Although I’m ashamed to admit it, I come from a generation that generally isn’t really interested in cars, let alone motorsport. “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” has never quite worked for us ‘90s kids, yet Ken Block found a way to reinvigorate our industry for the younger generation.
Being a ‘car guy’, naturally I have friends that share the same interest as me, but even those who didn’t, knew who he was. It didn’t really matter which side of the fence you landed on – if you weren’t a car fan, you were a Ken Block fan instead.
Block’s wildly popular Gymkhana series was, to put it bluntly, a collection of glorified commercials for shoes and cars. Yet they captured the imagination of a generation, and brought about wholesale changes to how car manufacturers did their business. They broke new ground and reached new audiences, setting the blueprint for the automotive media landscape as we know it today.
Block hit the big time in the late 2000s, around the same time the world was on its backside thanks to the global financial crisis. Manufacturers were pulling out of top-level motorsport left and right. Formula 1 had lost, well, pretty much everyone, while the World Rally Championship that Block would go on to appear in farewelled the likes of Peugeot, Skoda, Subaru, and Suzuki in the space of just a few years.
It was the beginning of a time where nobody wanted to spend money on a full season of racing, yet Block and his Hoonigan organization had developed a way of getting just as much – if not more – exposure (at no doubt a fraction of the cost) by doing some skids on the internet.
As the audience grew, so did the ideas. What began as a low-budget pass through an airfield in 2008’s ‘Gymkhana Practice’, gradually – via stops in France, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dubai, and even Universal Studios’ Hollywood backlot – morphed into the big bucks behemoth that was Gymkhana 10, a globetrotting iteration that spawned an Emmy-nominated documentary series to go with it.
The vehicles changed as well. Rally and rallycross cars soon made way for monstrous one-offs like the Hoonicorn – a four-wheel-drive, NASCAR-engined 1965 Ford Mustang that was later twin-turboed, delivering a power output of 1,400 bhp. There was also the Hoonitruck, a similarly retro-inspired beast, but with the engine from the Le Mans winning Ford GT racing car.
More recently, with Block’s unofficial task of making cars cool again completed, the main Gymkhana series has been handed off to Block’s rallying rival Travis Pastrana, driving similarly monstrous creations from Subaru in 2021 and ‘22.
But Block didn’t go away, instead turning his attention to other, equally wild projects.
He took on a seemingly impossible task of persuading the world that EVs could be exciting, first by winning the first-ever all-electric rallycross race in the short-lived Projekt E series in 2020, before joining forces with Audi for ‘Electrikhana’ last year, an all-electric spin-off off the Gymkhana series featuring a purpose-built ‘Hoonitron’. He would’ve added a Pikes Peak attempt to his resume last year were it not for his ‘Hoonipigasus’ Porsche (a mid-engined, four-wheel-drive 911 that also had 1,400 horses stashed away) developing engine issues during practice for the famous hillclimb.
The success of Block’s online activities broke him into the mainstream, too. He appeared multiple times on BBC’s Top Gear in the UK, even joining the show’s successful live arena tour in the UK in 2012, and in South Africa in 2015. He starred in videogames via Codemasters’ Dirt series (the games which I credit as the catalyst for my career covering rallycross and other slidey forms of motorsport), Need For Speed, and more recently Forza Motorsport and Forza Horizon.
Many a driver, team, or manufacturer has tried to emulate Block and Hoonigan’s Gymkhana success, but none have come close. As news of Block’s passing broke, the entire Gymkhana series (including spin-offs and the Pastrana-helmed installments) had just short of 629 million views combined.
But for all his sideways antics on camera or our consoles, Block was still an old-school rallying fan himself, with a great appreciation for its history, and of course he still competed at a high level. And, just as he brought fresh eyes to the world of four wheels with his content, he consequently brought those people over to real-world motorsport, too. If you liked him on-screen, you’d probably like seeing him on the stages or the circuits as well.
Block’s actual motorsport success is something that shouldn’t be sniffed at either. Of course, many of the old-guard of motorsport’s fandom will poke fun at his lack of major championship success, but in a career that didn’t even get going until he was in his mid-30s, Block still contested 139 rallies (winning 29 of them outright) in all corners of the globe, and was a multiple race-winner in rallycross, too. He was the real deal, even if the raw numbers might not immediately suggest that.
While nobody else may ever achieve the impact Block has over the last decade or so, a bit of his DNA will be in every single piece of automotive content you’ll see for years to come. He was a trailblazer, a trendsetter and, as the old adage says, ‘often imitated, never duplicated’.