The With Leather Interview: Ken Block Takes Us For A Spin With 'Gymkhana Five'

Senior Writer
07.10.12 3 Comments

In 2008, rally car racer Ken Block used his 2006 Subaru Impreza WRX STI and a film crew to create an incredible new Internet sensation. His very first Gymkhana practice video – which was posted here by our beloved forefather Matt – introduced a lot of us to a new side of this amazing racing style, and in the process Block had himself a full-blown viral video hit with more than 20 million viewers eventually watching. A year later, Block became a superstar, as 34 million people watched Gymkhana Two: The Infomercial.

As his fans stocked up on disbelieving cries of “Oh sh*t” and “WTF” in 2010, Block dropped Gymkhana Three: Ultimate Playground, much to the delight of 44 million viewers. Last year, Block and DC Shoes outdid themselves again with Gymkhana Four: The Hollywood Megamercial, as they teamed with Zombieland director Ben Conrad to take his 2011 Ford Fiesta all over the back lots at Universal Studios in California.

And yesterday morning, as if we would even think that Block could run out of incredible ideas, he released Gymkhana Five: Ultimate Urban Playground, racking up more than 3 million hits in just 24 hours. Once again teaming with Conrad, Block took over the streets of San Francisco, and the result is simply incredible.

I was fortunate enough to steal a few minutes of Ken Block’s time yesterday, as he was, for once, not turning entire cities into his own automotive circus, but instead relaxing with his kids. 

With Leather: Let’s pretend I’m just some random average sports fan. Describe rally car racing to me, and how is it different from the mainstream stock car racing?

Ken Block: Well, for starters, we turn right. Rally racing is really a different kind of motor sport. It started from people driving from point A to point B, because back before they had big stadiums for people to race in, they just had basic roads. With most rally car racing, we’ve got a road or a countryside that’s closed off and we race from point A to point B. It’s sort of like the Tour de France. The other thing is that we do it with high-powered 4-wheel drive vehicles, and we have co-drivers sitting next to us to tell us what’s coming up on the road ahead. It’s great to be able to drive on a lot of different, everyday-type roads, be it normal terrains or snow-covered forest roads in Sweden. It’s one of the coolest forms of motor sports because of the variety of places that we go.

WL: I actually did a ride-along with a rally car driver back in college. When you first started out, how long did it take to get over the “Oh my God, I’m going to piss myself” sensation?

KB: The thing is, I grew up as a rally fan, and I watched all the videos of competitions and world championships. As I got the keys to my own car, I mimicked that sort of driving style, and although I didn’t know what I was doing, it still had a big influence on how I drove my car. In 2004, I went out to a rally school in New Hampshire called Team O’Neill, and it was amazing. I absolutely loved it. I did four days there and I just couldn’t get enough. Actually being able to do what I saw my heroes doing when I was a kid was just amazing.

(Ed. Note – Block was 36-years old when he attended rally school and later made his professional debut. I just find that inspirational as a member of the “Oh my God, what am I doing with my pathetic life?” generation.)

WL: You also dabble in skateboarding, snowboarding, and motocross. Which of these sports has most captured your heart? And did you not have access to a baseball or football as a child?

KB: I grew up with a father who just loved baseball, and I’ve been to a lot of Dodgers games in L.A. because of that. I played a lot of baseball when I was younger, but I didn’t particularly like team sports as a kid. I really didn’t like that I had to kiss the coach’s ass to get out on the field. That’s why I really liked skateboarding, snowboarding, and motocross, because it was all up to me and what I wanted to do. If I wanted to go race or pick a place to skate, it was up to me, not someone else. 

WL: What are your day-to-day duties as a Chief Branding Officer for DC Shoes?

KB: Mostly I do consulting on long-term marketing campaigns and the hiring of athletes. I also help on some product development with footwear and apparel. On top of that, I have my own line that relates to me, my graphics, and my car for racing and rallying. A lot of it is just helping with the marketing and making sure everything stays on its current path.

WL: I’ve always wanted to give advertising a whirl, and since you’re a branding expert I’m going to pitch an idea to you and you can tell me if I’ve got a future in the business… Attractive models wearing DC shoes.

KB: That sounds great.

WL: I thought so. You just released Gymkhana 5, and as expected it was amazing. I have two questions for you: 1) What is the purpose of your incredible Gymkhana videos? And 2) Are you insane?

KB: The general purpose is marketing. If you look at the original Gymkhana video that we put up, there’s no product or anything in it. There’s just a DC logo at the beginning and the end. The general idea is the fact that the more content you can get up on YouTube and just the Internet in general, the more people will be familiar with what you do. Hopefully, they’ll go out and buy the products. A lot of the videos that we create, we call “halo marketing” just for the exposure of the logo, and what the athletes do will hopefully promote the products. Once we saw the actual viral success of these videos, we started putting more and more product in them. This is one of the best ways to show a commercial, too, because you have lots of eye candy with the action, combined with a very small portion of the actual products.

WL: Who actually develops the ideas? Is it all you from start to finish?

KB: All of the previous ideas have basically come from me, because there isn’t a marketing person who can tell me where I can go drive a car or where I can’t. I know what works for me, because of my car and all of my racing background. But I also have a very good team that I work with, from my racing team and the very good marketing people at DC, to help me go through each of the story concepts that I have to make it work as a full video.  

WL: Gymkhana Four was, of course, a Hollywood Megamercial. It was also more entertaining than a lot of action movies that I’ve seen recently. Is there a future in show business for you?

KB: I don’t necessarily see myself going in that direction, because I really enjoy doing what I’m doing, especially the racing. I enjoy making these videos, but they’re a lot of work on the production side. So much of the time is setting up cameras and getting the right angles developed. Sometimes I wish, “Damn, can’t I just go drive the car?” The one thing that I could potentially see myself doing is the creative direction, because the creative stuff is something that comes very naturally to me, especially with my background in marketing.

WL: How long do you plan to race? Do you have a point or a cap set at which you’ll say, “That’s it”?

KB: I don’t really have a timeline. I’m getting older now, I’ll be 45 this year. But the age thing to me is just a number, I don’t necessarily look at it as a restriction. I do realize that at some point, I’m not going to be as quick as I am now. As long as I can still be competitive and race at the level that I want, I’ll keep doing it. 

WL: You have a very sports-headline-friendly name. What’s the most terrible pun anyone has made using your name?

KB: That’s a really good question. I can’t even remember most of them, because it’s so common to me now – “Oh, something rhymes with Block, got it.” Probably the most common one is something to do with Blockhead or Kenny from the Block. Something like that.

WL: I was honestly hoping that when you were named Rookie of the Year, they called you “New Kid on the Block”. I would have. If you weren’t a world famous rally car racer, what would you be doing with your life?

KB: I’d be working at DC a lot more. I like to be busy, and use my skills, my brain, and my hands to do things. I can’t just sit around and do nothing, so I’d definitely be a lot more involved at DC if I weren’t doing what I’m doing now. On top of that, I have three great kids and an amazing wife, and I enjoy spending as much time as I can with them. 


(Banner image via Ken Block/DC Shoes.)

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