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2009 Subaru Impreza STI - Ken Block Interview - Up Close & Personal

We Get The Scoop About Ken Block's Latest Video, His New Car And The Challenges Behind It

Jay Chen
Aug 7, 2009
Writer: David Pratte Photographers: Robert Kerian, Henry De Kuyper

Chances are if you're reading Modified, you've seen the original Ken Block "Gymkhana Practice" video. In fact, you've probably watched it multiple times, mesmerized by the utter automotive coolness on display, from the raspy sound of the exhaust to the billowing tire smoke to the unbelievable speed and angle of the drifts and the stunning pirouette through an aircraft hangar. It is, quite simply, one of the most epic pieces of motorsports erotica ever produced for the Internet, and given the more than 22 million views since its release less than a year ago, it's quite possibly the most popular racing video of all time. Jeremy Clarkson from "Top Gear" has even been quoted as saying it's the coolest motorsports video he's ever seen.

The Interview
So why risk making a sequel that would inevitably be compared to the wildly successful original, potentially giving all the e-thugs something new to direct their pointless brand of hatred at? Only one way to find out, by going direct to the man himself and quizzing Mr. Block as best we could on the phenomenon that is his gymkhana video projects.

2017 Subaru Impreza
$18,395 Base Model (MSRP) 24/32 MPG Fuel Economy

Q: What motivated or inspired you to make the first gymkhana video?

Ken Block: The first one was really just for fun. I did a gymkhana event at El Toro [air force base, in the Los Angeles area] a couple years ago, and since I really enjoy driving rally cars, for me gymkhana was a way to do some rally type driving locally, as opposed to doing some autocrosses or time attacks or something like that. There was an organization here in Southern California that was doing a couple of events a year, and I had this car that was used for Gumball3000 and One Lap [of America] so I decided to convert it for gymkhana. As soon as I got the car done, the organization that was doing the gymkhana events quit doing them, so I was really bummed that I'd just built this really fun car and didn't have anywhere to go with it.

Since I'd been to El Toro before and knew the place was rentable, I decided to go out there and just have some fun and get some seat time. When I started to look into the place a little more and rented it, I found all these different areas-like the helicopter pad and hangar-and realized we could try a bunch of different stunts with the car and film it. I actually went out for one day and filmed most of the Gymkhana ONE video, just playing around and having fun. I didn't see the footage for about a week, and when I finally saw it I was blown away. It was way better and way more dramatic than I ever imagined. So we tried to put it all together and it worked out really well, but some of the scenes weren't perfect and we needed a bit more for a complete video, so we went back for a second day to finish it up. But really, it was just something I did for fun, and never imagined that we'd get the response that we did out of it.

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In terms of inspiration, I'm a big fan of video on the Internet. Being a driver, I'm very interested in racing, so I constantly watch rally on the Internet. There's lots of stuff out there that inspires me or just purely entertains me-highlights from the WRC championship, highlight videos of Colin McRae or Gigi Galli doing some incredible slides on tarmac in a rally car. It's videos like these that I truly love about the Internet. It's just a great way to see a wide variety of driving styles and conditions. So when it came time to make the first gymkhana video, a lot of what I'd seen and had inspired me on the net was kind of built into it. And it was also just fun to do and cool to watch and actually develop that sort of content. And another big deal for me, since our [Rally America] championship isn't on TV anymore and I have some great sponsors, was to do a good job getting them some exposure, and doing this type of video content is a really good way to do that.

Q: When planning the Gymkhana TWO video, were your objectives with it different than with the first video? I'm guessing since you've called it an "infomercial" that your intent was more directly linked to selling DC Shoes apparel and the Teamworks Collection in particular?

KB: The pattern on my rally car [which inspired the patterns on the Teamworks Collection of apparel] was actually designed in 2008, but since it takes us so long to go from design to production to retail, we knew this product was coming up and we wanted to look at some unique angles to market it.

We discussed a bunch of different ideas and obviously because of the success of the first video the idea of a second gymkhana video made a lot of sense. But I wanted to be very up front with the viewers who were going to come along and see the words "Ken Block" and "gymkhana" and say, "Oh, I want to click on that," and then all of a sudden they're going to be bombarded with a bunch of product images. So I just wanted to be very up front that this had a commercial angle to it, and that's how we came up with the idea of an "infomercial," where we're going to entertain people with some motorsports eye candy, but at the same time we're there to sell a product but we're going to do it in a unique and entertaining way.

So that's where we came up with the idea of using the slow-motion camera and doing some of the unique stuff with breaking balloons, breaking glass, using flames and stuff like that. And at the same time, I wanted to keep the level of driving the same or even elevate it from the first video, so I worked really hard to make the stunts harder and more technical, and I actually feel I elevated the level of driving in the new video.

Q: With the original video being a one-day shoot with a second day added on to finish it, I assume this one was a bigger shoot?

KB: Yeah, this one actually took five days. The reason it took so much longer is that all those intro shots were a lot more intense and time-consuming. The slow-motion camera takes three hours to relocate, and it takes a crew of people because there's lighting and everything else that goes along with that camera, so that was a huge factor. Along with that, there's the fact of having more cameras, more people and every shot had to be a lot more thought-out and planned than the original one. It was a lot more stressful and took a lot more time, but in the end I think it was all worth it.

Q: And what was the creative process like when shooting the new video?

KB: We went to several different locations, eventually settling on a location [Port of Los Angeles], and then I went and toured the entire place and took photos. From there I planned out a complete course by looking at photos and a map of the place. I always have a list of stunts I want to do with the gymkhana car, so I spec'd everything out and did rough pencil drawings to map out each stunt in detail. Then I handed that over to the director and we developed a complete shot list. Once we were ready to shoot, he'd say, "OK, go set up the light bulb shot how you want it," and I'd lay out the bulbs and do some practice to figure out what gear I needed to be in and how much throttle to use, and feel how slippery the surface is, and then we'd lay everything out and I'd just go do it. So it's a fairly intense process that's very well planned out and thought through. It's also a really fun process and I'm the lucky bastard who gets to think this stuff up and then go and do it.

Q: I assume that once you're actually setting up a shot and starting to test it out, there's a certain amount of revising of the original plan once you see it on the ground and realize what's going to work and what's not?

KB: Yeah, definitely. It's one thing to look at a photo and look at a map, but it's another thing to actually take a car and drive through some of the stuff, so every time we'd get started on one of the stunts I wanted to do, we'd have to adjust some of the spots I wanted to hit. I'd physically drive the car through the location and we'd say, "Well, that was an interesting idea, but it physically won't even work." In the new video, that slide where I come out of the building and I'm really close to the water [up against the edge of the pier], I had actually envisioned that shot at the opposite end of that building, but when I tried the shot in that direction I didn't like the arc of the slide because just where I was coming out there was a giant piece of metal that could destroy a rim, so the risk was just too high. So that's why I switched it to the opposite end of the building, which ended up working out really well. It's actually my favorite shot in the video.

Q: It actually looks like your wheel is starting to touch the wood along the edge of the pier in that shot. Did you actually do any damage to the car in that shot or any other stunts in the video?

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KB: No, not in that shot. The one in the video was the closest one I got and it was 2 to 3 inches away from the wood. My goal was actually to touch the wood, but once we got that close after only five or six tries, we just said, "OK, that's a beautiful shot." So to answer your question, I only had one major incident throughout the whole shoot and it did very little damage-and that involved the crash test dummy. The first time I did the dummy stunt [knocking the paint balloon out of its hand], it only took a few tries and I hit the balloon twice, but it was starting to get dark so the footage didn't match the rest of the video. So we went back the next day to get the shot during the day and I was having trouble with it for whatever reason. I threw it in there a little too hard one time and smacked Timmy [the dummy] on the back with the wheel, and so it dented up the car pretty bad on the rear quarter panel, but not bad enough that you'd even notice it in the rest of the video.

Q: With the dummy shot, you mentioned you had to do quite a few takes to get it right. Was that typical of most of the stunts in the video?

KB: It all depends on the stunt and the kind of shot we were trying to get. The one with Timmy for some reason took me 30 tries. I don't know why, but it was really hard. But some of the other stunts only needed four or five tries and some others took 10 to 15. My goal was to get the best-looking shots possible, not just do it in one or two shots.

Q: And in the exploding trailer scene, it looks like the car was seriously engulfed in flames for a few seconds. Did you actually feel a shock wave from the explosion or the intensity of the heat in the car?

KB: I didn't really feel the heat, but I definitely felt a shock wave every time I did that stunt. We actually ended up having to do it eight times because the special-effects crew we were using couldn't get the timing down. So I had to keep doing it over and over again until they finally got it right, and they still never really got it 100 percent. Those shots at the end of the video are actually a compilation of three or four different takes, but really I only wanted to do that in one take [laughs]. That was a pretty sketchy thing to be doing. The gap in the video doesn't actually look that small, but in reality the gap was really tight and there was a piece of metal near the rear of the gap under the rig that would've ripped off the Prodrive WRC rear wing really easily, and that wing is one of only a couple in the country.

Q: I see on YouTube that the second video already has 2.3 million views. I've also seen links to it popping up repeatedly on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Has the strong response to this video surprised you?

KB: I've been very happy with the response. I kind of warned everybody involved that the original video was so unique and so strong that to even get 10 percent of that would be a success in most people's books. Two millions views of a motorsports video is huge, so to get this many views in eight days is absolutely incredible. So I'm stoked and I am blown away that people are that into it that they post it on Facebook and pass it along in emails. It's been amazing that people appreciate it that much.

Q: For the Gymkhana TWO video, you again had Crawford Performance build you the latest version of the Subaru Impreza STI. What is it about Crawford Performance that has allowed them to become your go-to Subie tuner shop?

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KB: CP built the engines in the DC Shoes Gumball3000 cars that we raced in 2005, so that's how I originally got to know them. Plus, James Han from Subaru has had them doing some time attack stuff for the past couple years and they just happen to be 20 minutes down the road from my office, so it was a combination of things. They've done an incredible job with what they've had to work with and have built two really amazing cars for me.

Q: How does the new GR Impreza STI featured in the Gymkhana TWO video compare to the GD Impreza STI used in the original video? Do they drive similarly or did you have to adapt a lot to the new chassis?

KB: This is sort of an unfair question. The reason why I say that is because the old car is literally a street car with a widebody kit and some suspension and engine work, but there's no cage and it still has a full interior. So it's basically just a modified street car, but the new car is really a purpose-built race car. So the new car is 10 times better than the old car, and I knew it within five minutes of driving it that it was so much better than the old one. The way that it feels, the way that it moves and the feedback that I get from it as a driver-it's just dramatically different.

Q: BFGoodrich had their KDWs on the car again for the new video. Can you tell me a little bit about why you like this tire for gymkhana?

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KB: BFG's been a great sponsor and I've really enjoyed working with them. The products that they make, all of them, are very good and that particular tire I used in the Gymkhana ONE video and I had a lot of success with it. The grip level that it has is very consistent from brand-new down to where there's almost holes in it, so I enjoy the performance of the product itself and I didn't want to change or mix it up for the second video because it just worked so well in the first video.

Q: I really like the use of neon on the spoke of the wheels and under the hood. It's a fresh and innovative look that's new to the scene. What inspired you to go with that look?

KB: For us at DC we're trying to bring something a little bit more unique to the motorsports world, and that is a younger perspective. A lot of the stuff you see in the motorsports world, from karting to F1, has just been the same formula for so long. So we're tying to take some of our action sport influencing and take it into the car graphics.

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Q: And now the question everybody really wants to know the answer to. Is there going to be a Gymkhana THREE video or do you have some sort of other plans for the car?

KB: At this point, I know there probably will be a Gymkhana THREE video, but I really can't even begin to guess what it'll be at this point. I have some really interesting opportunities to do more of this type of stuff with a few different people including Rob Dyrdek. He and I are doing something for one of his shows on MTV. So at this point I'm just going to play it by ear, and if there's another good opportunity in the future I will gladly do it again. It's just got to be for the right thing.

The Build
To get the inside scoop on the build of Block's new STI gymkhana machine, our friend Quirt Crawford from Crawford Performance dodged surly female interstate troopers while sharing some details of the car with us on his iPhone.

The build process can best be described as intense, according to Quirt. In fact, the build was so ambitious that Crawford had to shut the shop to the public for almost two months so his entire staff could work on the Gymkhana TWO machine nonstop, logging 16 to 18 hour days to meet the deadline. That wasn't helped by the fact that the project got off to a bit of a slow start. "We were waiting on a full WRC bodykit from Prodrive in the UK and that took the better part of three weeks to arrive and clear customs, and then once we had the kit it was apparent it was going to require major modifications to make it fit." Since the fenders were designed to stretch the wheelbase and raise the fender lip location, the kit was going to require relocating the suspension pick-up points and would make the car look like a rally car, not a tarmac car. After considerable debate with Ken and James Han from Subaru, the decision was made to stick with the stock fenders, with exterior enhancements being limited to the Prodrive wing, CP carbon hood and roof, Syms sideview mirrors and STI carbon-fiber roof scoop and front lip along with the bad-ass graphics package Block designed.

Where the real magic happened was under the hood and the fenders. For starters, CP built one of its bulletproof SR5 2.6-liter stroker engines and equipped it with a JDM STI twin-scroll turbo manifold and a custom turbocharger from Garrett for faster response and a broader powerband. Crawford also retained the OEM heat shield that comes with the JDM STI exhaust manifold, which effectively separates the massive heat buildup from the turbo system from the rest of the engine bay. The power and responsiveness of the Gymkhana TWO STI's engine impressed Crawford so much that he immediately tore the engine out of his time attack STI and swapped in an identical setup to the gymkhana car. Tuned on E85 ethanol fuel and controlled by a MoTeC M800 system, Block had 566 whp and 611 wtq available for tire annihilation. Speaking of which, apparently 13 sets of BFGoodrich KDW tires were shredded during the making of the new video, but no animals were harmed (other than Rob Dyrdek).

Under the fenders, custom-valved Tein Super Racing coilovers can be found, attached to custom CP A-arms, tie-rods and hubs. "The Tein engineers really know what they're doing with gymkhana setups, and they nailed the setup on this car right from the start," according to Quirt. The low-speed valving is softer than on CP's time attack STI, but the high-speed valving is a bit stiffer. With a surprisingly compliant suspension and a very neutral alignment, during its maiden test drive just a week before the video shooting began, Block was ecstatic with how the car handled. Only a few clicks on the adjustable shocks were made before Block was totally satisfied and filming began.

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The only major technical glitch that came up with the STI during filming was an electrical problem that Crawford eventually tracked to the cam position sensor, which had lost pin tension when MoTeC was building the complete custom wiring harness for the car. Once he troubleshot this problem, the only challenge that remained was replacing tires, keeping the tank full of E85 and swapping on fresh bumper covers whenever they got beat up a little-like during the Timmy the Dummy stunt.

According to Quirt, "Having built both of Ken's gymkhana cars, the exposure for us has been huge. Traveling with the Gymkhana TWO STI has turned into what is basically a full-time job, since the car will be touring the country and even making a trip over to England, and I need to be there to make sure it's in perfect running condition. And we're already getting phone calls from customers asking us to build them an exact duplicate of the new gymkhana car, so this has really been big for us. Even the Gymkhana TWO build video, which has been viewed over half a million times, has brought us a lot of positive attention and respect within the industry."

Specifications & Details
'09 Subaru Impreza Sti

Engine
2.5-liter EJ25 boxer flat-four

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Engine Modifications
Crawford Performance SR5 2.65-liter block, 84mm billet stroker crank, high-flow water pump, fuel rails and ss lines, twin-scroll turbo kit, FMIC, air/oil separator, fuel swirl pot, radiator, rad tank, rad lines and rad ducting, oil cooler, CAI, and ss exhaust with dual megaphones; Subaru STI "Gold" rod bearings, main bearings, piston rings, head gaskets, 10mm oil pump, camshafts, intake manifold, and twin-scroll headers; ARP head studs, CP spec TiAL 44mm wastegate, NGK spark plugs, Bosch fuel pump and fuel injectors, Motul 300V 10W40 oil, E85 fuel, Odyssey battery

Engine Management
MoTeC M800 ECU, SDL digital dash display, SDC center diff controller, PDM power distributor module, knock detection system custom wiring harness and 5-bar MAP sensor

Drivetrain
KAPS 6-speed dog box, STI short throw shifter, Exedy triple carbon clutch, Driveshaft Shop aluminum driveshaft and high-performance axles; Carbonetic front and rear carbon differentials, Motul tranny and diff fluids.

Suspension and Chassis
FIA rollcage by Vermont Sports Car, TEIN Super Racing coilovers, Cusco sway bars, Crawford Performance custom front hubs, custom tie-rods, custom front A-arms, and alignment and setup

Wheels, Tires and Brakes
18" Volk TE37 wheels with custom paint, BFGoodrich g-Force T/A KDW 245/40ZR18 tires, Brembo GT 6-piston monobloc front brakes, GT 4-piston rear brakes, STI brake bias controller, Prodrive/STI hydraulic hand brake, STI brake booster delete, ss braided brake lines, Motul RBF600 brake fluid

Exterior
Crawford Performance carbon-fiber roof and hood and lexan rear window; STI carbon-fiber roof scoop and front lip; Prodrive carbon-fiber wing, OEM wing cover, and dash; Syms carbon-fiber mirrors and door panels, stickers by RallyGrafix, paint by Patrick Flynn's Auto Body

Interior
Recaro carbon/Kevlar racing seats, Willans harnesses, Sparco steering wheel, custom start button and switch panel

Numbers
566 whp and 611 WTQ

The Ride
What started out as a guy and his rally machine having fun out on a desolated airstrip had turned into a phenomenon. The combination of his marketing genius, star power and sheer car-control skills had united skater, racers and Web junkies in one fell swoop. That's the power of Ken Block, his gymkhana machine and the Internet.

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Round two was different. Block wanted to officially share it with the world. In an eclectic fusion of music video, rally super stage, Time Warp, drift competition and skater anarchy, Block showed the world what all these passions really had in common. To make sure the message got out, he invited a select few fellow yaya junkies to ride along with him on the very site of the gymkhana video on the industrial waterfront of the Port of Los Angeles. Industrial doesn't even to begin to describe Block's newfound rally super stage. This little patch of asphalt, wood, steel and concrete was the terminus of ships, trains, trucks, cranes and industry itself all well weathered by rust and brine. It's any hoodlum's dream playground.

The anticipation built as the front of the E-ticket line got closer and closer. Time and again, I watched the mischievous Subaru play hide and go seek through the clouds of rubber and dust in this industrial maze, yet the ride didn't seem to have a set track. The look on each rider's face as they exited was of fear, amazement and envy.

By the time Block pulled in for my ride, it was time for his third set of tires and a moment for the man and machine to cool their heels. Both the driver and the Crawford Performance-built car had been at this for almost two continuous hours. Yet even as I strapped in, Block leaned over with a friendly smile and shook my hand with no sign of fatigue. The man's a machine.

Block threw the dog box into first and rolled the car out of the pit at a snail's pace, slowly past the spectator and groupies and out around the back side of the waterfront warehouse. He looked over at me and gave the thumbs-up and in an instant, his usual relaxed congenial look vanished and was replaced with the intensity and focus of a driver.

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We launched into the dusty, polished concrete floor of the vast empty warehouse like a go-kart on too small of a track. With a quick flick, Block set us into the first of many continuous slides centered around one of the hundreds of rusting iron roof pillars. Two loops and we had enough momentum to reverse our direction and glide sideways between another set of posts barely two car lengths apart. Car control is one thing, but this was just asking for it.

Just as shock subsided and the reality of the pillars started setting in, Block carried the momentum once again in another direction and shot us out of the opposing warehouse door. We exploded out into the setting sunlight and there, he finally dropped the hammer, blasting through second, third and then fourth gear for a hard run across the crumbling asphalt to the far edge of the waterfront.

On the far side, his hand slipped off the shifter and reached for the hydraulic rear brake lever. It's the thing we've all thought about doing while flying down the freeway but never did. Our Subaru was now rotating and sliding sideways in the original direction at 80 mph. By the time the car rotated almost 180 degrees and was sliding backward with the throttle still planted, we had scrubbed off just enough inertia to slingshot around a cone and barely clear the front bumper. Each tire clawed and tore into the loose, dusty tarmac and turned our backward reverse slide into forward motion again. I've been ice racing before and experienced similar maneuvers, but never at these speeds nor with the violence and smoke of these tires on tarmac.

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Back up to speed, we made our way toward an RV parked arbitrarily in the middle of the dock. In a high-speed, asphalt-version of a Scandinavian flick, Block nosed the car away from the RV, just enough to flick the tail out for our AWD doughnut around the RV. Through the smoke and spinning surroundings, I could pick out the camera man on top of the RV spinning around and around, chasing us with the lens.

Just as the doughnuts starting feeling comfortable, Block again changed plans and dove for the aisles and rows of dormant rail cars. This whole time there wasn't a sensation of fear because the man obviously knew what he was doing. But as we worked past the first row of rail cars jumping over several sets of sunken rails into the main labyrinth, the sphincter pinched. We were sliding, turning and wailing between cars at more than 40 mph and suddenly there was no exit in the direction we were sliding. Block knew the two-car-wide exit, and again showed his mastery of conservation of momentum by reversing our slide in time to make the exit outside my field of view.

We were just about to make another hard pull when the oil temp light on the SDL digital cluster lit up and Block lifted off the gas and dropped us out of warp-time to breathe again through that stupid ecstatic grin on my face. Block was instantly back into relaxed chatting mode as we putted for the pits.

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While the ride got cut short, it was enough to convince me that this man's gymkhana video was the real deal, not tricks, stunt cars, safety tethers or rigs. The man can drive.

By Jay Chen
85 Articles

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