As Ken Block’s fans, followers, and family mourn his tragic passing, many have remarked on how innovative he was as both a racing driver and an entertainer. Without a doubt, his body of work is its own evidence of its epicness. To help us and future readers appreciate exactly what made his stunts and style so special when they first came out, let’s take a look at the debut of Block’s Gymhakana video series in the context of its time.
Block's life and professional origins have been beautifully articulated by so many major industry names and our own Jonathon Klein. Check out those tributes to learn why Block was such a special person. Here, we’re going to focus on the early days of Gymkhana as car nerds know it, and how the timing of Block’s emergence in the car scene lined up perfectly with the culture and technology of the mid-2000s.
Jalopnik Founder; Former /Drive Executive Producer; Car Culture Ombudsman Mike Spinelli on the Mid-2000s Moment in Car Culture
As the inventor of Jalopnik, a major player in the /Drive YouTube and TV efforts, and a big part of the evolution of this site you're reading, Mike Spinelli is a certified OG of online car culture. His insights on the impact of Ken Block’s first videos are particularly interesting because he’s been both a participant in and observer of car media, professionally, as it evolved from magazines to forums to videos to the rich multimedia melting pot it is in 2023.
I dropped Spin a note thinking a quick quip or two from him might add some good perspective and spice to my thesis, but he had so much interesting context about this era in automotive media to add that I feel compelled to share it here, wholesale, for anyone who’s interested and for future scholars of our trade.
Mike Spinell, via email, edited for formatting:
“It was an interesting time in those last digital days before social media, with lots of weird things percolating. New publishing ventures and fan forums and stuff. I had started Jalopnik and that went pretty well but it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. It was fun but the money really sucked, and there was no chance of doing anything bigger—like long-form articles or video. But because of Jalopnik, I had been getting offers to do other projects. One of those was from [Brian] Scotto [who would go on to be a Hoonigan co-founder]. Scotto had reached out a year before to see if Jalopnik would cover his new magazine launch. That was 0-60, which was his vision of combining UK-style mags with American tuner and street culture. It was basically the magazine I would have wanted to start if he didn’t already do it.
I was a magazine geek at heart. And Scotto was an idea machine, really a force of vision for what he wanted to do. He really was far ahead of his time in wanting to combine skate/BMX/action culture with car/motorsports culture. Fuck if he didn’t come up with the perfect thing.
Scotto and Ken [Block] had been friends back then—and I think Ken was formulating his post-DC Shoes plan. I don’t remember exactly what Ken and Scotto had been cooking up, although Ken had been featured in 0-60 a few times.
Then Scotto did an article about Gymkhana, which, looking back, was like really a 'holy shit' moment. Drifting was taking off, and it was cool, but it felt more like kind of an arena sport like monster trucks. Autocrossing was only fun for the drivers—there’s no way anyone would watch that cone-weaving as if it was like someone grinding a skateboard ramp.
Videos had of course become such a major part of skate culture, even back in the VHS days, and I really thought somehow there would be a way to bring that run-and-gun aspect to car videos, but it was just going to take a lot of money, where anyone with a camera and a skater friend could do a skate vid.
But there was something about Gymkhana’s car-control theatrics that really seemed to have that kind of spark. Like you could watch it as a spectator if the driver was really good. It was still very much like a British countryside type of thing, like hillclimb. But the risks seemed too great, and the cost too high to do anything really exciting. There didn’t seem to be a path to making it a spectator sport that any of us could see. Not anything like Formula D.
I can’t remember when X Games added rallying, but I think when we look back on this whole thing, THAT was the moment that set off what Gymkhana would eventually do.
Anyway, Ken and Scotto had been cooking up stuff in the background. I wasn’t involved in any of that—I was also working over at Next New Networks with JF [Musial, now Co-Founder & CEO of TangentVector], and [Matt] Farah [of The Smoking Tire] trying to do car video stuff with no budget, which was how I assumed the new digital world was going to be—do a lot with nothing.
So when Scotto showed me the video that would become Gymkhana Practice I was like 'holy shit what the fuck did you guys do??' It had DC Shoes branding but a big “As seen in 0-60 Magazine” card on it. It was cool as hell, and the car control was fantastic to watch. It was riveting. I think I watched it 50 times. The driving was like 'holy fucking shit with this DC Shoes guy. Where the hell did he learn to do THAT?'
I wish I could say I saw the potential in it, but other than maybe to think, 'wow I’d watch more of this' I just didn’t have the imagination. I was happy that so many people watched it, and it got publicity for 0-60 magazine, which we all assumed the publisher would close down eventually. Ultimately, 0-60 had the wrong publisher to really capitalize on any association with Gymkhana. Scotto had consulted on that first video and Gymkhana 2.
But I do think Scotto leaving 0-60 to work with Ken full time was the moment I started to think there might be a lot more cool shit coming, and that this would be a long-term thing and they would keep pushing the concept into new directions. Conceptually, they had already started thinking in that way with the ‘Gymkhana Infomercial’ vid.”
Stars Aligned for Ken Block To Shine
In the mid-2000s, online car forums and video-sharing platforms were building momentum as a means for communities to celebrate obscure hobbies … and even the most amateur content creators were then able to get their ideas in front of the world.
The X Games were well established and widely viewed, Jackass was popular, and as Matt Farah wrote in his Ken Block tribute on Road & Track’s website: the first Gymkhana videos came at “the perfect ‘video or it didn't happen’ time in human history.”
Meanwhile, in addition to everything Spinelli articulated above, two things dropped in this era that helped whet our collective appetites for a hard-driving heroic action sports star: GoPro cameras and the movie Tokyo Drift. Shredding tires in import cars started looking cool to the masses thanks to the third Fast and Furious flick. And filming action sports—and car shenanigans in particular—was a lot more accessible than it’d ever been in the past. Suddenly, lots of people were making car videos. The idea of people hooning around on camera was starting to be A Thing dominating a sizable faction of car culture. And that faction needed a king.
Online Car Culture in the Early Gymkhana Days
What did car videos look like before the first Gymkhana videos came out? Well besides straight-laced motorsports coverage, a few DIY shows for old men, and niche foreign content like Japan’s Best Motoring, the BBC’s Top Gear was in what I’d consider its prime, with powerful personalities Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May having fun in Pagani Zondas between weird skits that have not aged well.
But that’s just what was on TV. And to get on TV back then, content had to be polished and produced. The internet, quickly becoming accessible to more of the population, had no such barriers. That’s when we started seeing new flavors of car content enter the zeitgeist. In other words, things started going viral. But it wasn't slick and glossy corporate content that was getting shared around—that kind of thing barely existed. No, most of the videos we were sharing had the production value of a kid's puppet show:
While videos like that had a chokehold on the internet (I know, it's probably hard to believe if your first iPhone was a double-digit generation), let's take a look at the kind of car videos that were being uploaded back then. Check out this four-minute clip I excavated from a deep corner of YouTube titled simply: “Drift car video.”
User @notoriousboi313 (two subscribers) apparently cut together some drifting clips, dropped a Linkin Park song over it, and sent his creation out into the world on December 17, 2005. Obviously, it's primitive, but I know somebody had fun making it because my friends and I were doing the same exact kind of thing on our own parents' computers that year.
Here’s another ancient piece of car content I bet nobody’s thought about in a lifetime: "Drifting lessons part 1” by @voynich. It’s racked up 38,609 views since it was uploaded 17 years ago.
It’s silly, it’s amateur, it’s young—I don’t remember this particular clip from my high school days, but I shared and clicked on so many clips like this in the early days of commonly available cable internet.
Let's peep one more example of independent car content from the mid-2000s before we move on, because this is too much fun. Here's a video just called “Check it out” uploaded by @phase6596.
Clearly, the author of this clip was onto something in combining a narrative with youthful energy and an automotive theme.
Here’s a slightly more professional automotive production from then. I didn’t watch Hot4s back in the day, but I recognize this style from similar clips I admired at the time:
As you can see, production value as increased a little bit but the vibe is kind of the same. There was clearly some thought and money put into this, but there’s no narrative or particularly impressive stunts.
Now let’s look at what creators with big budgets and brand names were doing along those lines. Here’s a BF Goodrich drift clip from that era:
It’s visually neat, and the driver’s obviously well above average in skill. But it just kind of … happens, right? It’s a cool clip, but there’s still not much depth to it.
Now you should have a pretty good idea of what was out there in terms of car content when most of us first started hearing about Ken Block. And soon, you'll understand why the presentation of his driving in particular blew our minds like they were Subaru head gaskets.
The OG Gymkhana Video as It Was Released
The clip “DC SHOES: KEN BLOCK GYMKHANA PRACTICE,” now sometimes called Gymkhana 1, went live on the channel @KenBlockRacing on Nov. 11, 2008. A lot of people have clearly revisited it recently because the comment section has become a collection of memorial tributes. But if you haven’t watched it in the last week, then behold:
The stunts are tame compared to the sequels you’ve seen since. But imagine the only car content you’d watched was like what I linked above—now you get it.
Gymkhana presented a miniature narrative with the intensity of action sports, the fun candidness of Jackass stunts, and the rawness of skateboard videos. My friends and I, plus just about every other car enthusiast, had never seen anything quite like it. A hero, in Block, was born.
The Mixing of Cool Sports and Car Content
Another memorable moment from Block’s early days of fame was his appearance in DC MTN Lab 1.5—jumping a Subaru on a ski hill alongside stunting snowboarders in ‘07. Much discussion has been happening about how Gymkhana videos had some skate video vibes, well, sometimes the crossover of those worlds went even harder.
While that’s an example of a car in a ‘boarding video, this super old 0 to 60 clip has the look and feel of a skateboarding video except … it’s about cars:
Now check out the second Gymkhana video, which came out in 2009. It’s immediately obvious that the skateboardy energy is still there but the production value has taken a huge leap forward. Not only that, but Block himself is featured with great shots of him smiling behind the wheel and outside the car goofing around. If you scrolled by the caption of the first image in this story quickly, I'll say it again: I think those frames of Block in this particular, where he's smiling and having a great time as pyrotechnics discharge behind his sliding Subaru, are what really cemented him as the antecedent Hoonigan.
Spinelli shared some insights specifically on how the Gymkhana videos were resonating along with the action sports videos that were also going up around the same time:
“I think it really was just the vibe, the way it was shot with the slo-mos and the mega sliding across the runway, and the corral spins. There’s not much you could have done back with a car that looked like other action sports. It’s such a different, very specific filming environment compared to, say, skateboarding — so many more hazards for the crew, just a ton more complexity with a 3000-pound car. The production insurance cost, for example, goes way up when cars’ tires leave the ground, so you can see why they built the first vid around just precision ground driving.
So I think they just used the basic vibes of action sports vids and then had to create their own visual vernacular around Ken’s skills and the production budget. Like when they started using props like water balloons and stuff. They really took the basic tone of action sports vids and created workarounds for the car’s capabilities to make it more visually interesting. A lot of the tricks were just flashier versions of what the Brits were doing with Gymkhana in the countryside in their Caterhams.”
Ken Block’s Gymkhana FAQ
Ken Block didn’t invent the concepts of car stunts or looking cool. And of course, he was hardly the only person behind even the first Gymkhana videos. Much credit for their success is due to the directors and writers producers and support staff and everyone else who made them possible, Brian Scotto in particular, as we learned from Mike Spinelli.
But Block really distinguished himself with a unique combination of creativity, car-driving skill, and personal brand-building instincts that allowed him to be a real-time hero to a broad group of fans.
His long and impressive career has given those fans plenty of moments and clips to celebrate him with forever. Since this story was designed to introduce you to the first version of Ken Block as most car fans knew him, I’ll leave you with this cute and silly little interview of him in 2009, on the one-year anniversary of the famous first Gymkhana Practice clip.