Set on the streets of LA, Gymkhana Seven is the latest in a long line of brutal internet-breaking videos from Ken Block and his Hoonigans, and is surely the most epic, face-melting installment yet. Sure, we could have just posted the video and been done with it like everyone else, but that’s not our style; we are the Speedhunters after all. With that comes some pretty special opportunities to get the real story behind the story, and our man Larry Chen was able to spend five very long days embedded in the shoot, all in an effort to show you all exactly what goes in to the making of a tyre-shredding, clutch-dumping monster video like this. Behold the majesty of Gymkhana Seven.
Let’s get straight into it. Since I began Speedhunting many years ago, I’ve been able to shoot some very cool things. Shooting on set for Gymkhana Seven, though, has to take the cake. I was on the set for Gymkhana Four - which was Ken Block going Hollywood on all of us – and since then I’ve really wanted to come back. I had scheduling conflicts for Gymkhana Five and Six, but the shoot dates for Seven just happened to land in an open time slot for me. Even better, it was taking place in my hometown, Los Angeles.
While the car itself is the star of the show, what really got me was the concept. Who would have ever thought to build a Four-wheel drive, drifting, donut-making ’65 Mustang? Appropriately dubbed the Hoonicorn RTR, it’s one of the most amazing builds I’ve ever seen. Stay tuned for an in-depth car feature later this week…
What I loved most about this shoot is the fact that I can now see my home city in a completely different light. I can say, ‘See that freeway? I took a selfie right there in the middle of it all,’ and ‘See the Hollywood sign? I was on top of that shooting one of the greatest Hoonigans of all time, Mr. Ken Block!’
It all started late one Thursday night a few months ago when I dropped by Hoonigan’s ‘Donut Shop’ for a sneak peak at the Hoonicorn RTR.
There the Hoonigan Racing Division team was putting the finishing touches on the Mustang. The last bit of bodywork was being added and it was about to be fired up for some late night testing.
It was the first time Ken had stepped into the car in full trim. A few months prior he’d had the chance to drive it around a parking lot without any exterior panels, but it had changed so much since then.
The car was taken to an undisclosed location in Downtown Los Angeles, for some testing. A few donuts won’t hurt anyone, right?
After a quick midnight wake up call for the neighbors, it was time to call it a night – the next morning we would jump straight into shooting. Right then and there, after witnessing firsthand how absolutely violent the car was, I knew this was going to be something special.
As with any viral video dream team, you need the best creative minds. Brian Scotto has been working alongside Ken since the beginning of the Gymkhana series, and was also the creative director for Recoil 2, which I was also lucky enough to be a part of.
There were many more familiar faces from the set of Recoil 2 as well, including director Ben Conrad, who also happened to direct Gymkhana Four, Five and Six. Also on set were these two Hoonigans from Tempt Media. We’ll just call them Tweedledee and Tweedledum…
Our first stop in the great city of Los Angeles was its iconic Chinatown.
While it’s all fun for you guys watching the video, what you may not realize is how much time, effort and resource it actually takes to make something like this.
There were probably at least 80 people on set, each with a very specific job. The hours were long, but looking at the end result the reward was more than worth it.
The video shoot itself took five full days which lasted from dawn till dusk. It still amazes me as I look back on it, because that wasn’t actually a lot of time considering how many locations we hit up.
With pretty much no seat time, Ken jumped into the driver’s seat and went for it. It was time for him to do what he does best.
Countless feature films have been shot on the streets of Chinatown, so it was only fitting for the guys to choose this historic location.
With the utmost precision, Ken wrangled the Hoonicorn RTR around the obstacles. It takes a driver with some balls to tame a 845hp beast, and the last thing anyone wanted was a ’65 Mustang driven through a storefront.
If you do enough of these viral videos, you are bound to make some friends. Tony Harmer and Alex Bernstein were on set causing trouble with their cameras, as was Will Roegge who, as always, could be found shooting from dangerous locations.
Our next location was the concrete jungle that is the Los Angeles River. Ken got to live every boy racer’s dream of driving the channel after watching movies like Gone In 60 Seconds and more recently, Drive, with Ryan Gosling.
The crew brought in a few props as obstacles, some of which seemed to pay homage to Ken’s motoring past.
Up until this point, Ken had only had a few minutes behind the wheel, but it was time to push the envelope. The water itself was so nasty that I was afraid I’d end up with an extra toe if I stepped into it.
While the state of the water was less than desirable, I don’t think Ken would’ve been satisfied if he had left the scene with a dry car.
After each major stunt the crew reviewed the footage to make sure they had what they needed to proceed. In this case it was all good, which was lucky because I don’t think that the Hoonicorn RTR was up for another dip in the luxurious waters of the Los Angeles River.
I included this photo to give you an idea of how many people were working behind the scenes. This is the largest production there’s ever been for a Gymkhana shoot.
In between stunts, Brian and Ken would plan out the driving line for the most impactful shot. While the final edit makes it look like everything was filmed back-to-back, there was actually plenty of downtime. This meant that Ken had to stay totally focused when he was behind the wheel.
The one thing he did not have to worry about though, was the car. It ran flawlessly throughout the entire five-day shoot.
It was built to be durable and reliable so Ken could jump, hit, and hoon everything.
This ultimately allowed him to repeat stunts until they were nailed perfectly. Keep in mind that this sort of car has never been built before, and that many of the parts are custom one-off items that the boys at Autosport Dynamics (the guys who build and service Vaughn Gittin Jr.’s RTR Mustang Formula Drift cars) put together.
Because of the many takes, the Hoonigan Racing Division team burned through quite a few sets of tires. Lucky for them, Pirelli made custom tires for Ken with his name on them. Must be nice, huh!
The sun was setting and it was time for the last stunt of the day, which involved going flat-out into a huge sweeper.
As it was super-dusty there was very little traction on the surface, so it was a challenge for Ken to quickly change direction at speed…
But it’s nothing that a heavy right foot can’t solve. I’ve never seen smoke billow off four tires with such intensity.
Onlookers began to wonder what was going on down by the river…
With just a fleeting few minutes of light left, Ken made a couple more attempts at hitting a small ramp that the crew had constructed. The wild nature of the car and the fact that the surface was so slick, meant it was easier for him to slide into it backwards though.
It really amazed me how many different locations and scenes were shot in a single day, even with such a large production.
Day 1 was in the books, but it was just the beginning of a very long viral video shoot…I Love LA
The first location for Day 2 was the very center of Downtown, Los Angeles. The streets were blocked off by the police and there was an eerie silence. Downtown has never been this empty – even so early on a Saturday morning.
The Hoonicorn RTR was proudly parked in the middle of the financial district, bathed in the morning light. While I was eating my morning egg rolls, it all of a sudden dawned on me. Streets were getting shut down and I was beginning to see the bigger picture – this was a big deal.
Closed streets in Los Angeles are normally reserved for big-budget Hollywood films and car commercials, but on this specific morning it was time for the Hoonicorn RTR to shine.
Apparently this project was two years in the making. Due to the R&D required, it took longer than normal to create such a unique hooning vehicle – plus then there was the planning and logistics of the actual shoot to work through. Somehow, these two knuckleheads always pull it off while driving around in police cars.
This kind of opens the conversation as to what’s next? It’s something we all seem to ask after every Gymkhana video, yet somehow Ken and the boys always deliver.
To Ken, it’s all about being able to do what he loves for a living. To call it a dream job would be a massive understatement.
The deafening roar of the 410ci Roush Yates V8 echoed around the urban landscape. It was utterly epic.
Tire smoke trailed behind the beast as it sped through the streets, almost uncontrollably.
I drive these roads all the time, but I will never look at them the same way again now.
The next stunt went below a network of Downtown bridges and tunnels.
The car effortlessly pirouetted through the streets. With so much tire smoke coming out of the front wheel wells, I wondered how Ken even knew which direction he was headed in at times.
Even after the tires had stopped spinning and the motor was shut down, burnt rubber would bleed out from every orifice of the Mustang for minutes at a time.
At this point Downtown Los Angeles was filled with tire smoke. It was almost majestic, and it lingered around like a low layer of fog.
For unsuspecting pedestrians it probably looked like one of the buildings in the area was on fire.
And just like that the Hoonicorn RTR disappeared back into the tire smoke from which it came from.
The aftermath was some funky lines that looked like they had been drawn with crayons by a 2-year-old.
The next location was as quintessentially LA as the famous Hollywood sign. The network of bridges that connect east Los Angeles with Downtown and surround the LA River have shown up in so many major motion pictures.
Each has it own unique characteristics, but the 6th Street Bridge was the one chosen for filming.
It’s the same location where I shot the cover for our brand new Speedhunters book: Feature Cars 01. But why was this one being used instead of the 1st or 4th Street Bridge?
Because it’s the gateway to the LA River, and therefore crucial to the flow of the story.
While it takes months of scouting and planning, no one really knows if a stunt will work until it’s actually tried for the first time.
The car was eased down into the river to check for clearance and shot position, all the while attention being paid to not disturb the local residents. It was determined that the front lip was just way too low to drift into the river at speed, so for the final shot they removed it.
And just like that Ken went from the street into the nastiness that is the LA River.
Next up was a few shots on top of the 4th Street Bridge, which provides some great views of Downtown LA and the surrounding areas.
It was planned that Ken would drift onto the bridge and around a few interesting obstacles.
It took multiple takes, but this one gave me a real Steve McQueen vibe. I’m talking about that unforgettable burnout he did after overshooting the corner during the legendary chase scene in Bullit.
After many circle burners it was pedal to the metal. Ken could really stretch the Mustang’s legs and reach triple-digit speeds here.
With all the commotion and loud V8 noises, Magnus Walker, who lives just down the street, wandered onto the bridge to see what was going on. Ken Block pulled up to him in the police car and asked him “What are you doing on my bridge?” Magnus replied, “What are you doing on my bridge”Highway To The Danger Zone
At this point I was feeling the fatigue of shooting for three days straight, not helped by the fact that the call times were getting earlier and earlier. On the third day we met at one of the largest and tallest freeway interchanges in the world – the connect between interstate 110 and the 105.
I showed up just in time to catch the mechanics and production crew preparing for the first shot.
Southern California has the busiest freeway network in the world, and even on a Sunday morning the motorways are packed. To close down one of the biggest intersections would be an absolute nightmare in any other city, but since Los Angeles caters to the film industry, the California Highway Patrol helped out immensely.
The first trick of the day? Make donuts until there’s no more rubber left on the tires. Should be easy, right?
The purpose of this shot was to produce enough tire smoke to rise through the different columns of highways, till it reached the very top.
When you consider that he would have been driving blind after three donuts, I think Ken did pretty well.
Going flat-out on the freeway in reverse? No big deal… Just check out how many levels this highway system has. It’s just crazy.
The boys from Tempt Media were in charge of getting those big shots with a bird in the sky. I had the pleasure of working with them on the set of Recoil 2.
I was actually really looking forward to this next shot when I saw it in the script. Ken would have a chance to really stretch the Hoonicorn’s legs in top gear going down a section of the 710 freeway. Hitting top speed for the first time must have felt so good.
Los Angeles is infamous for its high speed car chases, so why not poke fun?
After Ken blasted by at full noise, a different type of chase ensued.
I watched it live on television back in 1994, but I never thought I would shoot a recreation…
The first scene on Day 4 paid homage to Los Angeles’ lowrider scene.
A few cars were cast for this scene, but one in particular had some serious hop-ability.
Due to its complexity of timing and how dangerous it was, the stunt was reserved for the latter shots.
Bascially, as the lowrider was hopping up and down, Ken had to time his donuts perfectly. Too early and he would hit the side of the lowrider, too late and the lowrider would crush the Mustang.
There were some close calls, but then again, nearly every shot for the video had an element of danger to it.
To fuel the smack-talking fire, Ken decided to do some more donuts around the biggest donut in Los Angeles. Randy’s Donuts is world famous and it’s also appeared in quite a few major motion pictures.
Cheesy tourist photos aside, it was going to be quite a feat for Ken to pull off the perfect donut, as the space around the shop was very limited. The best part? They were open for business, so anyone could still walk up to the shop in between takes to order a fresh donut.
I’ve passed by this store my whole life, but I never thought I would get to stand right next to the novelty donut.
Ken got within inches of the building itself, as well as the many curbs surrounding the shop.
What better way to finish off a successful day of shooting with some sprinkled donuts.Going Hollywood
The fifth and final day of shooting played out at the most iconic location of them all: the one and only Hollywood sign. While there’s no public access to the sign itself, there is a small hiking trail that goes near it. I took this photo from a closed-off area reserved for movie sets where our base was set up.
While it would have been cool enough to have a shot with the sign in the background, drifting above it would be even cooler.
Which of course is exactly what Ken did. This was the very first time this location has been used for anything remotely close to what we were doing, and being the highest point in Los Angeles County it provided some amazing views of the city – even if there was a layer of smog to contend with.
Ken came out guns blazing and lit up all four tires with the Los Angeles skyline in the background. Could it have ended any better than this?
We were only allowed a small crew up top, but of course we made the most of it.
After a few fresh tire marks it was time to take the ultimate selfie.
The shoot was a success, and we could not have asked for better conditions or shooting locations. What an amazing view.
After the smoke cleared we checked out the tire marks. You can clearly see how close Ken got to the edge of the mountain.
Brian Scotto was very happy with the results, but there was still one last scene to shoot that would tie the whole thing together.
Welcome to one of the last steel mills in Los Angeles, or as I called it, a photographer’s wet dream.
This location was full of character, and it was the perfect setting for the video’s intro.
This is one of my favorite behind-the-scenes images from the entire shoot. You can see how much goes into rigging for those special shots.
I think we can fit a few more GoPros on the car don’t you think? Or perhaps we just give one to Ken to hold while he’s driving?
One by one the crew knocked out the shots that were needed for the intro. At this point they were really chasing the sunlight.
Five days of non-stop shooting was taking a toll on everyone, including Ken. At this moment it felt like my body was getting ready to shut down.
Luckily for Ken his family was there on site to support him. Not only is he a racing driver and media genius, he is first and foremost a devoted husband and father.
His kids loved being on set, and I think it provided everyone with some much needed comic relief.
Now it was time for the head Hoonigan to suit up one last time for the final trick – the one that was probably hardest on the Hoonicorn RTR.
The crew chained the monster down to the foundations of the building and let Ken rip all four tires to shreds.
Within seconds, thick smoke was billowing out from beneath the car. The sound was deafening, and it reverberated through my body.
The Mustang eventually disappeared into the smoke, and at this point all you could hear was the motor bouncing off its 8,000rpm rev limiter as the tires clawed for traction.
And just like that, the Hoonicorn RTR was unleashed to wreak havoc on the streets of Los Angeles. This is backwards storytelling at its finest!
This begs the question, what is next for Ken Block? Gymkhana in North Korea? What about the moon? Either way you know I will be there, spacesuit and all…