Tire smoke, high flying jumps, and Monster Energy. You may know Ken Block for his Gymkhana videos, but what actually is Gymkhana?
Tons of tire smoke, death defying stunts, incredible drifts, and plenty of fun gimmicks. I’m sure you’ve come across one of the many Gymkhana videos on YouTube over the years featuring the impressive Ken Block. Since 2008, Ken has been tearing up specialized Gymkhana courses with extreme precision and generating over 43 million views. Over all these years multiple specially tuned cars have shown up, including the original Subaru Impreza WRX STI, Ford Focus, Ford Fiesta, Ford Mustang (the Hoonicorn), as well as a handful of other Ford trucks and classics.
Sadly, Ken Block has hung up his helmet on the series after ten intense and enjoyable Gymkhana videos, but this didn’t spell the end of the series. Rally racer and stunt show performer Travis Pastrana has taken on the Gymkhana driver mantle and recently made his debut in a car the returns to the series’ roots. A specialized 800+ horsepower Subaru WRX STI with active aerodynamic controls appeared in Gymkhana 2020 with Pastrana behind the wheel. In his debut Gymkhana video, Pastrana races the super performance Subaru through the streets of his home town of Annapolis, MD and makes some crazy jumps while reaching over 150 mph on back country roads.
So, with Hoonigan’s Gymkhana series in good hands, we figured we should look into the term the stunt series is named after. What is Gymkhana? How did a rally car driver performing fun stunts for fans share a name for a horse competition? We’ll fan away the tire smoke on this mystery and take a look at a heritage of motorsports that relates to the highly recognized video series known as Gymkhana.
Gymkhana originated from India where its original usage stood for a place of assembly, but had evolved into a meaning for showcasing skill-based feats. Gymkhana then made its way into the horse realm, being used as a term for highly skilled horse-riding maneuvers like tight cornering, specialized jumps, sliding stops, and precise movements all in racing or timed events. After hundreds of years of being known for equestrian events, Gymkhana evolved once again, just with a lot more ponies.
Gymkhana was reclassified by the gearheads over in Japan. Their take on the skill-based term featured precise maneuvers with their personal JDM cars through a course made up of cones in a parking lot. Drifting, spins, precise reverse movements, and even basic parking were large parts of the early events. Eventually, these parking lot Gymkhanas became sanctioned and competitors worked to make the fastest time with as few penalties as possible while they made their way through the curving flat ground courses.
This new breed of Gymkhana branched to different countries with different names, procedures, and track types. American Gymkhana was one of these branches in which Ken Block participated, but it sadly lasted just one year. However, the end of that event led to the original Gymkhana video we all witnessed back in 2008 and started the series we enjoy today.
So, Gymkhana has seen popularity with the likes of Ken Block and now Travis Pastrana, but how can we get our fix with the down time between Hoonigan videos? Well, thankfully, there’s plenty of sanctioned events all around the world that follow the original parking lot Gymkhana style, put their own spin on Gymkhana, and an all-new motorsport series that debuted at Goodwood’s SpeedWeek. Here’s a couple options for you to look up and watch or possibly even compete in yourself!
The original Japanese Gymkhana is still going strong. These contests still take place on asphalt in parking lots or other wide-open slabs and the participants navigate their cars through a series of cones. Drivers must take a specific course through the cones and set the fastest time out of 2 rounds. Hitting cones results in a penalty and deviating from the specific course direction can lead to disqualification. The Japanese Gymkhana courses can remain the same for the entire year rather than change every event like the other motorsports listed below. So, finding the right line in these events can prove worthy for a while.
Motorkhana is the popularized version of Gymkhana that takes place in Australia. These Motorkhana courses take place on both asphalt, dirt, and sand. Plus, they aren’t just relegated to everyday cars. Some drivers take a basic Honda Civic one week for a parking lot course then go on to use a specialized buggy through a dirt course the next week. A big part of Motorkhana is not only the ability to drift and carve a path to the end in a timely manner, but being able to drive in reverse for portions of the course as well as park precisely in a specified end spot.
Autotesting is Britain’s very own take on the Gymkhana sport. Their courses all primarily take place on asphalt, but have been known to take place in grass to ease the degradation of the competitors’ transmissions and tires. Autotesting courses are also known for being much tighter in size and design than other Gymkhana series. The courses for Autotesting, much like Motorkhana, also incorporate parking the vehicle at the end of the course, but typically inside of a physical garage rather than just a series of cones. These tighter courses encourage drivers to choose smaller, more specialized cars like Mini Coopers and kit cars like the Tiger Avon.
Autocross (also known as Autoslalom, Autosolo, and Autokhana) takes place in parking lots or airfields and is more straightforward than the prior Gymkhana motorsports. These courses don’t require the use of specific spins, reversing, or parking. Instead, Autocross is an A to B course in which drivers must make the fastest time through some slaloms and around some hairpin turns marked by chalk and cones. While the other Gymkhana motorsport events rarely exceed 40 mph, Autocross drivers typically exceed 60 mph trying to get the fastest time. Plus, while Japanese Gymkhana can have the same course all year round, Autocross has a new course almost every single event.
Rallycross (also known as Rally X) is basically Autocross on dirt. As its name implies, Rallycross derives itself from Rally motorsports, but Rallycross is a lone course rather than the multiple stages found in Rally. The competition takes place on a mix of different terrains like dirt roads, off-road, and sometimes pavement. There are Rallycross events, like the ones in Europe, that have multiple cars all at one time racing, but for local events in the states you’ll be driving solo through the turns trying to get the best time. These are a great place to start and learn if you’re interested in working your way up in the Rally racing scene since you can just take something like a stock Subaru Forester and start racing.
The newest (and probably my favorite) Gymkhana motorsport just debuted in 2020 at the Goodwood Speedweek. Driftkhana is a highly technological take on the sport of Gymkhana that pitted Formula Drift stars against Rally stars. Competitors had to hit specific points along a planned course by hitting multiple sensors that measured the number of rotations around pins, the distance away from the wall during drifts, and the time it took to complete specific tasks. Needless to say, the varying talent from multiple motorsports performing precision maneuvers made for a good show. We witnessed the Ford Mach-E 1400 silently burn some rubber during its electrified appearance for the event, but it was James Deane of Formula Drift fame who took home the gold for the inaugural Driftkhana competition in his Falken BMW M3.
It’s been over ten years since Ken Block brought the Gymkhana term into the mainstream and it seems to just keep trending up. There’s plenty of content to watch online and the entry into the different branching Gymkhana motorsports is more accessible than others in the car world. All you really need is your car, a helmet, and a couple of bucks to gain entry into a Gymkhana, Autocross, or Rallycross event. So, hone your skills, burn some rubber, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll make a large enough impact to show up at a future SpeedWeek Driftkhana event or end up in Hoonigan’s next big video.