How Ken Block Built a Multi-Automaker Marketing Machine
He moved beyond motorsports to become one of automotive's first viral influencers.
More than 100 years ago, enthusiasts looking to show off the capabilities of a newfangled invention called the automobile began hosting events where they’d put the machines through their paces in front of curious crowds. They called the spectacles gymkhanas, borrowing the term from the worlds of both equestrian and athletic competition.
The popularity of the automotive gymkhana waxed and waned over the course of the next century, but in 2008 the world was suddenly paying attention again in a big way. That’s thanks to rally driver Ken Block and his sensational “
For 4 minutes and 26 seconds, Block blasts a 2008 Subaru WRX STI rally car through an obstacle course set up at an abandoned industrial site, sliding and tearing through warehouses in a phenomenal display of car control — all captured with the rock-solid editing of Block’s Hoonigan production team. That video, which now has more than 16 million views, launched Hoonigan’s “Gymkhana” video series featuring Block and a handful of talented partners. It also spawned a throng of imitators eager to get in on the hype.
More than a half billion views later, the “Gymkhana” franchise didn’t just make Block a media darling, it also allowed him to parlay the videos’ popularity into a unique motorsports career. Along the way, it changed how automakers approached their marketing efforts, dragging a conservative industry into the viral era.
Unconventional Racer, Unconventional Ideas
Ken Block's first “Gymkhana” videos had an immediate impact on his career in two ways. First, they raised his profile as a driver. Block, who had honed his business acumen by building the DC Shoes brand into an international powerhouse, came to motorsports much later in life than most of his peers. This required him to think beyond traditional funding and promotional avenues to get his foot in the door. The gambit paid off big time: By 2010, Block had transitioned from working with Subaru in Rally America to joining with Ford to rally the Fiesta RS in the World Rally Championship, a stunning achievement for someone who entered the series in his late 30s.
Block's business smarts also ensured that the “Gymkhana” series benefited Hoonigan, the creative collective that formed around a nucleus of Block and Brian Scotto, who had a major hand in directing and filming the series. This was achieved in part by setting up the Hoonigan Racing Division, which managed Block’s competitive efforts, and also by pushing Hoonigan further into the media space, where it quickly began to test the limits of what was possible in stunt driving.
Subaru | Ken Block, left, with co-driver Alex Gelsomino.
Millions of Eyeballs, Millions of Dollars
The “Gymkhana” videos weren’t just good for Hoonigan and Block's business; they also served as highly effective promotional tools for the automakers whose vehicles were featured. This helped Hoonigan attract a slew of brands to its “Gymkhana” banner. The team built wild cars for Ford, Subaru, and Audi and filmed them in action.
"These videos are a great way to have fun with the brand," said Dominick Infante, director of communications for Subaru America. "Obviously, there's no guarantee on media attention or views, but we can look at what's being shot and tell it's going to be exciting."
Infante explained that Subaru worked hand in hand with Hoonigan on a breathtaking
Given that Subaru no longer sells the STI in the United States and that the GL wagon is nearly four decades old, Infante said, the videos serve as a way to build brand awareness more than to sell specific in-market models.
"These videos should be fun,” he said. “If they aren't fun, people aren't going to watch. Subarus are very attainable vehicles, so our philosophy was, what if you could build the craziest STI possible? Would you have flames shooting out of the hood? Sure, you would. What if you could make an old Leone or a GL into a total monster?"
There’s No One Like Block
As Infante sees it, Block’s ability to work successfully with multiple brands stems from his quick evolution from racing driver to one of the earliest automotive influencers. That allowed him to move beyond racing and explore the tangential promotional and creative avenues that elevated both him and Hoonigan in the eyes of the public.
"There's a difference between building something organically and building something with a specific goal in mind," Infante said. "People like ‘Gymkhana’ because it was just trying to do cool stuff with cool cars. It's obviously being used for marketing now, but it didn’t start off that way. The original videos are like seeing just the car chases from the movies ‘The Fast and the Furious’ or ‘Ronin.’ A lot of that is the direct result of the sensibility of Ken and Hoonigan."
There's also the appeal of providing car companies with a more affordable promotional avenue outside of traditional ad spending or motorsports commitments.
"Even though ‘Gymkhana’ is a series, for us we approach each video as more of a one-off," Infante said. "It's different than going in and saying we're going to invest in a season of rally. It’s more cost-effective than a full season for us. Ken has essentially come up with his own version of F1's ‘Drive to Survive,’ and what marketing person wouldn't want to be involved in that?"
Unfortunately Ken Block died before this article was published. Rest in peace to the legend, Ken Block, 1967-2023.