Viral videos morph into new sport, Gymkhana GRID

Before the new discipline debuts at X Games Los Angeles, Ken Block explains the story behind Gymkhana GRID.

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The sport that spawned a series of beloved automotive cult videos that have chalked up more than 250 million online views is coming to X Games for the first time this summer. Gymkhana GRID will debut at X Games Los Angeles as the newest four-wheel competition discipline.

Ken Block introduced the word "gymkhana" to daily parlance. Ask any automotive enthusiast what it means, and they'll eagerly point to the series of online videos that highlight Block's control as he slings his top-spec competition car around various unexpected environments.

In his latest video, "Gymkhana FIVE," Block made San Francisco his playground, doing burnouts in his Ford Fiesta on the Bay Bridge, drifting doughnuts around moving trolley cars and getting big sideways air on the city's landmark hilly streets. For previous installments in the series, he's "hooned" his car around a Hollywood movie set, commercial shipping docks and the Autodrome de Linas-Montlhery, a racetrack near Paris.

Hoonigan Racing

Ken Block goes head-to-head against Liam Doran, right, at a Gymkhana GRID event last year in Europe.

Now, he's bringing gymkhana to X Games as a timed motorsport in which drivers will race the clock on mirrored courses that require them to navigate slaloms, 180-degree turns, 360-degree turns, figure-eights and other obstacles. The competition, which will take place Saturday night (10:30 ET on ESPN and WatchESPN) at Irwindale Speedway, will feature all the drifting, handbrake turns and big acceleration that makes the video series so popular, but in a racetrack environment and against the clock.

"It's all about time, but it's definitely more about rally style driving, to my mind," Block said. "It's a simple, grassroots sport and we wanted to take it to a different level."

The sport doesn't yet have a professional series in the United States. The word gymkhana originates in the equestrian realm, where it's a form of speed pattern racing and timed games largely undertaken by kids on horseback. The horse riding version is also sometimes called Omoksee.

The field for Gymkhana GRID at X Games consists of Block, Tanner Foust, Brian Deegan, Liam Doran, Anton Marklund, David Higgins, Stephan Verdier and Patrik Sandell, who all will be competing in RallyCross on Sunday. The rules require entrants to have a Global Rallycross Championship legal car. The skills that make a rallycross driver good at navigating a high-horsepower rallycross car over a mixed-surface course are similar to those that will be required to succeed in the new X Games motorsport discipline.

"It's kind of like having fun with racecars but in a purposeful way," said Foust, who won a one-off gymkhana contest back in 2010 at Irwindale Speedway. That event featured a field composed of rally, rallycross and drift drivers and the competition came down to a showdown between Block and Foust. He acknowledges that a repeat win will be a challenge.

Hoonigan Racing

After popularizing gymkhana on YouTube, Ken Block describes it as a simple, grassroots sport: "We wanted to take it to a different level."

"Ken's been practicing once a year for the past five years while he's making videos, and he'll be tough to beat," Foust said.

Similarly, Doran joined Block at a gymkhana event in Europe late last year. Block won, but Doran, the so-called "British Bomb," is another early favorite to challenge for X Games Gymkhana GRID gold.

"I grew up being an idiot in a car. Gymkhana is natural for me," said Doran. "I'm looking forward to it."

There have been some concerns among the teams that the wear and tear of two tough motorsport events could be too much for the cars to handle, but Doran, for one, doesn't have any of those doubts about his Mini. It was originally developed for long-distance rally competition and can easily handle hundreds of miles of racing in a weekend.

Foust thinks his car can handle it, too, especially after proving its durability in a doubleheader X Games RallyCross weekend in June in Munich. "It'll be fun to have some side-by-side driving where cars aren't getting destroyed by crashing with each other," he said.

Even so, he posits there might be an ocean-sized divide between competitors who run the new event at X Games and those who elect to skip it and save their cars for RallyCross on Sunday.

"Some of the Europeans will never understand it, but the Americans will get out there and throw some handlebars out the window. And the fans will love it," Foust said.

Block said his first gymkhana video ("Gymkhana Practice") was the serendipitous result of filming some cool-looking car stunting as he practiced in a Subaru built for a Southern California gymkhana series that never got off the ground. When he posted the video to the Internet, it became a viral sensation. Now, the sport that inspired it all might finally get the launch he was hoping for five years ago, when he began practicing.

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