The Gymkhana Genius | How Ken Block Became One of Motorsport's Biggest Stars
How an action sports businessman made himself one of the most famous faces in motoring
We’ve partnered with Microsoft Studios ahead of the release of Forza Horizon 3 to look at what happens when the worlds of action sports and motorsport collide, and how the “leave your limits" attitude crosses over between the two. Forza brand ambassador Ken Block is one of the best examples of this. After years at the helm of one of the world's biggest skateboarding brands, he took up rally driving and is now one of the sport's most famous faces...
Words by Tristan Kennedy | Main image by Robin Pearson
Skateboarder, snowboarder, motocross racer, rally driver, brand owner, businessman, viral video star. Ken Block has been many things over the course of his long and varied career.
"Ken Block has a flair for combing the spectacular with unwavering success."
However, what has remained consistent throughout, whichever hat Block is wearing, is that he always pushes the limits of what people think can be done. Whether he’s in the car, in the boardroom, or appearing online, he has a flair for combing the spectacular, with unwavering success - something that rarely goes unnoticed.
In fact, these days making a scene is basically his job. His Gymkhana series of Youtube videos, which feature him pulling crazy drift stunts and four wheel burnouts in a series of heavily customised cars, have been phenomenally successful. He’s racked up more than 300 million views across the nine episodes they’ve made so far, each one bigger, and more spectacular than the last.
What’s interesting is that this latest career move, the one which has made him the most famous, came about somewhat by accident. “Gymkhana itself is a small, grass roots motorsport with obstacles that require you to slide around them, instead of driving around them," Ken told us, 12 years after the first Gymkhana video hit the internet.
“I started doing that a couple of years into my race career, and then built a specific car to do that. But the guy who ran the series in Southern California where I lived quit, so I had this amazing, fun, gymkhana car with nowhere to drive it. And that's how the series got started. I went back to where I'd done gymkhana races which was the El Toro Airfield in California and we filmed the first Gymkhana video there.".
Block had been driving rally cars for some time, and earning some pretty solid results in competitions. He had even driven in the World Rally Championships. But his day job - what he was really known for - was as one of the head honchos at DC. He’d co-founded the skateboarding and apparel brand in the early 90s with his friend Damon Way and went on to build into a global empire, eventually selling it to Quiksilver for a cool $87 million [£65 million] in 2003.
At the time of the first viral video Ken Block wasn’t really a name that many people would’ve recognised outside of the world of action sports. And even inside that world he was best-known as a businessman.
Even if the advent of the Gymkhana series was an accident – albeit a very happy one – did Block ever envisage his success in the business world would be replicated by success online?
“No." he admits, without hesitation. "I knew that when we made the first [film] it was something that I liked to watch, and that we had fun making it, and I enjoyed the creativity of the editing and the story telling. But, once that took off , it then became sort of a goal to make each one different, and unique, and try and get even more views."
If the success of that first video was unexpected, Block’s response to it - building it into a series and a brand in its own right - shouldn’t have surprised anyone who knew him. As his career at DC showed, he was never one to pass up an opportunity to do crazy things, and loved testing his limits. He once famously drove his into a snow park in New Zealand, hitting a monster kicker while DC pros Eddie Wall and Torstein Horgmo jumped beside him.
These days, Block has now largely left the world of board sports behind. He parted ways with DC after years in charge (and five successful Gymkhana episodes) to concentrate on motorsport full time. Although Gymkhana Nine sees a return to what Ken himself calls “simple, raw driving" the more recent episodes of the series, including one that saw Block take to the streets of Dubai, have been sponsored by different brands, including his own car-focussed clothing company Hoonigan.
But at the age of 48, he seems to be enjoying his career more than ever. “What I did as a business man for many years was creative direction, and marketing direction. The last title I had at DC Shoes was Band Director, so I oversaw all of the creative stuff, from product development to marketing and athlete engagement." Block told us.
“So I really enjoy that creative concept design, and having the vision of what you want, and then seeing the end result. And for me, making these videos is always fun because I get to be involved in all of that creativity. So it really does fulfil my dreams as not only what I wanted to do as a business man, but also literal a dream-come-true, to get in the race car to do all of this.".
Although he’s no longer be involved in the world of action sports on a day-to-day basis, the action sports attitude - that desire to push yourself, leave your limits behind, and do things a bit differently - is still very obviously there in everything Ken Block does.