Crash, bang, wallop: riding with Ken Block in the 845bhp Ford Mustang Hoonicorn

Driver, I think a bit of your tyre just hit me in the face

KEN BLOCK is the man who rolled a Reliant Robin at the first — yes, the first — corner of the Top Gear test track in 2010. So imagine my concern when, strapped in alongside him in the passenger seat of his 845bhp Ford Mustang Hoonicorn RTR, I see him floor the throttle. With an ear-splitting cacophony of bellowing exhausts and howling tyres, we cannon down the opening straight of his Gymkhana circuit to — gulp — its first corner.

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They say that time seems to slow down in moments of crisis, and I’m conscious of every millisecond. As the Hoonicorn approaches the corner, I cast my mind back to the moment, 24 hours earlier, when Block crashed the Hoonicorn at this same spot and, 12 hours before that, when he crashed the car elsewhere on the circuit.

How different things had been then. With a spring in my step, I’d come to interview the rally driver, co-founder of DC Shoes and creator of the Gymkhana YouTube videos, which have chalked up 300m views. He was at the Santa Pod Raceway, on a former Second World War US air force base near Northampton, to stage Gymkhana GRiD 2015.

Riding with Ken Block in the 830bhp Ford Mustang Hoonicorn

In a small office next to his large black Monster-branded motor home, Block recalled growing up in California, where he rode skateboards and dirt bikes. Inspired by Colin McRae, in the 1990s he gravitated to rallying. The two drivers competed against each other a few times.

“Colin and I got on really well because it was all about what we could do with the cars, and how much fun we could have,” he told me.

Block flicks a switch on the dashboard and says, ‘Now for some noise’

That encapsulates what Block’s Gymkhana events, which he started in 2009, are all about. Gymkhana GRiD is a three-day event in which Block and his fellow drivers spin, smoke and slide around an obstacle course covering just 120 square yards, in a variety of improbably powerful, flame-spitting rear-wheel and four-wheel-drive cars. Two cars compete at a time on identical courses laid out next to each other.

Riding with Ken Block in the 830bhp Ford Mustang Hoonicorn

“I get to drive at an extreme level,” Block told me, “going sideways, flicking the car around, being aggressive with things … stuff you can’t do in rallying because you just end up losing time. There’s a competitive element, but at the same time I want to put the car as sideways as I can, and make as much smoke as I can.”

Interview over, there were a few hours to kill before the highlight of the day: a passenger ride with Block at the wheel of his Mustang Hoonicorn (Block is the self-styled “hoonigan-in-chief” of Hoonigan Racing, which runs the car). Unfortunately, on his first passenger ride Block crashed out. It took 20 minutes to patch up the Hoonicorn, but then the council called time on any more noise — and, boy, can these cars make some noise. We were promised a ride the next day.

The next morning it was raining. There were pools of water on the Gymkhana circuit, so Block waited a couple of hours before deciding to risk the first passenger ride. At the last count, 38,000 people have been YouTube to see  what happened next. Block gunned the Hoonicorn off the starting line, but, approaching the first corner of the damp circuit, the car’s tail went wide and swiped the heavy barriers. There would be no more passenger rides until the Hoonicorn had been repaired.

Riding with Ken Block in the 830bhp Ford Mustang Hoonicorn

The next day the clouds have gone and the sun is shining. Clouds of tyre smoke are belching from underneath the cars howling around the now-dry circuit.

I present myself at the Hoonicorn. After so much waiting, any fears I may have had about riding shotgun with Ken Block have long faded. Even when I’m fitted with a neck brace, on the orders of the paramedics who witnessed yesterday’s crash and attended to Block’s passenger, I’m still smiling. I put on my helmet and squeeze into the Hoonicorn’s passenger seat alongside Block. He flicks a switch on the dashboard and says, “Now for some noise.”

Riding with Ken Block in the 830bhp Ford Mustang Hoonicorn

He’s not joking. The Hoonicorn’s naturally aspirated Roush Yates 6719cc V8 erupts into life, gulping lungfuls of air through its top-mounted intake stack; its exhausts, which have no silencers, bellow angrily. Someone outside the car shouts to me that I should raise my left hand if at any point I want to stop. I catch Block’s unsmiling profile in my peripheral vision.

A dense cloud of white smoke begins to engulf us. My face is pelted with pieces of hot tyre rubber.

We rumble out to the circuit. As we approach it, Block suddenly floors the Hoonicorn’s accelerator pedal, and with an explosion of noise we’re catapulted into a clear space in the middle. Block grabs the large, gold-coloured hydraulic handbrake sprouting vertically from the Hoonicorn’s floor, which disconnects the front drivetrain of the four-wheel-drive car as it stops it. He spins the steering wheel, his foot still hard on the throttle. The car powers round and round and round … A dense cloud of white smoke begins to engulf us. My face is pelted with pieces of hot tyre rubber.

With the tyres up to racing temperature, Block straightens the wheel and blasts the Hoonicorn to the starting line, pulling a handbrake turn as he does so that leaves us pointing in the right direction for the first of two sprints round the circuit.

At the end of the opening 100-yard straight is the dreaded first corner. As the lights count down to “Go”, I wonder about raising my left hand. The bellowing Hoonicorn says no.

Mercifully, the first corner is textbook: Block comes up to it hard, brakes heavily to lighten the car’s back end and swings the wheel savagely as he steers round it.

Back on the throttle, Block careers to the first oil drum and snaps out the tail. Like a savage dog on the end of its leash, the Hoonicorn circles the drum just inches from its nose, gnashing and howling.

Riding with Ken Block in the 830bhp Ford Mustang Hoonicorn

Block slams the car into a fresh gear, corrects the wheel and rockets to the next drum. This time he fires off three stomach-churning rotations, generating enough sickening white smoke to obscure his route out. I fight the bile rising in my stomach, trying hard not to dwell on the stench of the smoke.

Hard on the power, brake, slide, spin — in the corner of my eye I can see Block working the Hoonicorn hard, alternately grabbing at the selector for the six-speed Sadev transmission, pulling on the handbrake, spinning and catching the wheel and pounding the pedals. He misses a shift but that only makes him and the Hoonicorn angrier. The car emits one final roar as Block fires it into the finishing box, spins it round and comes to a dead stop, ready for his second and final qualifying lap.

This time the first corner holds no fear for me. The tyres, Pirelli P Zero Trofeo Rs made to Block’s specification with a hard compound that helps the car to slide and bearing his name on the sidewalls, are hot enough to fry an egg on. Nothing can unstick the Hoonicorn now.

On the second lap Block goes even harder. Tyre smoke lies like a fog around the circuit. I can hear rubber fragments pelting the car’s sides.

Riding with Ken Block in the 830bhp Ford Mustang Hoonicorn

By the time we power out of the final rotation to the finish line, my stomach is about halfway up my throat. Whatever the Hoonicorn says, if Block attempts a third lap, I’m raising my hand.

Back at the garage, I clamber across the roll cage and out of the car. Block remains, idling the engine and doing final checks. I’m shaking but, amazingly, grinning. Block does this for fun — and I haven’t had so much fun in a long time.

2015 Ford Mustang Hoonicorn RTR specification
  • CAR: 1965 wide-body Ford Mustang
  • CONSTRUCTION: Tubular chassis, roll cage and door bars by ASD Motorsports; carbon fibre body panels by RTR
  • ENGINE: 6719cc, V8, normally aspirated, front-mid-mounted
  • POWER: 845bhp
  • TORQUE: 720 lb ft
  • BRAKES: Discs all round with hydraulic handbrake connected to clutch for automatic disengagement of front-wheel powertrain
  • TRANSMISSION: 6-speed sequential Sadev, 4-wheel drive
  • SUSPENSION: ASD Motorsports geometry and components, double wishbone all round
  • TYRES: Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R (with custom Ken Block compound) 295/30 ZR18
  • WHEELS: 3-piece R40, 18in x 10.5in, by fifteen52
  • WEIGHT: 1,360kg

Video: Ken Box shows Ken Block how to drift — in a cardboard box