You are here

TG steps inside Ken Block's office

  1. Standing next to his mud-splattered black Ford Raptor pickup, the snow-capped Utah mountains reflecting in his rainbow-lensed sunglasses, Ken Block, boss at Hoonigan Racing Division, Gymkhana star - and now Ford Focus RS drift co-ordinator - presses the mental rewind and starts to tell us how he got where he is today.

    With most successful people, there is usually a long back story of hard times and harder work to get to the top. But not Ken. He just exploded, in his trademark style, onto the rallying scene in 2004 and has been raising his and everyone else’s pulse ever since.

    Pictures: Robert Kerian

    This feature was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. “I’ve been a fan of motor sports and rallies since I was a young kid,” he says. “But I always thought it was just a European sport. Then, in 2004, Travis Pastrana did some rallies here in the States that got some press. That woke me up to the fact that rally actually existed here.

    “I was the chief brand officer at DC [Shoes] at the time, and Travis was one of our athletes. So I called his agent and said, ‘Hey, I really want to go figure out how Travis did this. Do you know who was running the car and what school did he go to and all that sort of thing? I want to go race with him if possible.’

  3. “So Travis’s agent, who is now my agent, hooked me up with all that information, and I went out and did a school just for fun, just to try it out. Turns out I had some natural talent for it, so I went and started racing that next year.” Ken saying he has some natural talent for rallying is like most of us saying we have a natural talent for breathing.

    In 2005, he became Rookie of the Year and beat Travis in the process. But it wasn’t the dirt rallying that propelled Ken into the world’s consciousness. It was his tyre-murdering Gymkhanas exploding all over the internet in 2006 that really caught the world’s attention. How did that come about?

  4. “Rallies around the world compete on gravel, tarmac, snow and sand,” he says. “But here in the States, we really only have gravel rallies. I wanted to learn to slide the car on tarmac like they do in the Monte Carlo or Corsica events. So Gymkhana was a way for me to acquire those skills in a cheap way in the States.

    “I liked it so much I built a car [his Subaru Impreza] to do it. And as soon as that car was built, the guy who was organising those Gymkhana events in Southern California quit doing them. So I had this amazing car, but nowhere now to go race it.”

  5. “So I took it to one of the places where I competed in a Gymkhana event, the El Toro Airfield in Orange County, CA, and we just filmed two days of testing and practising with the car, and having fun. I didn’t really think much of it. I thought it was some cool footage, but because I’d seen tarmac rallies and guys like David Higgins and Mark Higgins doing donuts at the end of stages in the middle of a tarmac road, I was used to seeing that stuff.”

  6. He and a few others might have been. But we weren’t. The reason Ken thinks it went so huge was down to packaging. “I really think that no one had showcased it and put it in a packaged way for the average person to see,” he says modestly. “Because it’s not like I was doing something out of the ordinary in terms of rally talent.”

    Really? “Well, there were a couple moments in there, like with the Segway, that were fairly dramatic. And very unusual - I think I’m really the first and only person to do donuts around moving objects. So I think that sort of thing really made it a big pass-along. But the response that we got from that was really quite beyond anything that we expected.”

  7. At the last count, the seven-episode Gymkhana series has notched up over 300 million views and counting. So they are not getting any less popular. How does he keep them fresh? “It’s really important to make each one unique, and the car has to be quite dramatic in some way, shape or form,” he says. Luckily he has an endless supply of cartoonish, camera-pleasing Ford Fiestas, thanks to his other rallying and rallycross duties.

  8. “The performance of the car and what it can do is incredible. The rallycross car that I race - the Gymkhana car is very similar, only slightly detuned - does 0-60 in 1.9 seconds.” That doesn’t need much explanation, but the star of Gymkhana 7, the 1965 Mustang-based Hoonicorn, does.

  9. “After the two Subaru and four Fiesta films, I just felt like I needed to do something different and fun in a way that really caught people’s attention,” he says. “I’m not really a Mustang guy, but I really appreciate the original design. Taking something like that, that’s known as a rear-wheel-drive muscle car, and making it all-wheel drive. It’s really the only performance AWD Mustang in the world. So that whole concept was just really strong.”

  10. The work for the car was done by RTR, fellow drift star Vaughn Gittin Jr’s company. Despite it all being fiendishly difficult, complicated and one-off, there was very little Ken had to do once it was delivered. “The first time I drove it, the set-up was almost perfect,” he says.

    “It’s a bit soft, but when I’m doing Gymkhana-type stuff, I want the car to slide and handle like it’s on gravel, so I leave the front end soft. That way, the front end dives and the rear really wants to oversteer. Normally with the Mustang I would have stiffened it up a little bit, but being soft is what makes it look really dramatic on camera, when I’m on the brakes and the front splitter’s scraping on the ground, you know?”

  11. Yes, we know. But despite looking like he had been driving it for 10,000 hours before turning on the hundreds of cameras for the five-day shoot, Ken had only driven it for a total of 15 minutes before the LA action started. “It’s just so loose and wild and easy to drive, but hard to drive at the same time,” he says.

    “But when I tell it to do something, it does it, and does it in a really good way.” Peak output of the naturally aspirated V8 Hoonicorn is 845bhp, which translates to around 600bhp or 150bhp per wheel. Does he prefer it to his Fiesta? “I hate to say it, but it’s genuinely the funnest car I’ve ever driven,” he says.

  12. But he may have to eat his words soon, as Ken has a couple of other special Fords in development. Talking about the first one makes even Ken go a bit starry-eyed - an 800bhp Group B RS200.

    “I didn’t want to take a classic restored car or one that’s in original condition and then make my own version of it - that’s kind of sacrilege to me. So I ended up finding one that had already been modified up in Norway.” Ken isn’t planning to Gymkhana-ise that one, just use it as an inspiration for a new DC Shoe line and to scare the bejesus out of himself at weekends.

  13. The second car, which was supposed to be a secret but which Ken couldn’t resist showing us after five seconds, is a Seventies Mark 2 Ford Escort in radical tarmac rally trim. All trick diffs and massively oversized, cutaway wheelarches. “First time I ever drove one was in the Colin McRae Memorial Rally. That was my first time ever trying to drive a rear-wheel car in a rally. And I just sucked at it. I couldn’t believe how difficult it was.

    “Ever since then, I wanted to get better at it and wanted to own one myself. So I bought a light tarmac build a couple years ago, and I broke it in the two [gravel] rallies I tried to race it in. So we decided to make it into an all-tarmac car, and for me, that meant making it a Gymkhana car. So that car will be done in a couple of months, and we’ll probably put out photos of it and start testing it in May or June or July.”

  14. “But, once again, it’s just another fun project car, taking a part of Ford’s history and making it work with what I do and how I do things.” Other cars in Ken’s cross hairs include the Sierra RS500 and the Escort Cosworth, so there are plenty of cars to keep him busy for a while yet… which is just as well.

  15. Even though there’s no word yet on where or even when Gymkhana 8 will be, don’t expect anything less radical from Block. At 47 years old with three kids, you might think Ken would be starting to slow and settle down, but you get the sense that he’s really only just getting started. “To be able to go out and drive all these cars is just incredible,” he says. “It is a real dream-come-true type of thing.”

    Click on for more pics from Ken Block’s office…

What do you think?

This service is provided by Disqus and is subject to their privacy policy and terms of use. Please read Top Gear’s code of conduct (link below) before posting.

Promoted content