This morning, amid much digital fanfare and numerous reposts, Ken Block’s Gymkhana 5 premiered on Youtube. If you haven’t seen it yet, take ten mixnutes to do so. Just tell your boss it’s important. He’ll understand.
This time around, the flat-billed Block takes a squealing, smoking romp through the steepled streets of one of the most hoonable, car-chasable cities on the planet – San Francisco. The natural geography means publicly funded tabletop ramps, drift-friendly switchbacks, and a good deal of architectural beauty.
But Gymkhana 5, along with Block’s preceding films, do more than entertain. They spark dreams.
If you’re unfamiliar with the world’s fastest shoe salesman, here’s the story. Though he started his professional rally career in 2005, Ken Block hit the ‘tube waves back in ’08 with his drift-imbued take on gymkhana, an old equestrian-turned-driving term for a tight, technical course driven as fast as possible for time. Block helped found DC shoes, who peddle their treads to young, crazy skateboarders, BMX bikers, and hoonigans.
What better way to promote your brand than slap it all over your current rally car and pilot said car through a course in a way no one’s seen before? Block amazed us all with his first video, exhibiting insanely precise control of his Subaru STi, twisting and flopping the car around with such ease it seemed to be floating on a cloud of its own tire smoke.
Subsequent videos followed, with Gymkhana 2 and 3 impressing us in turn. More DC products started showing up, but we didn’t care. It was just too awesome. Block switched over to Ford, took Top Gear’s James May for a ride, and racked up the Youtube views. It wasn’t until the slightly overcooked Gymkhana 4 debuted that fans started to complain.
This one didn’t seem to be a single take. Block’s skill and authenticity were called into question, the prosecution citing additional evidence from his lackluster WRC performances and multiple crashes. They called him a corporate sellout. They feigned boredom.
And they’re back out in force for this newest installment of Gymkhana. Still squalling from the womb, Gymkhana 5 has already gathered more than its share of hate.
But we’d like to challenge the detractors to a duel. We still love Ken Block and his crazy ways, and we think he’s doing a good thing. Here’s why:
To film the epic G5 in just one take, as some former fans are demanding, would have required more money and organization than you can find in most Hollywood blockbusters. Nobody, not Michael Bay or Christopher Nolan, could close down so much of such a busy city all at once. So there’s that. Plus, none of the original Gymkhana films were ever shot in just one take, so why demand it now?
Despite the number of takes, what Block does in G5 still requires an incredible amount of skill. If you know more than one person who could do half of it, we’d be impressed. We’d like to see the armchair critics give it a shot. We’re sure they’d even like to try it themselves. But we think we’d have trouble getting sponsors on board.
Block’s performances may not be as “authentic” or “pure” as they once were, but perhaps that isn’t his role anymore. His audience demanded bigger and better, so he moved on to grander stunts and more cuts. He’s stepped up a bracket, as it were. But in his wake he’s left a massive audience of farm fresh enthusiasts, and he’s inspired many to rise up and do what he did. So instead of one talented drifter populating the feeds with awesome, now we have hundreds. Is there a downside?
Perhaps best of all, though, Ken Block is making new little gearheads by the bargeful. The American trend toward fatherlessness, combined with the climbing cost of car ownership has led to a general waning of auto enthusiasm among the younger generations. It takes people like Ken Block, with his ten minute shoe commercials, to rekindle it. Movies do their part, but Fast and Furious, with its less than believable stunts, can only do so much. It entertains, but it doesn’t plant any dreams.
Movies weren’t always that way, though. It’s impossible to watch a car faking irresponsibility through the streets of Frisco without picturing the first and best of them – a deep green fastback with a silver pony set in the grille. Ken Block and Steve McQueen are strikingly different characters. McQueen quietly slipped around in his spiffy sport coats, and Block bombs in wearing a loud fire suit. Block has never been, and probably never will be, an actor, and McQueen never raced in the WRC.
Yet they have some similarities. They both know what people like to see. They’re both committed to realism, a lack of post-production effects. And most importantly, just as McQueen’s Bullitt chase sparked an entire generation of hoons, so has Block’s Gymkhana series. Love him or hate him, DC’s mild-mannered tire burner is doing a service.