• Remembering Ken Block, one of the most influential figures of modern rallying

His Gymkhana videos will live on in our hearts forever

I still remember the first time I watched the first-ever Gymkhana video on YouTube, back in 2008. It felt like a ballet performance, with a 1.5-ton vehicle. I saw that the driver was some guy called Ken Block, and I immediately remembered him as the guy who jumped a rally car 52 metres (171 feet) a couple of years ago. He came across as someone who doesn’t follow the norm, as he was a rally driver in the USA and rallying has always been one of the less popular motorsports in the States, unlike in Europe or the Asia-Pacific region. His second Gymkhana video came out in 2009, and it was also the year he was featured in the Colin McRae Rally (CMR) video game series by Codemasters, named after one of the greatest rally drivers ever.

Cut to 2010, and another Gymkhana video dropped, where we saw Ken drifting up a banked turn of an abandoned racetrack in France. I remember my friends and me talking about what a madman he was, and how precise his driving was. Since then, Ken Block’s influence on rallying kept growing, and the Gymkhana videos kept coming. People would ask how he could top the previous one, but he always seemed to find a way to make the previous one seem pale in comparison.

In 2011 came the new video game Dirt 3, which featured a brand-new game mode called Gymkhana, and suddenly, you could live out your wildest Ken Block fantasies in the virtual world, without wrecking your car or the neighbourhood in the process. When a legendary developer of rallying games creates an entire game mode as a tribute to the highest exponent of the form, you know you have become a phenomenon.

What is even more amazing, is that when you consider the best drivers, for example, Colin McRae, started competitive rallying when he was 16 years old, a much younger age compared to Block, who started his rallying career in 2005, at the age of 38 when most professional racing drivers consider retiring. Ken Block made his fortune in the shoe business, as he was one of the founders of DC shoes. He borrowed $10,000 from his parents, and with his friend Damon Way, started the company in 1994. Ten years later, in 2004, he sold the company, and like most people who sell a successful company they founded, in their mid-thirties, he took up a hobby. How that new hobby, rallying, would influence global car culture, nobody could imagine at the time.

Having started his career with a Subaru Impreza WRX STi in 2005, Block and Travis Pastrana signed up with the Subaru Rally Team USA in 2006, thereby starting a journey that would resonate with so many car enthusiasts around the world. Block had won more than 25 national-level rallies around the world. He had scored points in the WRC and became one of only four Americans to ever achieve this feat (more Americans have actually landed on the moon than scored points in the WRC), and he had also accumulated five X Games medals, including winning silver after losing a wheel on his Ford Fiesta RallyCross at the X Games in Los Angeles in 2012. Also, all of Block’s Gymkhana videos on YouTube have amassed over 600 million (over 60 crore) views.

On January 2, 2023, I woke up, checked Facebook and saw him posting about his daughter’s new YouTube Series where she was restoring an Audi Quattro, and then saw a friend and coworker has forwarded me a message from Block’s race team, Hoonigan Racing, where it was stated that Ken Block has passed away in a snowmobile accident. I checked the time of the Facebook post again, it was only nine hours ago, and for a few minutes, I was in complete denial. Then reality sank in, that there will never be another Gymkhana video, which by this time has become part of my life as it has become a part of life for other enthusiasts around the globe.

On January 12, 2023, close to 600 people attended the memorial service for Ken Block in the Park City ski resort, and as a tribute to Block’s racing number ‘43’, the ceremony began at exactly 1:43 PM. In point of fact, the FIA has chosen to retire the racing number ‘43’ from the rotation for the year 2023, in honour of Block’s memory and his contribution to rallying.

From every corner of the rallying community, be it the official WRC website or a Facebook group of Dirt Rally players, there has been a nearly constant outpouring of stories, anecdotes and just general acknowledgement of the fact that Ken Block was one of us. He truly was a man of the people, and we found it easy to relate to him, despite him being one of the more financially well-off people in the world. I would wrap up by reiterating one such anecdote from Bill Caswell, who rose to fame after scoring a podium in the Mexico Rally, driving an old BMW he bought for $500 on craigslist. Caswell was attending the Goodwood Festival of Speed with Block, and Block thought it would be hilarious to dress Caswell up as himself and send him out to get mobbed. Being a man of his word, Block proceeded to do exactly that, and Caswell lasted less than five minutes in front of the adoring fans until he took off Block’s hat and sunglasses and shouted that he is not, in fact,  Ken Block. While this was happening, Block was doubling up from laughter just a few metres away.

Block ushered in a new era of rallying, mostly through his Gymkhana videos on YouTube, but also through his efforts of making rallying more mainstream. But a much greater contribution of Block would be the fact that he made rallying popular with a whole new generation of fans, and made sure that rallying will remain a relevant form of motorsport for younger fans, who may not have gotten into it if they haven’t watched a Gymkhana video.

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