 800s. So, in the long run, we’d like to experiment with some more power.

TG: Have you had a go in the new Ford GT yet? Do you think it’s suitable for a Gymkhana video?

KB: No, I haven’t driven it yet. It’s a beautiful car but I think it’s a much better high-speed car than most of my cars. The visibility out of it isn’t that great, and I prefer all-wheel drive cars to rear-wheel drive cars. Don’t get me wrong, I would definitely play with one. It a stunning car.

TG: Final question. You’ve got one tank of gas, one car, and one road. What’s the car and where would you go with it?

KB: If it’s strictly asphalt, I would say a WRC Fiesta on the roads in Spain that they use for the WRC event.

If I could choose gravel, it’s easily the roads in New Zealand – they’re the most fun roads in the entire world. I occasionally go do a national event down in New Zealand just for the fun it. It’s expensive because it’s far away, but you just cannot beat those gravel roads, they are the best in the world.

Those responses may seem kinda cliche given that I’m a race car driver. But my favourite thing is to actually go do more racing. I enjoy driving street cars, but at the end of the day the response that you get on the road from a WRC car going through the gears in a place like Catalunya, Spain, is incredible. You cannot beat it with any other car.

What do you think?

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