The Gymkhana Files: Episode 1—“At The Peak” Review

by Chris Leone // Website // Twitter
Images via Ken Block

“The thing about that mountain is, it’s a killer,” Ken Block says of Pikes Peak at the start of the first episode of The Gymkhana Files. “Putting a car at 10,000 feet, it doesn’t act the way it does at sea level.”

The self-described “part racecar driver, part marketing person” might sound like he’s slightly underselling the difficulties of running at the iconic Colorado mountain as “At The Peak” kicks off, but that’s only because we’re used to seeing him defy death on a regular basis. The following 32 minutes of footage, mostly concentrated on last year’s viral video sensation Climbkhana, serve as the ideal introduction to who Block and the Hoonigan crew are for newcomers, and for his most devoted fans, as a primer for just how intense it is to make automotive art the Ken Block way.

In case you’re new to Block’s particular brand of driving, we start off with a quick look at his life and career outside of the Gymkhana clips that lend their name to the docuseries. The co-founder of DC Shoes half a lifetime ago, Block parlayed a lifelong love of action sports into driving and quickly became one of Rally America’s top drivers. But his career arc changed dramatically with the release of the first Gymkhana in 2008, a video clip that broke into eight-figure views quickly and left both fans and sponsors wanting more.

A decade later, the pressure to make the biggest and baddest video yet has never been stronger. In “At The Peak,” we split our time between pre-production meetings and location scouting for Gymkhana Ten, which will drop at the conclusion of the docuseries, and the conclusion of Climbkhana, whose production had already been halted once due to the difficulties of getting the 1400-horsepower Hoonicorn to run properly at over two miles above sea level.

“We keep making these things bigger and better,” says brand director Matt Tuccillo. “What the hell are we going to do for 10?”

For anyone who’s ever believed that these things are easy to pull off, The Gymkhana Files might be your first look into just how overwhelming the pressure of being Ken Block can be. They range from the minute (we see him stumble over lines while filming a promo for Pennzoil) to the massive (lightning strikes shut down a day of filming early during the second Climbkhana shoot), and all of them can pile up. When millions of fans and millions of marketing dollars are all riding on your innovation behind the wheel, even the tiniest of setbacks can feel like the weight of the world.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments where things loosen up. When director Brian Scotto’s phone dies during a pre-production meeting, the Hoonigan braintrust laughs, and Tuccillo breaks the fourth wall to call it the “most Scotto thing ever.” Scotto is the perfect foil to Block’s efforts, more than capable of pushing the driver to his limits in the best of ways but also doing his best to keep the stress levels down for the crew.

“Today I got called a fat Paul Walker,” he jokes on the mountain. “I took it as a compliment. Better than a fat Bam Margera.”

Beyond Block, Scotto, and Tuccillo, there’s plenty of other talent behind the project. Jeff Zwart, a Pikes Peak International Hill Climb winner and award-winning director, brings his immense experience with the mountain to Climbkhana as co-director. Derek Dauncey, who boasts decades of experience in the FIA World Rally Championship, heads up the team in charge of perfecting Block’s car. And Matt “Magic” Johnston, best known in rally circles as the director of Easier Said Than Done, even gets a shout-out for standing in a particularly dangerous spot to get a crucial shot for the finished clip.

But the most intense shot of Climbkhana comes at a turn called “Evo Corner.” In 2012, Jeremy Foley plummeted over 200 yards in a Mitsubishi Evo after misjudging the corner, and while both he and copilot Yuri Kouznetsov survived with relatively minor injuries, Block is clearly not looking to push his luck. We see the “Water’s Edge” shot from Gymkhana 9 that saw him push his Ford Focus RSRX to within inches of slipping into the ocean, and the moments of reflection are genuine. As he holds his head, thinking about how the shot will be the first one of the next day of shooting, frames of Zwart’s laughter and Foley’s roll cut in.

How much longer can he keep doing this?

Morning comes and Block and company scout out the corner. He makes a small stack of rocks on the outside in lieu of a guardrail to serve as a reference point, and takes one conservative test run to feel things out. Despite Scotto’s persuasion, Block doesn’t seem ready to go all-out on the second run either, until he’s perpendicular to the road and his rear wheels are completely off the tarmac.

The dirt sprays. Block’s rock tower is shot down. And then, as if it was nothing, the Hoonicorn pulls back onto the road and out of the corner. Mission accomplished.

“I hope you liked that, because I’m NOT doing that again,” Block laughs.

Maybe not today, but that’s the whole point of the Gymkhana series. Block doing the impossible, again and again, to bring us something bigger and better each and every time he films. As he and the crew explain at the end of the episode, the whole series is about chasing iconic moments. We see teasers of new footage, assumedly from from Sweden, Texas, and Detroit, each in completely different vehicles. Each shot holds its own promise, aiming to top the last, even while it’s mixed in with some of the most iconic shots from previous videos.

We may not know what the hell they’re doing for Gymkhana Ten yet, but for the first time, we truly have an idea of how much work goes into making it.

The Gymkhana Files can be seen on Amazon Prime.

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