Our interview with Ken Block in 2019.
In New Zealand as part of a worldwide bucket list rally stage tour, we (thanks to Ford New Zealand and some issues with a turbo) managed to chat and share a McLeod’s Pizza with Entrepreneur, Athlete, Extreme Sportsman, Drifter, TV celeb, Social Media Giant, Rally driver and Head Hoonigan – the one, the only, Ken Block 43.
Here’s what he had to say…
How would you describe yourself, entrepreneur, rally driver or drifter?
“I’m a Racing driver. I grew up skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing and riding dirtbikes. I practised and played much more than competing. So when I got to start racing rally cars in 2005, I was addicted to it and wanted to do it a bunch but the only time I ever saw a racecar was either racing or testing, so I actually started doing the Gymkhana stuff coz I just wanted more seat time, I wanted to practice more, I wanted to play with the car more. And a big part of any motorsports, coz they’re so darned expensive, is the marketing side of things and really discovered through the videos that we were originally making for DC (shoes) and hoonigan that a lot of what we were doing could be marketed and paid for by the sponsors.So I’ve had a really non-traditional race career. At the end of the day, I’m a racer, I want to go racing and the marketing gave me a way to do that.”
What was the inspiration for the gymkhana videos?
“The biggest inspiration actually is rally from the 80’s, because I liked watching the cars on tarmac slide and drift. I saw what my inspirational heroes did with rally cars, that was my first inspiration. But the ‘where the gymkhana thing comes from’, gymkhana is a very grassroots style of competition, not in my video form, but in normal competition. It’s autocross, which is quite big in the states, but you have to slide the car real quick. So I did a couple of those events and thought, ‘hey this is really fun’ getting to slide a high horsepower, rally style car around a course. Then the guy doing the events in Southern California, quit doing them, so I had this car but nowhere to go compete it now. So I went back to one of the places I did a gymkhana race (El Toro airfield) and that’s where we made the first video. We had no idea that it would do what it did, it was quite a surprise to us (100 million views on YouTube alone). Pretty soon the sponsors were ‘Sooo when are you doing another one?’”
Which has been the most satisfying one so far?
Gymkhana 5, the first city one, in San Francisco. It’s one of the coolest driving cities in the world. There’s just so much elevation change. And gymkhana 7 with the Mustang up in the LA area, it’s just the funnest car I’ve ever driven. Really soft suspension really moves around easy but it’s high horsepower so you can point it wherever you want, there’s nothing like it. It’s twin-turbo and 1,400HP, the wheels spin in 5th.
So will you keep making the videos?
Yeah, so long as people keep watching them. Gymkhana 10 has 20 million views so far. Viral videos have sort of died over the past number of years, so for us to still get that number of views means that there’s still people interested and watching. There’s one that we’ll film this year.
Are you dreading when Ford moves to EV’s?
I am a big fan of I.C.E engines but I like technology and I like change. I don’t look at the electric thing as a negative. I will miss the sound, my kids won’t give a shit, they’ll be like, ‘there’s only electric vehicles’ they won’t have the same love for the combustion engine. But I watch the electric racing and it definitely misses the sound but I do embrace it, I think there’s some interesting ideas we can do with it.
You can’t be a fan of autonomy though?
I think that no matter what, there’ll always be people that will buy the car they will drive, you’ll never see that enjoyment going away, there may be more recreational (banished to the racetrack?) Maybe. The future is all unpredictable. A EV gymkhana will happen eventually. Ford has a very nice EV car coming.
Tell us more…
I wish I could, I’ve seen that and I’ve seen the Bronco.
Is that a hint?
Nah they’re not the same thing. Ford has got some great things coming. The things they’ve been doing with the Raptors, SUVs, they’ve been able to adapt and adjust to what the consumers are wanting.
You do dangerous things (Pikes Peak for example) and obviously practice, but is it different when you get there?
The thing about Pikes Peak, I watched that as a kid, when it was dirt, Rod Millen and those guys driving up it, so when I finally got to race there I was in a low horsepower group N rally car and it was terrible, it was such a disappointment ya know. So getting to go there and do that in the Mustang, there was a lot of time and thought that went into that, and believe me, I knew how I was going to drive that corner. It’s not taken lightly. But for me, to be able to drive that road, that way…because they don’t drive it that way anymore, you know what I mean, it’s driven very circuit racing and that particular corner is a left that tightens and it’s just blue sky, so everyone drives it very conservatively and it looks very boring nowadays. So it was fun for me to go there and drive it that way, but I have to switch some things off in my brain ‘this is really stupid, you shouldn’t be doing this’ but do it anyway.
How is your fear level?
I have a lot of fear, but it’s just about smartly doing anything you’re doing. All this has taken a lot of planning to get to where we are and unfortunately, with the internet there’s so much out there that if you’re not doing something at that extreme level people think ah that’s boring. It’s funny, even the amount of comments we see on those videos, I’m like shit I’ve driven this car as hard as I can, you get ‘ah boring’. I think part of it too is that there’s so much fake stuff out there. BMW did an entire video that was on an aircraft carrier, I’ve always wanted to do something on an aircraft carrier, but they basically ruined it by creating an entire fake video. You’re competing against that too. That’s why I make everything real.
So what about the Escort Cosworth? (that we, unfortunately, didn’t get a spin in)
At this point in my career, going back to enjoy some of the best stage rallies in the world, I have a long list of these Rally’s I’d like to do, and I didn’t to just go out and race a current Fiesta, like an R5, I wanted to do something a little unique and a bit different, I’m such a huge fan of that 90’s Escort, it was just a very iconic car, that wing, that era of Rally, everything, I just love the whole essence of that, so I raced a classic car last year and we just had issue after issue with it, coz it’s just old equipment ya know.
The Diffs would only work half the time, they’re electronic, all the electronics are very old, the engine management system was very bad, the safety equipment wasn’t that great and we ended up burning the car down coz there was a fuel rail on top of the engine that was known to drake if something was to happen, I rolled the car which wasn’t that bad, I was going to start it, looked up and the engine was caught on fire. Anyway, I had such a great experience with the car but I disliked all the unreliability issues, so I said ok, let’s build a new one but let’s take all the things that are bad from the 90’s and replace it with things like mechanical diffs, electrics, modern suspension… It still has the old engine, the old turbos, old chassis.
How’s your mechanical knowledge?
Good in concept but not really hands on.
Where else is on the rally list?
Donegal in Ireland, Goodwood Festival of Speed, Rally Legends in Italy, Rally du Valais in Switzerland a Monster Gymkhana grid in Poland, from there, the car goes back to America and we do a bunch of Demo’s in Sema, quite a variety this year. The first event that I did was in 100-acre wood which I’d won seven out of eight times. It’s one of our national championship rally’s. It’s been fun for me to put this together and do a lot of unique events around the world that are some of my favourites and make something that cool for the fans. Coz at the end of the day I’m a rally driver, I love rallying, I love to promote rally and Ford’s involvement with rally, so to go around all these places in the world, do these unique events and be able to show off some of our cool equipment is a lot of fun.
Where did Hoonigan come from?
In America, the term hoon is a term of endearment, you’re having fun with the car. I got called ‘King of the Hoons’ by a magazine so we started using it more and more.
Is social media getting harder?
Yeah, I’ve been kinda lucky with this whole thing, I started when social media was at the beginning, my career started just before it started to get big, including the first gymkhana video which is 07/08, that was on my own website. It’s been really cool to have my career evolve with that and really try to maximise it. Back then, we had to create our own shows and marketing to put on the internet to promote what we were doing. You’ve seen a lot of change between then and now, we have to constantly adapt what we’re doing coz a lot of our deals are based one exposure, Monster, Ford, Toyo, these companies don’t want to put up the money to do these without a good marketing return and a lot of what we offer is being able to produce these videos and produce content that gets up on the internet.
What’s the future for Ken Block?
The future for me has to do with my kids, they’re getting old enough to race, we just bought my son a kart and my oldest girl has what we call a trophy kart in the states, it’s like an off-road version of a kart, she’s been racing that. I’m going to continue what I’m doing now, kinda the world touring thing, seven or eight events a year but I’m starting to pay more attention to them at home now, help their skills. Actually, all three of my kids are interested in racing at some level, so I’m gonna give them the best opportunity, coz I started so late in life.
Will we see you racing at the LeMons or up Rod Millen’s driveway (Leadfoot) at any point?
I’d like to someday, he’s invited me every year and I like coming down here so it’s just a matter of schedule and time, I’ll make it at some point. I enjoy those sort of events, especially someone like Rod, a big motorsports family that is doing something cool and I love to support that type of thing. It’s great to see a family like that, that’s had so much success and they continue on developing the culture, so I’d definitely like to make it down here at some point.
Thanks heaps, hope to see you next time.
RIP Ken Block – November 21, 1967 – January 2, 2023.