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Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Ken Block talks 'Gymkhana 5,' hoonigans

By Jon Robinson



Ken Block’s "Gymkhana 5" video, where he shreds the streets of San Francisco (and even busts doughnuts on a barge in the Bay!), is the closest thing to video game driving come to life as I’ve ever seen.

Then again, that’s what being a hoonigan is all about, and it’s that type of spirit that Codemasters tried to capture in the new “DiRT Showdown: Hoonigan Edition” game, where the goal isn’t always about fastest lap times, it’s about the madness you can create with a tricked-out ride.

ESPN Playbook: For all those gamers out there who might not be familiar with the word hoonigan, what’s being a hoonigan all about?

Ken Block: For me, the word hoonigan is actually something that describes what I like to do with cars, and that’s blow them out and having fun with these amazing vehicles as opposed to simply racing them all the time. When I started racing rally, I just loved driving these cars so much, but the only problem I ever saw with the race car, is I only got to drive it in the race or for testing. So for me, being a hoonigan embodies having fun with the car and driving aggressive and doing doughnuts and burnouts and jumping it and basically just everything I do in my Gymkhana videos, having fun with my car.

Do you think Codemasters has done a good job capturing that hoonigan spirit in the “DiRT” video games?

Yeah, as soon as they added the Gymkhana element into the game, they made it so you can just go out and enjoy these areas in the game, and it enables you to go out and have fun with the car in the game as opposed to only driving the car on the racing area. Originally with “DiRT 3,” they went down that path where you can have fun with the game and have fun with the car beyond only racing, and I think they’ve done a really good job with it. It’s something that you just don’t see in other driving games. It’s usually all about lap times and racing, but in “DiRT,” it’s about being a hoonigan and having fun with that car.

Ken Block
Ken Block brings video games to life with his driving stunts and tricks in the Gymkhana videos.
I see in the game and in the Gymkhana videos how you’re able to control the car sliding sideways, which always trips me out, because it seems like you’d have no control whatsoever. Can you explain how you’re able to control a car sliding sideways at such high speeds and not go drifting into a wall?

Coming from rally, we like to carry that grip with as much speed as possible around corners, and a lot of it just comes with experience. Our cars are built to slide and drift and carry that speed through the corners while being sideways, and it’s just one of those things, whether your in the Gymkhana video, racing, or in the video game, where you need to go out and learn what works and what doesn’t work, and how you can get the best that you can out of a corner.

Are you surprised how well Codemasters has been able to tune the cars in the “DiRT” games?

Yeah, they’ve done an exceptional job throughout the years making the cars very, very realistic, especially taking the Gymkhana car with all of the horsepower and the grips, and putting it in the game and making it fun to drive. I’ve worked with them for several years now, and every time I sit down with them to give them feedback on how to make the car more realistic, they’ve been able to take my feedback and incorporate it right into the game. When I drive the game, it’s amazing to me how well the car handles and how well the game plays compared to how my car works in real life.

I was born and raised in San Francisco, so to see you drive around the city like you did in "Gymkhana 5" was pretty amazing. I wish there was no traffic on the bridge like that during my commute.

It was amazing to me because I grew up in Southern California, so I had spent some time in San Francisco, and the roads up there are legendary. There are so many cool roads in and around the city, and there are so many movies like “Bullitt” that helped make the city and the roads iconic, so for me to make Gymkhana up there was just an amazing experience.

It was really a dream come true for me because I get to drive in all sorts of situations where during a race, everything is very controlled. But being out in San Francisco, that’s the stuff you dream about but never actually get to do because the race cars are so dangerous. You can’t just go around and do this unless they close off the streets, and for the city of San Francisco to do that for us, like I said, it was really a dream come true.

How difficult was it to convince the city leaders to shut things down in order to let you shred an offramp and go flying down the hills?

It was tough, but I think it might have been easier than it would have in other cities just because there are already so many movies and TV shows shot in San Francisco that they have a very good civil commission, and the police force has a lot of experience doing that. It was actually easier than you might think, but still, it took a lot of coordination and a lot of work. We shut down the bridge, we shut down part of the financial district and various neighborhoods, so it was no easy task, that’s for sure.

Toward the end of the video, you’re actually doing doughnuts on a barge out in the middle of the Bay. Did you have a dive team ready in case you drifted your car into the water? How nervous were you for that shot?

Going into the water was definitely a fear, so we did have an oxygen tank sitting on my co-driver’s seat and there was a diver in a boat circling around us. We purposely put as few hydro barriers as possible on the barge because we wanted it to look good and dangerous, and the surface of that barge was very slippery. It was definitely a dangerous, dangerous situation, and I was very conscious of just how slippery it was out there. But it was amazing. It was great for me to get out there in the Bay on a barge. It’s definitely something I’ll never forget.

I love the Travis Pastrana stunt in the video, but it looks like he almost lost control at the end. Did you know how close he came to wiping out?

Absolutely. That was the first time Travis was on a dirt bike since he broke his leg last summer. He agreed to come out and do that with me, but he hadn’t even ridden a bike at all, so it took him a little bit to get used to again. He had to do that wheelie for me, which is actually pretty hard because you need to use your right foot to control the brake and the bike angle, and it was his right foot that was broken, so he was having trouble controlling it as perfect as he wanted. But I have to say, he still did a really good job and it made for a fun part of the video, so I was really pumped to have him out.

His little fist pump at the end always makes me laugh.

Yeah, absolutely.

Do you have a favorite moment from the video? Is it the part with the cable cars? Jumping the hill? The barge?

For me, it’s the jump drift near the end of the video. We do that a lot on gravel during rally, going sideways into a jump, but you just don’t do that on asphalt. So to be able to catch air and slide off into a transition like that on the asphalt was just really amazing. That shot is one of my favorites out of all of my videos.

The video had over 20 million views in its first week. Are you surprised by its success so far?

20 million views in a week just blew me away. I knew the video was going to be popular. We put a lot into it, and we did our best to make it as good as we could, and that location is just something that’s really dynamic, but I had no idea that it was going to get 20 million views in a week. What’s wild is there have only been four other commercials that have come out on YouTube that have done more views in one week, so for us to have a video in the top 5 ever in marketing like that is just amazing.

So now that we’ve seen you act a hoonigan out in San Francisco, what’s your advice for gamers who want to go crazy in the new special edition of “DiRT 3”?

It’s all about being creative, having fun, and learning to enjoy your car. The people at Codemasters did an amazing job with the game in order to give you a taste of what it’s like to drive like I do in Gymkhana. I’m just the lucky bastard who gets to do this in real life.