For some people, going fast is a way of life (just ask Ricky Bobby). One of those people is DC Shoes co-founder and rally cross driver Ken Block who’s spearheaded the buzz behind a new kind of motor sport here in the states with over 130 million views to date via his massively popular Gymkhana viral video series. With the release of his fourth installment of the acclaimed shorts, Ken hits the brakes to chop it up with us about the relatively new sport, the Maybach doing donuts in the “Otis” video, the possibility of NBA players getting in a roll cage if the lockout keeps up and of course, what to expect from Gymkhana Part 4, which he claims will trump all his previous video offerings.
Initially, what inspired you to get into rally cross and gymkhana?
I’ve been a fan of rally since I was a kid. I started doing Gymkhana because it’s a simpler, cheaper way to race rally cars and do it in a grassroots way. It’s one of those things to just get more seat time so I could be a better driver. Now, the gymkhana thing has become a lot bigger than that because of the videos being so damn popular.
What makes gymkhana cheaper?
Rally is just very expensive. Usually in the world championship it’s a three day race that goes over 300 mile, where as gymkhana typically uses a small, simple course for actual race events. So it’s something you can do competitively a lot cheaper.
What are the origins of gymkhana?
I think it comes from Japan; at least that’s where the word comes from. There’s a thing that’s very popular in the states called Auto Cross where they can set up a course in the parking lot of a stadium, or really anywhere, and race through the courses. The courses are just marked by cones. Gymkhana is the same type of concept but the course is more complicated and there’s obstacles that are designed to make you have to slide. The techniques are very similar to auto-cross but there’s more drifting techniques where you have to control the car differently.
What’s the biggest misconception about the sport?
The biggest misconception is that it’s actually a very small grassroots sport and I’ve kind of taken that name and title from a simple course and expanded the course idea to include all sorts of things. So people see what I do with it and don’t realize that the real sport is basically a lot simpler. It’s kind of when people see those trick basketball videos on the Internet and if you think that’s what basketball’s all about you’re a little bit off.
It’s a pretty intense sport and it seems that it’s become much more popular in the states in part because of your videos.
It’s starting to get more recognition now because people are seeing what can be done with these cars and want to go out and try it. I’m stoked that these techniques are becoming more popular. I think that before these videos a lot of people didn’t understand what sort of skills rally drivers have and what we can do with these cars that are built this way.
Speaking of what those cars are built for, did you catch Jay-Z and Kanye West’s new music video “Otis” which features a custom Maybach doing donuts?
I actually caught the video. I thought it was insane what they did to that amazing car.
What’s the key to pulling of a great donut? Is there an optimum speed depending on the surface you’re driving on?
Well, mainly it depends on the car. The difference between a Maybach and a Ford Fiesta are huge, mainly between how the car reacts and its set up. You’d probably have to keep up a little more speed with something like a Maybach than with my race car or like a Mustang.
The varying factors have to include the tires. What kind of tires do you have on your car?
I use a Pirelli street tire for everything. Especially for gymkhana, we want something that’ll actually slide and have really controlled compounds so that depending on the heat of the tire it’s always very consistent. That’s something that we do a lot of testing on to get the best results we can.
It’s probably too loud to listen to music during a race but if you could pick an album as a soundtrack to the race what would it be?
I still got Jay-Z’s latest [Solo] album [The Blueprint III] in the rotation. It’s one of my favorite albums of all-time so that’s an easy pick.
Now, you did a music video with The Cool Kids as promo for one of your gymkhana videos last year. Any other music acts or celebs you’d want to have in future videos?
That’s always a thought. I’m just such a big music fan. Trying to make the right mix of who we can work with and what we can do is the hard part. Jay-Z or someone like that would be amazing to work with.
What’s your opinion on the authenticity of racing films like the Fast & Furious franchise?
I’ve honestly never watched the Fast & Furious movies. From the commercials that I’ve seen they look fairly fake so I’m not really a big fan of that type of stuff.
Due to the NBA lockout some of the players may be without a job come fall and could be looking into other sports to earn a living. Do you think any NBA players have what it takes to compete in rally cross?
[Laughs] That’s a good question. Half of them probably wouldn’t fit in my car. There’s probably a small percentage that would actually fit. I’m not even that tall, I’m 6’ft and I even have trouble getting into the race cars. A lot of the professional race car drivers are a lot shorter than me. I was supposed to do a Formula 1 drive a couple weeks ago and I went to get in the car that they wanted me to drive and I couldn’t physically fit in it. So it’s got to be someone like Dwayne Wade who’s around the 6” ft range.
The trailer for Gymkhana Part 4 claims that you shot in places like New York, L.A. and India? That’s a lot of locations compared to your previous videos. How’d you pull that off?
I’ll let you in on a secret; the thing we shot wasn’t actually shot all over the world. We shot on the Universal Studios back lot. So when we say its shot all over the world it’s a joke because on the Universal Studios back lot there’s a New York set, there’s a sound stage and all kinds of different sets. The reason why we say India is because the conclusion of the film goes into a Bollywood dance.
People are hyped for the video. What can we expect from Gymkhana Part 4?
We went this whole Hollywood angle with effects on the intro. Like Terminator 2 liquid metal stuff and all sorts of shit like that. In this video we just had a lot of sarcasm and just made it as entertaining as we could. The driving is still all real but it’s in gnarly and difficult situations because it’s really difficult driving in a [mock-up] downtown area in New York than it is driving on a race track.
One of your videos was in the Port of L.A. and another was on a track in France. Do you have any ideas for new locations around the world that you’d want to set up a Gymkhana course?
I haven’t put that much thought into that. Being able to do something in Manhattan would just be amazing but it’s almost impossible to shut down certain areas where it would be interesting to see that, like Times Square. Major cities like London, Paris or New York, that’s some of the stuff that’s high on my to-do list but it’s also some of the hardest. It’s all about time and money.
During your appearance on the show Stunt Junkies you mentioned that the 171ft long jump you completed on the show wasn’t as scary as driving through trees. What are some of the difficult terrains you drive through?
Well I mainly do stage rally which is mostly out in forests around the world. This weekend I’m racing over in southern Germany. We have 20 stages over three days that are out in the countryside. Half the stages are in forests and the other half in vineyards. That’s what rally racing is all about, being in these insane locations, Argentina, Germany, Sweden, England, all around the world. [For the drivers] it’s being able to get down to these stage roads, which can be twisty roads in the forests of Spain etc. The reason I said that jumping that jump was pretty easy is because there’s just a certain speed I have to hit and I’m going straight. When you have to do a 15 mile stage where if you go off the road you’re going off cliffs into rocks and trees and you’re competing against some of the top guys in the world, if you’re not scared at some point you’re not going fast enough.
Any last hints you can give us as to what to expect from part 4?
Like I said, the location is quite unique and the concept is different than what we’ve done in the past. It’s also longer than all the other ones. I like this one more than all the rest and it's some of the most difficult driving I’ve done. Visually it’s probably the most entertaining video out of everything that I’ve done.