Ken Block Says Electrikhana Was ‘The Gnarliest Thing I’ve Ever Done’
Ken Block opens up to The Drive about electric Gymkhana, filming in Vegas, and why performance EVs are a whole new beast to tame.
Ken Block’s multi-billion-view Gymkhana series has changed. There are no more velocity stacks. No more six-speed Sadev sequential manuals. No more flame-spitting, ear-piercing, psycho-social internal combustion engines. He’s traded it all in for, gasp, the Hoonitron EV in the series’ latest installment, Electrikhana. That may sound like sacrilege to the gasoline-swilling faithful, but when you hear the man himself talk about why he made the switch to electric, it’s not hard to understand why.
The insanity of Electrikhana was actually exponentially higher than it ever was, Block told me recently during an interview, higher even than the twin-turbo Hoonicorn because of the Hoonitron’s mechanical simplicity. Wheel speeds went through the roof. Over 100 sets of tires were killed in ways the crew at Hoonigan had never seen. And the reverse entries the series is known for became faster and sketchier than the Head Hoonigan-in-Chief had ever thought of even trying. “Brian [Scotto, Hoonigan co-founder and Gymkhana director] kept saying, ‘Well you could start further back,’ but my brain couldn't wrap itself around that,” Block said.
The Head-Hoonigan-in-Chief and I sat down at his Utah office and talked about those challenges, as well as the electrification of Gymkhana, Audi surprising him with the prototype, the learning curve to how the Hoonitron behaved, how Las Vegas wasn’t the easiest place to shoot, and why the Hoonitron is wilder than the Hoonicorn. EVs might not be the reason people have tuned into the Gymkhana videos in the past, but Block hopes that’s set to change.
The Drive: We'll start it off easy. Whose decision was it to use the Mario Kart “ready-set-go” theme to start the video?
Ken Block: That's all Scotto.
TD: He deserves a raise.
KB: A lot of that film, the concepts come and go based on where we're looking to shoot and what we're trying to highlight. And Vegas was kind of a wild one because it was so hard to get permits and figure out how the concept would all work out. [Scotto] found that underground cool parking area, and that all kind of came together in some interesting ways. But we deal with that every time. I think San Francisco was the first time we ever shot in the city. And it was actually the easiest, which was bizarre.
But these cities like San Francisco and LA, they do so much commercial work and so much movie work and there's a whole industry built around it, that it's actually really easy to put things together. But Vegas wasn't that easy. They didn't really care that we wanted to do this, and it was hard to figure out trying to shut down things like the Strip.
TD: You and I talked before I started recording about your background in skating. I mean, this is next-level kind of skating video from back in the day.
KB: Yeah, absolutely, and a snowboard or skateboard athlete films for years to put together 20 tricks that all come together to make a film, and some of those tricks may take 30 tries in two days to get. [So] it's kind of funny to me when I see somebody complain like, "You could see there are [tire] marks where he did it before." And it's like, you really think we're going to nail a trick on a surface I've never driven on, and not only drive it perfectly, but also have the cameras perfectly set? All that takes several tries no matter what. There are certain times, like Randy's Donuts and stuff like that where we do get it first try, but it's the combination of making this epic part that's the goal, not doing something the first try, if that makes sense?
TD: It does. Talk to me about the development of the car. How involved were you guys directly with the design of the car? Was it you and Scotto that suggested that kind of iconic visage of the S1? Or was it Audi saying, "Listen, we know your rally history. This is what we want to do?"
KB: It was a bit of a combo of everything, but at the end of the day, it's Audi's money and it's Audi's design, and it's Audi's image, and they wanted it to go where they wanted to go. The initial conversation started off much simpler, and they actually surprised us with the level that they were designing to. It kind of grew internally and expanded to a point that we didn't realize until they presented it to us.
The idea initially was they wanted to potentially use a shell of an old S1 E2, and then basically electrify it. Without us knowing, they started developing the whole concept of a ground-up…
KB: Yeah, and then surprised us with it. And it was kind of funny on that call. It's pandemic time and we're all on Zoom calls with Germany early morning here and they present this whole thing to us, and [Scotto] and I are just texting back and forth like, "Holy shit, can you believe they're doing this?"
TD: What was it like knowing that Audi was building you a purpose-built, one-off race car that was in that same S1 E2 image?
KB: Really surreal. A big influence on me being a rally driver really started off by watching Pikes Peak. And that was in the ‘80s when Audi was bringing over the Sport Quattros with rally drivers to attack that mountain and set records. For that same brand to build a very cool one-off Gymkhana car for me, because we built such a following and reputation around the Gymkhana series, it's just been extremely wild.
The Gymkhana series is basically inspired by the way they used to drive these old rally cars. The wilder the better was necessary pretty much back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s because the car chassis suspension tire technology just wasn't what it is today. They drove it more wild because that's what worked.
To say that it hasn't had its hiccups, it'd be a disservice. All of it is work. None of this has been perfectly smooth, but the general idea of what we're doing and the general idea of the design and what it's taken to do it is just really cool beyond words, honestly,
TD: You said you had some developmental issues. What was the setup process like for the car?
KB: Well, a lot of the testing and things that happened with the car, like Audi did a lot of stuff themselves just to get a baseline of how the thing operates. But all of my cars in the past have been very predictable setups on our end, the type of suspension that I like, the type of diff ramps, the type of gearing, the speeds of the gearing, a lot of it's based off rally stuff. It’s very easy for me to go somewhere and my race director, Derek Dauncey, to say, "Okay, Ken likes it like this." Everything from seating position, where the steering wheel sits, to how much the front and rear diffs grab or lock or whatever. I can jump in one of the Fiestas that we've done and I can jump into Hoonicorn, and they still operate functionally the same for me because it's a setup that we know works for me.
With the Hoonitron, basically, you throw all that out the window and you start from scratch again because none of the mechanical sides of that equipment exists in this car. The diffs, the diff ramps, the motor, the connection, the center diff, none of that actually exists. You’re trying to mimic that stuff with electronics. And, unfortunately, the electronics for this don't necessarily exist, meaning that Audi didn't have a perfect all-wheel-drive system that they just adopted for a race car. Most of their racing around this sort of thing has existed like with Formula E.
TD: Which is rear-wheel drive.
KB: Which is a rear-wheel drive, open wheel, based on zero production anything. But here we have a very normal wheelbase. You have an all-wheel drive vehicle. It's supposed to function a certain way, and you have a rally driver that's used to things in a very particular manner. All that stuff had to be built in and tested. They did a lot of the initial testing, and then I started to come in to basically figure out what and how we could do things. I must say that the simplest thing for people to understand is we're still using the same tires, the same wheels, everything, but the weight is completely changed. The roll center is completely changed, and the fact that you have no gears. You’ve taken a lot of the things that you're known for or currently exist in our toolbox of understanding and thrown them out the window. It makes things operate and do things very, very unusually.
TD: In that first reverse entry in the film, you do seem genuinely sketched out by how fast you come in the reverse. What was the acclimatization process for you and the car?
KB: Well, that's the thing about this car. There are certain things it does exceptionally well and certainly other things I struggle with. And in that particular case, the reverse entry, it was doing things so well [Scotto] kept saying, "Well you could start further back," but my brain couldn't wrap itself around that. If you look at that shot, I could have actually started that slide 30 to 40 feet back, but for the speed I was getting up to and then when I was hand braking, all the visuals I was seeing, I just couldn't wrap my head around doing it any earlier. By the time I did the one that's in the video, [Scotto] is like, "Do you want to keep trying it?" I'm like, "No, I don't want to keep trying. I've done just the gnarliest thing I've ever probably done here as far as this sort of move with the car, and I just can't figure out mentally how to do it differently, to do it more gnarly."
One of the things about making these Gymkhana videos is we're having fun finding the extremes of things. But you wouldn't want to do this in a rally. If I'm racing in a rally, I'm trying to win, and taking a risk of being backward before I get to the corner of the apex, there's no reason. In this case, sure, let's try 20 times just to see how ridiculous we can make it. The fun of it is really exploring the extremes of what's possible with these vehicles that you wouldn't necessarily want to do in a race, but it's possible to do it. In that case, this car just worked really well in some of those things where I could really throw it around at high speed and it handles that sort of stuff really well.
And just without the gearbox, it spins the tires up in ways that other cars can't do. That sort of reverse entry with the Subaru that I did in Gymkhana One, I really struggled with first or second gear. I had these big wide tires on a 500-horsepower car, and it's pretty light, but the car struggled a bit making that video. And so if the idea of like, "Hey can you do that in fourth gear or fifth gear?" Well, no. There's no physically possible way. I have no gear (in the Hoonitron), so the speed of the wheels is only determined by how much that horsepower will eventually spin those tires up to. And I can't remember if we put it in the video, but those tires ended up spinning as if I was in fourth gear.
TD: It was something like 160 kph on the dash.
KB: Yeah. If I had to do that with a gearbox with the Hoonicorn, I think I've done a third-gear reverse entry, which is like a 70-mph, 80-mph spin. And this is much higher than that. But I had to do the whole trick shifting first, second, third, then I throw it in and just leave it in third and that car, 1,400 horsepower, it has enough power to spin the wheels in third gear going backward. But this car, once it just gets the wheels spinning, it just continues to use its power to ramp up that wheel speed. I'm going probably 30 mph backward, but the wheels are actually eventually going 100 mph forward. It's kind of a wild concept.
TD: That it is. You guys talked about the weirdness that the tires did during the shoot, what happened?
KB: The thing that affects the tires more than anything is this wheel spin, whereas if I were doing some sort of slide in the past, the wheel speed is restricted by the gear I'm in. If you put it in second, pull the hand brake, slide around an intersection, well, that wheel spin is only going to go up to, say, 40 mph, 50 mph. Well, now all of a sudden I got the car locked into the position I want and I go full throttle, those wheels are going 100 mph. The possibility of wheel spin there is just unlike anything that we've dealt with before.
And on top of that, too, you throw in the weight of those EV batteries and the fact that they're low, not only are you getting this wheel spin, but you're getting a lot more downward pressure with gravity because of the weight on those tires. All that combines to just decimate tires in ways we've never seen before, crazy bubbling, and just giant chunks ejecting from the tires, and it's wild to see what it's done to some of these tires.
TD: This being the most expensive Gymkhana car ever, did Audi give you any restrictions on what not to do?
KB: No, they didn't give us any restrictions. Audi has been actually incredible to work with, and it's a prototype so there are always going to be little teething issues and things going wrong and right.
But at the same time, too, no matter what, whenever we film these things, there's a certain risk level that we go to because we have four days or five days to shoot something. And if I destroy the corner of a car and it takes two days to fix it, well, we're kind of screwed on actually getting the project done. That's definitely been an issue in the past. A lot of times though, working with a rally car, the stuff is easy to swap out and get back on track.
But this is definitely a more one-off project…it's not as easy and quick of a thing to repair. And if I were to really hurt one of the motors, that's a much bigger repair than what we're used to. There definitely was a bit of hesitance on my part to really gauge the risks of what we were doing, because, at the end of the day, we don't have an unlimited budget. We have a certain number of days to get a certain number of shots done, and I have to not be an idiot and keep the car in one piece and get the job done.
TD: Did anything big break?
KB: No, no. I think we had some normal mechanical things that you would expect to kind of wear out and have to be repaired, but other than that I had no big impacts. I had nothing really happen. I hit one curb, but it was mainly because the surface was like ice. It was polished concrete, and I just wasn't expecting it to be that slippery, and I hit a curb but that was about it.
TD: Yeah, Vegas is known for its very slippery tarmac.
KB: Yeah, and I mean we were going from polished concrete to very grippy new asphalt on the strip to... What do you call it? Molded concrete, in the entryway of the Palms. It was really a huge variety. Probably some of the worst variety of materials that we've ever had to deal with in driving something like this.
TD: After all these years of driving meth-driven monsters, was it just the Audi connection that made you want to dip your toes into EVs?
KB: I actually really like technology and I like the advancement of things, so for me, it's just an interesting thing. I'm a race car driver. If you can add something to my car and then I'm going to be faster and win, great. Let's try it. I think most race car drivers just want to find the quickest way to do whatever they're doing. And to me, the EV thing is just a new way to experience how fast or entertaining a car could be. That’s my interest in it. And I also like the fact that as a human species we may be able to find better ways to get around on this planet than something that spits out smoke. That would be great, too. I love my combustion engines, but I also realized what they do and what it takes to create that fuel. In general, I'm just down to try and improve anything that we can to make our society and humanity better. If I can go around a racetrack faster and do it in a cleaner way, great. It sounds like fun.
TD: What do you think OEMs need to do to kind of convert gearheads?
KB: Yeah, you're asking for a crystal ball type of answer.
TD: It's more just like what do you think? How can a manufacturer attract us?
KB: The funny thing about it, though, is I think part of it is just history. I've grown up listening to these incredible vehicles all my life, whereas I ask my kids, "Do you electric cars versus...", and they don't care. Do you know what I mean? To them, seeing the Audi RS E-Tron GT, seeing it, and experiencing it is just as cool as one of my other cars. They don't have this built-in preconceived notion of 30 to 50 years or whatever stuck in their brain of only hearing a car being a certain way. To them, an electric car is just as cool as a combustion car. I think it's mostly our built-in, whatever you call it…
KB: Yeah, predispositions, that's the word I was looking for, of what we like because we grew up hearing that as kids. I think that that's something that over time that we'll just get over it. And the thing is, I don't know that electric cars are the end-all-be-all of the future of the world. There are all sorts of things like hydrogen coming out. Electric makes a lot of sense. I think the push to do these things now will hopefully generate better batteries and generate better electricity production, but you can't start that process if you're not making a lot of it. If there isn't a lot of demand for it, that technology and that development is never going to probably happen if we didn't have this revolution of moving towards electric vehicles. But man, when you talk about scooters, dirt bikes, and mountain bikes, all these things that are actually better with electronics, like it's really pretty wild how good it is.
Is that an eventuality anyway because it actually just functions better for a lot of these things? Yeah, I kind of think it does. And as silly as it is, mountain biking to me, I love the enjoyment of mountain biking. I don't do it to pedal. I enjoy the exercise of pedaling and the result of that, but if I can go twice as far with the same pedal, hell yeah, I would go twice as far with the electric bike.
I live in parts of Utah and there's a lot of complaining about the pedal-assist bikes. And I can kind of get where these people that like the struggle of the climb, but for me, if I'm going to go out and spend an hour, do I want to go five miles or 10 miles? I'd much rather go 10 miles. I'm still getting exercise.
And actually, for me as a race car driver, going 10 miles and actually reacting to more movement and eye-hand coordination is much better, too. Yes, sometimes I go out for a ride I'm like, "Do I want the exercise of the pedal, or do I want some exercise but the speed of the pedal assists?" And I pick the pedal assist because I'm trying to train myself for the next race I'm in and I need that hand-eye coordination, recognizing and braking and feeling all that, and I just get more out of it with the pedal assist.
TD: Do you think maybe it's just experience that everyone needs?
KB: Yeah, I think part of it's the experience, but I think the biggest complaint most people have, even seeing the complaints about Electrikhana, it's just the sound. And the sound does make it very dynamic. The shifting, the anti-lag, the expression of what the car is doing because you hear the engine struggling or the particular gear it's in whatever, I think that that's an important part of the experience.
TD: Back to the EVs in motorsports, a lot of the Formula Drift drivers will have kind of shake their heads at EVs coming into it. What do you think they need to do to get past that? They've always talked about the modulation, and you just talked about how quickly that is. Is there something that brands like Audi, Porsche, Ford need to be doing so that you have more modulation so that it's not just an on-and-off switch?
KB: Yeah, that's definitely something, the modulation and where the weight is, are two of the biggest things for drifting, or even I experienced that with rallycross. I did the first Project E, which was the World Rally Cross' electric division.
I did the launch event for that, which was in Sweden. I was able to come away with a win, but it wasn't easy because I was on a track I knew. I knew every shifting point of the supercar, position of the car, everything. But once you take the gearbox out, you just kind of throw things to the wind and you have to figure it all out. And I came down a hill where I'm confident in the supercar just being fully pinned and throwing the car in, and I had the Project E car spin on me at 90 miles an hour and I couldn't figure out why. But I think part of it was I just put my foot to the floor like I normally would with the supercar. And, again, you're restricted by the wheel speed of a gear. And here, I wasn't.
The instant torque there at that speed along with the weight just put it into a slide and I couldn't stop it. There are just certain dynamics that, without the gearbox and with the weight being so different, the vehicles just react so differently. So development, if you were just to try and develop a Formula D car straight from an EV car, it's the same as what I dealt with the project car. Well, you still have the same tires, but all of a sudden you have a bunch of different weights and you don't have the gearbox. So the way that you control that car now is basically thrown out the window.
And the thing about drifting, too, is those guys use the clutch a lot, so they slow the wheels down. They really control the angle of the car simply by a handbrake or a slight touch of the clutch, those sorts of things. We don't have that ability with the electric car. You only have two pedals. The ability to let the car just kind of free-wheel for a second to adjust the angle that you want, that's all of a sudden gone. You can adjust that a bit with how much the motors resist once you've off-throttled. There are all sorts of different settings for that, from actually locking up a brake if you lift off the throttle to completely freewheeling.
TD: Like regen?
KB: Right, but that takes a lot of setup and a lot of work. Whereas, like I said, you compare apples to apples, which is the regular Formula D, well, all that stuff is already figured out. Those drivers already know what to do. And then you're like, “Here, try this apple instead of an orange." And they're like…
TD: “I have no idea what I'm doing here.”
KB: Yeah, it doesn't work. And that is kind of what I dealt with setting this thing up for Gymkhana. It wasn't like I got in and then could instantly go do everything. It took a lot of setup and a lot of development and a lot of reprogramming my brain to figure out what worked and what didn't work. And sometimes I just couldn't figure it out. That's the reality of it.
TD: Because you didn't have enough time? Or you literally just couldn't do it?
KB: Yeah, a little of both. Sometimes it was surfaces, sometimes it was throttle control, where I was on something on a certain surface trying to do something and I'm like, "I don't know. I can't figure out how to get this to do what I want it to do" because this or that isn't working the way you would think it would. And we just didn't have enough time to like, "Okay, let's reprogram the front end to try and have more bite or whatever.” We were battling time, basically. But that's the thing, it's a new world with that. And when you think you're doing something from the old world that should just cross over, it doesn't always cross over the way you think it should.
TD: The Hoonitron is that iconic Pikes visage. It has the S1 look. Is there a plan to go to Pikes with it? Or are you just focusing on the Hoonipigasus to go to Pikes? I mean, it feels like it should be at Pikes, just given how it looks.
KB: Yeah, but the thing about Audi is they didn't build this car and hire me to go race Pikes. I think that if you were like, "Hey, we want to go after Volkswagen's record," you would build something different and you would hire someone different. Not that I'm not capable of doing that, but I think that approach is just quite different. The Volkswagen program to go after that record was quite expensive and quite extensive.
TD: Just a little bit. Could you do it anywhere else? I mean, it does have the rally car look?
KB: Yeah. I mean, unfortunately again, it's not built for that. The range of it will not allow us to do an entire loop of rally stages, because at a certain point, if you go out on a loop of rally stages and, say, you're doing a 30-mile loop and doing that twice a day, you could maybe make the first 30 miles, but then we only have a 30-minute service before we go out and do that 30-mile loop. You’d have to somehow charge in 30 minutes, which usually takes hours. I think in the long run there's a great possibility of electric in rally and hill climb and all that sort of stuff. Hayden Paddon down in New Zealand has a very cool hill climb car that he's built based off of a rally-type setup. I think that sort of stuff is great to be explored, but we're not there yet.
But there are definitely some cool possibilities down the line. It's just all has to get figured out. And by the way, I've seen some funny comments recently that were like, "Oh, cool, you did that, Gymkhana. How many times did you have to charge?" Well, it's like, you know you put gas in cars, right? It's not like I do the entire Gymkhana video on one gas tank of gas.
TD: Especially with 1,400 horsepower and meth, you're probably running through quite a bit of race fuel.
KB: Yeah, quite a bit of it. I think that there are so many misconceptions about this stuff. And even if you look at what Volkswagen did at Pikes Peak, people comment a lot about, "Oh, they had all these chargers and they had to do all this charging." Yeah, but at the end of the day, they decimated everybody with a record. And that's as a race car driver or a company that's got a race team and wants to go win shit.
TD: That's the point.
KB: Yeah, the EV thing just worked out awesome, and they got a record. One of the worst things about Pikes Peak is how you have to program the engine at the low altitude and the tall, the height
KB: Yes, and it is terrible. But they went there with the right idea in mind, and who cares about how they had to charge it? They had the right piece of equipment to go win that race, and they did so in a commanding way. And I find that, as a race car driver, cool as hell.
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