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Could Ken Block’s Gymkhana come to London?
On the one hand, Ken Block’s philosophy towards his career borders on the spiritual: not bound by the past, welcoming of others into his world and an attitude so laid-back it’s eerie.
And on the other hand, he’s asked Pirelli to build him a special ‘Ken Block’ compound of tyre to have the “right amount of forward and braking grip with the right amount of slip that I need to slide through various obstacles.” Because if you boil it down, tyre death means more to him than anything else.
Welcome then, to the latest instalment of the impossibly popular Gymkhana video series; we’re now on number seven, and the big man shows no sign of packing up his amazing skills at tyre-slaying and taking up a job delivering groceries to the elderly (though can you imagine?).
We like Ken Block here at TG, though… well, we’re not sure he likes us as much, because this year, he came tantalisingly close to winning the Global Rallycross Championship, were it not for a couple of unfortunate Top Gear related incidents (he crashed at the Top Gear Barbados festival, the first GRC round, and had an incident with TG USA host Tanner Foust in Seattle).
We mention this to him - and say sorry - and he just laughs. Phew. Awkwardness out of the way, we spoke to Mr Block to see what’s what…
TopGear.com: Hi Ken, always a pleasure!
Ken Block: Likewise!
TG: So what’s the theme for your new Gymkhana Seven video?
KB: There are two main themes, the first one being the radically different car, and then second being Los Angeles itself. Because the car is so different, and LA is different to San Francisco (an earlier Gymkhana setting), I wanted to drive as wild as I could. In fact, the name of the video is called ‘wild in the streets’.
The theme then, is simple: if the cops were to shut down areas free to drive, what would you do there? I wasn’t looking for the fastest route through things, I was looking for the most fun or the most wild way through things.
TG: We would expect nothing less. But of all the cities on Planet Hoonigan, why LA?
KB: It has a lot of interesting driving situations and a lot of interesting landmarks. In fact, I really struggled because I had so many ideas which I had to break down into a ten minute video. I literally could have made an hour long Gymkhana video in LA.
So I picked the gritty part of downtown - I used the LA river which is really well known from Terminator 2, we did some other stuff around landmarks like Randy’s Donuts, Chinatown and ended on the freeway. Because LA is well known for its freeways.
TG: What was the most dynamic moment in the video?
KB: You know what a lowrider is, correct?
KB: Well, it’s distinctly American, especially southern California. But even more specific to southern California is what they call ‘hoppers’, and these are lowriders that they can either bounce the front end in the air, or where the entire lowrider bounces into the air.
So we got a guy to come out from the lowrider scene with one that bounces just the front end with hydraulics. There’s a stunt where he’s having a bounce and I’m timing donuts around the car being in the air. I had to avoid hitting the car as it comes down, and I tell you, it was really sketchy trying to do some good donuts around the car trying to time it correctly.
TG: Sounds… crashy.
KB: Y’know, I will tell you with five days of filming, with a brand new experimental car, things went… exceptionally well. No damage to the car in any shape or form, because these videos are quite tough; to drive in a way that looks dramatic on film. If you don’t get within inches of things it can look very boring.. It’s quite risky to drive this way, especially with a brand new experimental car.
We had one mechanical problem which was strictly to do with how much torque and horsepower the car was putting out.
TG: What happened?
KB: We actually twisted one of the propshafts and broke part of the transmission, just a result of having a car that puts out 845bhp and does it in a very linear way. We happened to break a few of the driveshaft parts. It’s no-one’s fault but mine, requesting as much horsepower as possible.
TG: Wow. Let’s talk about this car, because it’s mad.
KB: I really wanted to do something different. These videos… if I do the same thing over and over, people will get bored. So I had this idea of wanting to take the all-wheel-drive system and put it into something unusual. I thought about all sorts of different cars that we could do this to, from trucks, to different Ford vehicles like old Mavericks, but the Mustang is such an iconic car, and this year is the 50th anniversary, so it all just sort of fit.
Once I had decided on the Mustang, I found the model and year I really liked that was really simple and tough, with a mix of styling that I really wanted to do - a mix of WRC and DTM and Hot Wheels. The notchback ‘65 really fit that story. I’m really happy the way it turned out.
TG: Understandably. It kicks out quite a punch.
KB: It’s neither supercharged or turbocharged. It’s just a normally aspirated V8 engine from Ford that’s been massaged for more power by Roush Yates, so it’s basically like a NASCAR motor. It’s incredible, I’m amazed at how much pure power comes out this V8, because I come from a four cylinder turbo world - that’s all I’ve ever driven in my entire career.
To give you an idea, this car runs 295 Pirellis on all four corners, which are huge tyres, and I put it into second gear and lost it when I dumped the clutch. It lights up all four wheels instantly… it’s a beautiful thing.
TG: How does it handle?
KB: It drives like a beast! That’s the only way I can explain it. When you see it, it’s really a wild vehicle: the way it moves around and the noise it makes, it’s just a beast.
I like to run my cars quite soft, because then you get a lot of weight transfer which gives the front more grip and the rear end less, and slide around, so it’s really a unique setup. Most tarmac drivers are only looking for grip, but I’m sort of the opposite, I want to slide the car around, like I’m on gravel, because I come from gravel stage rallies, so that’s how I set these cars up.
When you watch the video you actually see the suspension letting the car move around quite a lot, and that’s a part of what makes it look so aggressive and part of what makes it so fun for me.
TG: What would you say to people who reckon you’ve modified an untouchable American classic?
KB: It’s not like I used a perfectly restored car. We found a used, beat up car as a base and then modified it from there. I work very closely with Ford and they were stoked to have a variation that had never been done before.
TG: You’ve mentioned to us before how Gymkhana Five was your favourite. Is that still the case?
KB: Yes, Gymkhana Five is still my personal favourite. But… this could possibly be my new favourite. It could outdo Five, or it might be equal. They’re both incredible in their own way. But I’ll tell you something that you probably won’t hear anywhere else: Mine is the only action/picture car to have ever filmed behind the Hollywood sign. There’s this road that goes up behind the sign, with some tarmac paths, but because it’s such a secure area - like, Homeland Security actually control that area - it took us three months to finally get permission to be able to do what we wanted up there.
We’re the only people to have ever done something like that. It’s really cool and pretty special to get the permission to do this.
TG: Wow, that’s… impressive. Could we ever see a Gymkhana in London?
KB: Absolutely. That idea has come up several times, not only through me and my team, but with some other people I deal with. It’s just finding the right time and budget and that sort of thing.
Unfortunately I have a lot of ideas, but a lot of it is about time and money. I don’t have an unlimited budget to make everything I want to - these videos are very expensive!
TG: So what about people like BJ Baldwin and his insane Trophy Truck video crashing into your Gymkhana party?
KB: You’re talking about Recoil 2 in Ensenada, right? I love seeing that stuff, people can copy me all day long, mainly because I love that sort of entertainment.
I’m a gearhead, so the more chances I can see great videos, the merrier. It makes me happy. If he did crash in on my parade? I wish there was more stuff like mine out there. I can only afford to produce one of these a year, I wish there were ten other people producing one a year, because it’s great entertainment and I love it.
TG: That’s a particularly Zen attitude to things, Ken. Finally, you came pretty close to winning this year’s GRC championship, were it not for, ahem, a few unfortunate incidents. How do you regroup?
KB: It was disappointing, but I’m really proud that I could race at the level I did. I’ll be back next year and hopefully win it. All I can do is keep trying as hard as I can.
TG: Great, thanks Ken!