Ken Block: a Top Gear tribute
TG remembers a true game-changer who did more for motoring than he could have ever imagined
11 November 2008. Gymkhana Practice hits YouTube and jaws hit floors around the world. This was our introduction to Ken Block. 1min 22secs in he pitches his Subaru sideways at gloriously high speed and in that moment we knew two things: 1) this is what the internet was made for and, 2) Ken Block was going to be huge.
He was, and in more than just YouTube hits, a big guy with a big personality. In person he was relaxed and friendly, very confident, but neither cocky nor arrogant. Colin McRae was a hero of his, rallying was the sport he loved from childhood and targeted from 2005 after he sold his share of DC shoes.
Doing wild stuff in rally cars wasn’t entirely new – Nitro Circus emerged around the same time, X Games had introduced rallying a couple of years earlier – but they were stadium format events, as much about the live audience as the online experience. Ken’s genius was to focus on the filming, to package his skills and imagination up in a five minute film for the internet to feast on. Gymkhana was born.
Ken’s first real exposure had come in 2007, when he’d thrown his Subaru Impreza rally car around a New Zealand snow park, jumping alongside snowboarders. Remember that? I do, could barely believe what I was seeing. It cost him a fractured vertebrae, but opened our eyes to the possibility of more. The following year, we got it.
The formula, taking a competition car out of competition and ragging it senseless, expanded over the years. Ken Block Rallying became Hoonigan Industries, the cars became more bespoke, the locations more exotic, the sponsors bigger, the stunts wilder. We all have our favourites: for me the donut inside the hanger in Gymkhana Practice, the spin on the Montlhéry banking in Gymkhana 3 and Gym5’s jump over the hills of San Franscisco. At the time each was a seminal moment.
This was big budget film-making dedicated to making cars cool and we lapped it up, it showed us that there was more to auto life than racing or competition. Yes, other things such as drifting and rallycross had been there before and nudged the boundaries, but in Ken Block we had a focal point for our passion, a north star to marvel at.
His influence should not be underestimated, because he (and his team) understood that it was about the visuals, about putting cameras where they had never been before, about explosions and donuts and smoke and Segways and tyres and skids and, well, everything that makes cars exciting and dramatic and dangerous.
His background wasn’t cars, it was skate shoes. His focus on marketing at DC Shoes had them staging stunts and creating visual content and adverts to promote the product. It was this Californian extreme and street sports attitude that he mashed in with rallying to create Gymkhana and make it a global phenomenon.
This relentless, dizzying, high octane, stunt packed bombardment that we see in so much car content these days, is pure extreme sports, seen in everything from skiing to mountain biking. He’s not only taken from it, he’s given back. Would athletes such as Danny MacAskill and Markus Eder be as successful if Ken Block hadn’t helped create a format and open up that audience?
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It’s no exaggeration to say that we’ve all learned from him. His impact has been felt far and wide and especially at Top Gear. He appeared on the show a few times, in fact we jumped on the Block train early sending James May out to film with him in 2009. Then in 2016 we worked with him on making a film in London. That remains the most watched film TopGear has ever put on YouTube.
I sat next to him in cars a couple of times. He almost looked awkward. He sat back from the steering wheel, drove with arms quite straight, chin tucked down, head back, but you knew from the first pitch of the car sideways that he was pinpoint accurate, already had complete confidence in the car and could make it do his bidding.
He was fun to be around, and that came through in his driving and in his films. It’s not a stretch to describe him as revolutionary. He understood the showmanship of driving better than anyone, his impact reaching far beyond a regular car audience to transform car culture for the online generation. His legacy lies not only in his films and output, but also in his ability to inspire people into the future. That will not die with him. Thank you, Ken.