A few years ago, only a handful of gearheads had heard the term gymkhana. But when Ken Block's Gymkhana Practice video went viral, the word went mainstream. More Gymkhana videos followed, each getting more elaborate and commercialized with higher and higher production values. The video game DiRT 3 even launched a gymkhana mode.
With the popularity of gymkhana growing, it was inevitable that a competition would be created. Late last year, the Gymkhana GRID Invitational was launched, pitting professional drivers head-to-head on a course designed by Ken Block. Like many of you, we assumed that Block had organized the event. After all, his name was in the event title and it was even sponsored by DC Shoes and Monster Energy.
The man behind the event, however, was Chris Willard. And while Block had helped promote the event and get it sponsored, Willard was the one who organized the initial Gymkhana GRID. He had hopes of creating an entire series of competitions, with the next event scheduled for later this month in Hollywood, CA. That's not happening now, as he's received a cease and desist letter from DC Shoes regarding the use of the Gymkhana name. We dug a little deeper to find out more about why DC wants the event shut down and who really has the rights to the Gymkhana name.
Back in December of 2010, Chris Willard thought he had a good thing going with Ken Block and DC Shoes. "I actually brought my idea to Ken Block to run a Gymkhana competition, and he liked the idea," he recalls. "He asked me if we should run an invitational event, and I said that would be great, so we did partner up initially." Willard didn't just want to run one event, though, he envisioned an entire Gymkhana series.
Through the first half of 2011, Willard believed there would be no problems with using the Gymkhana name considering his good relationship with DC and Block. He was even asked to help get the word out for the Gymkhana World Tour event in Los Angeles. But recently, Willard received a cease and desist order from the Wasserman Media Group, who represents Ken Block and DC Shoes.
"First they called me up and told me that DC was trademarking the name, but at the same time, they were also working with me, so I didn't think anything of it until they told me that because they trademarked it I couldn't use it," Willard recalls. "I don't really know what happened, to be quite honest. There wasn't ever really a falling out or anything. I guess they just decided they wanted to do something on their own that maybe I could be in competition."
Steve Astephen, who represents Ken Block, offered a different side of the story. "We tried to do business with Chris" he told us. "We love Chris as a person. Obviously Ken loves these events, loves doing Gymkhana. He wants to continue the business. Chris was not quite the business partner that we thought."
Astephen, who maintains that Block isn't personally involved in the dispute and isn't even aware that the letter was sent out to Willard, says that the C&D was not about cash and more about making sure that the events were run properly:
Willard still hopes to use the name and contends that DC might not even have the right to trademark it. "There is some room in there for me to dispute that the name 'Gymkhana' can only be used for a corporation, because it's kind of like trademarking the name 'baseball' or 'autocross racing' or something like that."
"It has nothing to do with money, nothing to do with corporate sabotage. Ken wants to continue Gymkhana GRID for the fans and for the consumers but at a level where it's supposed to be, and that it's ran right and ethically. We want to make sure that people involved in the event get paid and that they have a good experience, and the fans do, and also so that when Ken promises he's going to be somewhere he goes."
"No one is making any money off of this. Ken has invested money to do this stuff because he loves doing it for the fans. We have to pull it back and look at what is best for the consumer, what's best for the sponsors and everybody, and we want to do a Gymkhana GRID series, but we want to do it right so everybody's stoked, including the fans.
Astephen tells Autoblog that Willard is free to have an event of his own, he just can't call it Gymkhana GRID. Willard is considering doing just that, among other options:
Most likely, though, Willard will change the name to avoid the legal hassles, despite that it will mean starting over with the branding of the series:
"We may just go with a different name, or I may decide to fight it and use the term 'gymkhana' and have them try to stop me – force their hand. [But] for the sake of the next event, we thought it would be best to cancel it, regroup and figure out how to proceed.
Whatever the result, we hope to see plenty of drifting, donuts and shredded tires in the coming year, no matter what what it's called.
"Changing the name would be very difficult because everything is called Gymkhana GRID. It might take us a few months to regroup, but we probably won't run any events this year. Hopefully, if everything goes well, we'll launch the series next year if we have the support. So far, it seems that people will come and race no matter what we call it, so the easiest out may be for us to just find a new name, but still uses the GRID acronym and start off fresh next year and put this behind us.