It was supposed to be the next big thing. In 2010, gymkhana seemed poised to be the next motorsport to sweep American driving enthusiasts and car fans in general off their collective feet—or at least pique their curiosity—like drifting and time attack had in the decade prior. In 2007, Gymkhana USA went down in Orange County, Calif. and gave drivers and locals a glimpse into what the sport was all about. It even attracted one pretty famous DC skate shoe co-founder and future rally rockstar, Ken Block, who went on to launch an extremely popular series of gymkhana YouTube videos a year later.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. By now, some of you might be asking, what the hell is gymkhana? To borrow from another Super Street scribe, gymkhana is basically autocross on steroids. Like auto-x, cars are usually on a cone course in a large paved space like a parking lot, success is measured by quickest lap time, and there are penalties for touching cones or other track markers; where the two disciplines diverge is in execution. Gymkhana courses ratchet up the complexity with even tighter turns, sometimes requiring cars to complete figure eights, slide into barrier-lined boxes, or back through marked gates. Even the most casual motorsports fan would see gymkhana is far more technical than your run-of-the-mill autocross.
Seeing the sport's potential, Block got behind it, producing the aforementioned videos and, in December of 2010, organizing the one-off Gymkhana Grid Ken Block Invitational with time attack promoter Chris Willard at Irwindale Speedway (back then, known as the Toyota Speedway at Irwindale). The affair drew several local hot shoes, including over a dozen pro drifters, names like Formula Drift champions Vaughn Gittin, who drove a Ford Escort MkII in the event; Tanner Foust, piloting a Fiesta for Rockstar Energy Drink; Dai Yoshihara, in his Silvia-nosed S13 240SX; Michael Essa, in the V-10 GSR Autosport BMW 350R; and others.
A drivers meeting on Friday morning of the 2-day event set the tone for the weekend, which was apparently relaxed. Leading the gathering, Willard made it clear this event would be more of an exhibition—a "show" for the fans—and as such issues of competitive fairness that would normally need to be resolved before racing, like inconsistencies in the mirrored circuits, were overlooked. It was also why front-wheel drive cars were not invited to this event, apparently because FF cars don't put on as good a show.
The side-by-side tracks were set on the paved infield of the half-mile banked Irwindale oval and similar to the courses many saw the August prior at a test event. A drag strip launch dumped out onto a sweeper that deposited cars into a figure-8; from there, competitors had to flip their cars around a barrel in a box and then slide through a second sweeper. A short slalom exited to another barrel around which cars had to traverse and then race back to the final barrel just ahead of the finish line for two more loops before ending. Fast laps determined qualifying order on Friday, and Saturday eliminations were the best two out of three laps, with challengers switching tracks after the first lap.
The crowd size was not at capacity but also not small either for a chilly December night in Southern California, with seemingly more than half of the speedway's main grandstand full of spectators. Ahead of the final round of eliminations there was a highly entertaining burnout contest, where guys like ex-Formula D judge Alex Pfeiffer in his Lexus SC 400 and Aaron "Biggie" Brown in his Mitsubishi Evo lay down thick trails of fluffy white smoke; in fact, in his whirling enthusiasm Brown took out a handful of safety barriers and barrels and nearly mowed down some grid girls, too. Kevin Abbrings in his Nissan 350Z went a step further and openly tempted fate by having his team run out onto the circuit so he could burn donuts around them, much to the chagrin of the on-site safety personnel. But the best of them all—and deserving winner of the halftime show—was Essa; with his girlfriend (now wife) in the passenger seat of the V-10 BMW, Mike just cranked the wheel to the left and pinned the throttle for what seemed like minutes, creating an incredible plume of smoke that rose up over Irwindale like a mushroom cloud.
As for the gymkhana competition, it seemed to go down without a hitch. Foust and Block were both top qualifiers in the AWD Class, while Dai and fabricator/former FD pro John Russakoff in his AE86 Corolla were tops in RWD qualifying. Aptly, all four made it to their class's respective final battles; Dai began with a 52.633 opening lap to best Russakoff's 54.721, and then shut the door with a 53.618, which John knew he couldn't beat so he laid down a smoky burnout ahead of the finish line to ultimately register a time of 1:11.967. In the AWD money round, Foust clipped one of the cones in the slalom and was given a one-second penalty for it but still had enough to beat Block, 50.581 to 50.688. For Lap 2, Foust cleared the circuit in 50.787 and with no penalties this time; Block posted a 51.323 but had a touch in the box, bumping up his lap to 52.323. The penalty time mattered little, though, as Foust won the showdown.
Word on the street is that Block is planning another one of these things for later this year, but in light of the pandemic we don't know how viable those plans are, at least for the time being. If it does come back, it most certainly will be bigger this time, as Ken Block's legend has only grown in the intervening years. For a short time back then there was talk of whether or not Gymkhana Grid could become a domestic series, like it was internationally for a short time, but maybe these one-off demo events are a smarter way to go for now. Starting something "new" is never easy, but persistence is key—and having a good pitch man like Block in your corner doesn't hurt, either. We'll see you at the next one.