Powersliding On The Precipice: In Conversation With Ken Block
Not only is Ken Block renowned as the co-founder of DC Shoes, he's also become one of the world's most ambitious stunt drivers. Here, we talk to him about filming his world-famous Gymkhana series, and driving to the absolute limit.
When you're a child, your peers frequently ask you the same old question: what do you want to be when you grow up? The clichéd answer is an astronaut, a fire fighter, or Gunnersaurus. But the reality is you're going to be working behind the kiosk at the co-op until you die. Sucks, doesn't it? But close your eyes and take a moment to dream with me: imagine starting a clothing company when you leave university which becomes hugely successful, imagine then selling said company for a huge amount of money and becoming super rich, imagine using that money to take up a sport you've always loved, and then becoming one of best in the world at said sport.
Though this might seem like an unreachable daydream for us mere mortals, it wasn't for Ken Block. Block co-founded DC Shoes in his garage when he finished college, and it soon became one of the most iconic brands in action sports. When DC was sold to Quicksilver back in 2004, Block took up rally racing, and within years he was competing in some of the world's biggest races, and winning them. You have every right to be jealous of this man.
What Block has become mostly recognisable for though isn't his business acumen or rally victories, it's the fact he's become an internet phenomenon. This is down to the Gymkhana series on YouTube, which in total has over a hundred million views. These videos show Block hooning around various settings, most of which seem completely unsuitable for rally driving, and performing stunts with his car that are genuinely jaw-dropping. Noticing how popular these videos were becoming, Block started the Gymkhana Grid event, where he invites drivers from around the world to compete side-by-side on a grid, where the drivers have to drift and donut around the course using their memory. It's a bizarre form of racing, but completely exhilarating.
The events have been held all over Europe, with this year's event taking place in Marathon, Greece. I've come over for the weekend to watch the event, and to spend some time with the entrepreneur-meets-daredevil. I take a seat with him just after he's finished a morning's practise, and he's looking knackered. "I train all year long," he tells me, after I ask about how you could possibly train for an event like this. "But being a racecar driver means I don't require a tonne of muscle. So most of the training I do is kickboxing and mountain biking, stuff which improves my mental and physical strengths. It makes you able to react as fast as possible when something goes wrong in the car."
When you've spent a good portion of your life running an action sports company, you would assume that most of your training would be in, well, action sports? I'd heard that he was a keen skateboarder. "I used to be, but now I don't skate anymore really. I mainly do a bunch of snowboarding, mountain biking, and dirt biking. Skateboarding is something I loved when I was a bit younger, but the pain factor became a bit too high." I sympathise with him, as I also moved away from skateboarding after breaking too many bones. He smiles: "Exactly. With snowboarding I can get a similar feeling, but it's a little softer when you fall."
Aside from the breathtaking footage and physical risks that Block undertakes when filming the Gymkhana series, the most impressive aspect of the videos is the pure ambition of the whole project. The most impressive of the clips (and most watched, on around 90 million views) is Gymkhana 5, where he somehow shutdowns the city of San Francisco and uses it as his personal playground.
"It takes us around six months of working on the ideas and finding the perfect locations," he says, springing into production mode. "Every time that we do one we try to mix it up to make it different to the last one. We can't get too repetitive else it will get boring. I'm a little restricted with what I can do with the car – I can't kick-flip it, for example. That's why we have to really work with the concept to make it different every time."
"Then we have to work out where we can do it. After that, shooting takes around 4-5 days, the longest part of which is setting up the cameras. The actual driving doesn't take that long, so I usually end up sitting around a lot. Once I do something it may take a little while to reset everything, because even though the trick might look good one way, in a different angle it might not."
"After we finish the shoot, we move on to post-production, and we like to have about eight weeks because we amass such a huge amount of footage. We want to tell the right story every time, so we may have six outside cameras and ten GoPros in one shot, and we have to go through every single one of those and edit them in the right way. So that's what takes eight weeks. Last time we only had a crunch of time because Forza wanted to put it out at a certain time, so we only had three weeks to edit. Just the logging of footage alone would usually take a week or two. That was a tough one."
With the process of making these videos more like producing a full-length feature film than a ten-minute clip of someone driving, when the time comes to finally draw a line under a project and release it, you might think it would be hard to even think about making another. Not for Block. "The thing is, I have a lot of ideas," he laughs. "So I've already got three or four planned out in my head. Say in Gymkhana 10, which is the next one we're going to work on, we want to make it a really big one. It's the tenth one! So that's why I've already spent six months working on it, and it won't come out for another year and a half. But yeah, it just takes a lot of time. We have to look really far in advance. I wish that my life was as simple as a skateboarder, when you've got a $100 set-up and you can carry it on a plane, but not us, we have to build new cars and then work out when we can fly them abroad. It really is an intense process. There's no easy part to it."
You can see a real progression from the first to the most recent Gymkhana video, both in production values and with the driving. Gymkhana 9, for example, features two of the craziest pieces of driving I have ever seen, the first involving a moving train and the second involving doing donuts on the edge of a dock. The pressure really must mount up to make sure that each episode builds on the previous one.
"Yeah, because we have to make things look extreme, or else no one is going to watch it," Ken says. "If I just drove through a car park doing nothing, no one would tune in." I'm sure a few million still would, I think to myself. "So we have to plan out crazy things to make us different. Like on Gymkhana 9 when I jumped in front of the train, and had the slide at the edge of the dock. That's got to look good and look on the limit, or else, who cares?
"That one on the dock, I did it in a couple of tries, but when I drove out it didn't look as good. We reviewed the footage and I just knew I was never going to be happy with it. So I had to get back in the car and keep doing it until I got the shot, and that's just the reality of it – I put myself in a dangerous position and did a good job with it, but it wasn't good enough so we had to keep going until it was right. That was one of those moments where I really didn't think I was going to be able to do it. I was within three to six inches a bunch of times, but that doesn't look good enough! It has to be hanging over the edge. And when you're talking about a car that's 12ft long, how am I supposed to judge three to six inches? I can't see that! I just have to guess, and it's not an easy thing to get perfect every time. So that sort of nervousness and expectation is just part of the deal, and it can be really tough."
It's strange to hear someone like Block take a human approach to not being able to do something. Having watched his videos many times, the impression you get is that he's some kind of driving superman, who can literally do anything he wants. I wonder if having his kind of ambition can ever become a pain, when there's something he envisions looking amazing, but which isn't quite possible in reality. "We play a very fine line of what's possible and what isn't," he says, having clearly thought this through before. "In general, my director [Brian Scotto] and I know what the car can do and what we've already done."
"What's really unfortunate is that now people are fine with cheating. BMW have done a whole fake video of a car drifting on an aircraft career, which is something I'd love to do, but it's virtually impossible to get someone who would let you do that. But obviously you can in CGI. There's a bunch of people that think it's real, and it really bums me out because we try to do – no, we do – everything. Everything is real and we shoot it with every camera angle to show it's real. But we're up against people making fake stuff, like BMW, who are putting it up and acting like it's real. We just hope the fans appreciate that we do everything real. The series has been insanely popular, so I think people understand that and are into it."
You can understand Block's frustration. When you watch said BMW video, the influence from Block's series is obvious. There can't be anything much more annoying than putting a year's worth of effort into a video, when a company like BMW can just throw a heap of money into a CGI version. The popularity of the Gymkhana series, however, does prove that most people really do appreciate just how hard Block and his team work on the videos. It's something that Block takes immense pride in, but it's not the most important part of his career.
"The thing for me is that I'm a racecar driver, so as much I've enjoyed doing the fun things that I've got to do with the cars – whether it's demos, films with Top Gear, making the Gymkhana series and taking the car to Goodwood – at the end of the day I'm most proud of being able to race at the highest level, and being able to win big rallycross races. I'm one of only four Americans to score points at the World Rallycross Championship! So it's nice to accomplish the fun stuff, but the racing part is what I take the most pride in, because it really is difficult racing the best drivers in the world."
The adulation that comes with making something as impressive and successful as the Gymkhana series must be nice, but it's clear that Block wants the world to know that he's got more under his belt than just viral and celebrity stardom. It's a similar form of ambition to that of one of Block's heroes, Colin McRae. "I always looked up to McRae. He was one of the biggest inspirations as to why and how I race. He and I shared a bond over the fact we enjoy racing, but we also enjoy taking the racecar and having fun with it. That's something that not many drivers get to do."
Being in Block's position of being able to compete with the world's best drivers and also professionally have fun with his car is rare. But if you went from running a global business, to becoming a successful rally driver just because you felt like it, you'd probably think there's nothing in this world that you can't do either.
As previously stated, you have every right to be jealous of this man.