Ken Block was a daredevil racing driver, a motor sport pioneer, a true visionary.
For many, he was the driving force behind Gymkhana, a series of videos watched by millions around the world as he performed death defying stunts in his specially adapted super-charged Ford Fiesta.
To others, he was a supremely talented rally driver with the Hoonigan Racing Division, the brilliant mind behind DC Shoes and the multi-millionaire behind clothing business Hoonigan Industries.
To his family he was husband to Lucy, Dad to three great kids and a friend to so many people within the motor sport industry, skateboarding, snowboarding and motocross fraternity.
To me, he was a guy who did figure donuts around a priceless Avro Vulcan Bomber, drifted around its fuselage and almost made Olympic cycling hero Sir Chris Hoy throw up!
On Monday, January 2, 2023, the world lost Ken. He was just 55.
Early reports appear to suggest this was just a tragic accident.
No filming, no stunts for the pleasure of others. It is understood he was riding a snowmobile which upended on a steep slope and landed on top of him. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
It was a genuine shock to his millions of fans around the world, his fellow professional racing drivers, Youtube fans and those that had been privileged to work with him. I was luckily enough to be one of those people, one magical day back in October 2012.
It was ten-years ago now and I was fortunate to spend 12/14 hours or so in his company, facilitating the filming of a BBC Special called ‘Racing Legends.’
Onside PR were providing PR consultancy services to a Avro Heritage, a company established to acquire the former BAE Systems site at Woodford Aerodrome, just South of Manchester.
The business, led by JCB heir Jo Bamford, would go onto secure planning permission and Redrow Homes would ultimately go onto create the magnificent Woodford Garden Village.
But in the months and years leading to subsequent planning, Onside PR helped a number of film and TV production companies utilise the huge amount of space at Woodford with filming, including the team behind the Racing Legends series.
Sir Patrick Stewart (X-Men, Star Trek) worked with Tiff Needell and the Racing Legends team for a tribute to Sir Sterling Moss at Woodford a couple of months previous and Top Gear production executives had scouted the site for potential opportunities.
Woodford had been the birthplace of some of the Royal Airforce most important aircraft, having Bourne the Avro Anson, the Avro Lancaster, the Avro Shackleton and the Avro Vulcan over the past 80-years.
Aside from the pristine runway, one of the longest in the country with a 2,292 metre runway equipment with an almost new Asphalt service, it had empty aircraft hangars, it’s own fire station, out buildings, plenty of run-off – and an Avro Vulcan bomber!
It was too good an opportunity and so, having checked his availability the Racing Legends team arrived with Sir Chris, Colin McRae’s father and former British Rally Champion in his won right, Jimmy McRae, and a team of Top Gear professionals to film the action.
The ‘reason’ for jetting Ken Block over from this home in California, was to teach Sir Chris, himself a very established amateur racing driver, how to drive like McRae.
Honestly, no-one had consider the opportunity for donuts around the Vulcan or drifting displays around the runway and run-offs…….honestly!
Ken was hugely approachable, one of the team. His focus was clear but only when it needed to be. The rest of the time he was one of the gang, laughing and joking and completely without ego.
We had spent some time walking the circuit and considering the options in the days leading up to the arrival of the Hoonigan’s and their specially adapted Ford Fiesta. We understand roughly what we would do and was in complete agreement.
Filming would start at the South End of the runway with Ken drifting around Sir Chris, would be sitting on the bonnet of his car, surrounded by a wall of smoke!
Sir Chris would then jump into the passenger seat with Ken, who would shoot up the runway, drift off onto a side road and head for the Fire Station.
The pair would fly through a tight gap (honestly the film does not do that gap or the speed justice) before going onto perform a series of donuts that would fill the car with smoke, leaving Sir Chris dizzy and slightly nauseous.
Ken would then boot the car away and back onto the track, drifting around the corner to approach the Vulcan bomber. He began by drifting around the permitter of the Vulcan before coning inside to drift figure of eight donuts around the fuselage and then away into the sunset.
One take. It wasn’t even the take. It was a sighting lap.
I was positioned initially halfway along the runway, security had the airfield locked down and Ken set off on a searcher. I filmed sections with my mobile phone and stitched them together to show the sequence.
Forgive my amateur technique. lIt was ten years ago on an old mobile phone but it gives you a decent idea.
I can still smell the rubber and believe me, one take around the fuselage was all he was getting after we watching him inch closer and closer to this magnificent aircraft.
Ken just laughed his way through the shoot. His team were on hand to catch some professional footage and then we retired to the indoor hangers where Ken and Chris spent time on a simulator, recreating McRae rally stages.
It was a day I will never forget. It was a day I got the chance to work with Ken Block and watch a true driving legend show such a masterful display of car handling in a truly unique environment.
Fortunately, the BBC Racing Legends episode is still available to watch to immortalise the experience.
Rest In Peace Ken Block. A true driving legend and all round humble, funny and down-to-earth family man. A great gone way too soon.