Race drivers typically think in terms of direction and speed -- going fast in one direction is the essence of the race. But a new version of an old sport called gymkhana is making a comeback and appealing to a new generation of drivers looking to combine speed with driving skill.
The term gymkhana is an umbrella term for a timed event on a small course. Essentially, it takes the typical one-way track and adds in obstacles like cones, barrels, barriers, puddles and sandy sections. Next, the track is twisted back on itself so drivers have to double back and even crisscross the course at predetermined points. Drivers are required to reverse at certain points, drift in the corners and employ grip driving as well as hand-brake maneuvers and left-foot braking skills, among a few others. The fastest time wins.
It's the intricacy and subtlety of the sport that draws people in, as well as the chance to show off some driving that borders on exhibition. Indeed many gymkhana racers got their inspiration from Internet videos showcasing the skills of famed drivers like Subaru Rally Team legend Ken Block navigating abandoned airport buildings and concrete bunkers at scream-inducing speeds. Block's driving style also inspired video games, which in turn inspired a new generation of drivers who gave up the joystick for the stick shift.
However, it's when a new driver hits the reality of the gymkhana course, a blend of mental gymnastics and machine skills, that the true mettle of the sport comes out and lures people in. It's a sport that has been characterized as high-speed chess (against yourself) and the gateway drug of motorsports. A driver attempts to defeat rivals and to beat his or her own personal best time, too. Since gymkhana is still in its relative infancy it's still open to all comers. And it's drawing in more adherents than any snarling NASCAR machine ever did.
The History of Gymkhana
Gymkhana's history started long before the car was born. European and Asian horse cultures were among the first to establish timed riding events incorporating pylons and obstacles as a way of exhibiting horsemanship.
Some of the earliest events involved the famed Mongol horsemen of Genghis Khan, whose competitions included picking up small flags off the ground by sliding around and under the rider's mount while it was at full gallop. Native American riders often raced courses through the rocky desert terrain and reportedly, in a show of skill and bravery, rode close enough to galloping buffalo to slap their side before riding away.
More civilized events evolved as Europeans embraced equestrianism as an art as well as practical activity. Timed and skill contests were established and run at polo grounds throughout Europe and its colonies. Today many of those former colonies still embrace the sport and some of the largest equestrian gymkhana venues are located in India and Pakistan.
In the United States the sport has taken on a more festival and family appeal. The California Gymkhana Association, one of the largest groups of its kind, sanctions 13 separate events under the gymkhana umbrella. These include timed sprint events, obstacle courses and skill contests including riding out to a 24-inch high cone, placing a golf ball on the top of the cone, and riding back.
Unfortunately, gymkhana's automotive history is still unclear. Since it incorporates elements of other types of racing and a shifting set of rules and classes there's no real definitive way to say exactly when or exactly where it started.
The common belief is the sport originated in the United States during the financial boom following World War II. Soldiers returning from overseas brought back the small, nimble cars common in smaller European cities like the British Triumph, MG and Mini Cooper as well as the Italian Fiat. These smaller cars simply couldn't compete with the sheer horsepower of American race cars on typical flat-track raceways; however, they could command respect in a different event, especially one where nimble maneuvering took priority over horsepower.
Soon timed obstacle events were growing in popularity, yet they weren't necessarily growing in scope. The young competitors soon turned their attention to speed and traditional racing and melded the nascent gymkhana into autocross.
Across the globe, Japan was also hitting its economic stride. Unlike the United States there was little land to open up larger tracks and gymkhana's smaller scale appealed to the space-conscious Japanese. The events also dovetailed well with the country's growing small car manufacturing base.
Today Japan is the only country to have a well-developed and distinct gymkhana racing structure with local, regional and national contests. The sport is overseen by the Japan Auto Federation, a body sanctioned by the French FIA.
Gymkhana Driving Skills
One of the more enticing elements of gymkhana over other forms of motorsport is that any car can be entered as long as it passes technical certification.
"This is one of the sports where you can sink a lot of money into it if you want, but you don't have to," said Eric Jacobs, a former autocross racer and drifting competitor. Jacobs now runs gymkhana events as part of the DG Trials race club he helped organize.
He said he has seen everything from a Toyota Supra drifting gem to a stock Saturn running the exact same gymkhana course. He said the variations within the course, as well as the large number of classes and allowances make it difficult for one type of vehicle to become dominant. Added to this is the large set of skills necessary to competently run the course.
"Two guys can show up at an event with the same exact car and compete and get totally different times," Jacobs said. "It comes down to who knows their car better, who knows the course better, and who can drive better. It's not really about the car."
Some of the general driving skills required to navigate a gymkhana course are found in many other forms of motorsport. For instance, a driver needs to maintain control at high speeds during a sprint between slalom portions or prior to a 360-degree turn as well as be able to sustain speed during controlled maneuvers.
Whatever car the driver chooses, he will be navigating a predetermined course he should have memorized and walked prior to the race. How the driver gets through that course, what tactics and line he chooses will be largely determined by his car, skill level, course terrain and a host of other factors, too. But as long as the car passes a technical inspection he can race. What the driver does from there is up to him.
Gymkhana's ease of accessibility, as well as the growing popularity of the sport, has caught the attention of the owners of small and large tracks and racing clubs across the country.
The relatively small space required for a gymkhana course means it can be set up just about anywhere there's a relatively open area with enough space to run a car -- a large parking lot, industrial zone or even an open field will do.
For Josh Lief, general manager of Virginia International Raceway (VIR), the track's skid pad became a perfect venue for a gymkhana meet when he was approached by Eric Jacobs early in 2009. As a former autocross racer he could see the potential in the sport as a way to attract new racers and new attendees to the raceway. "Gymkhana's been around for quite some time but it's just gaining popularity now," Lief said. "Since racing is what we do, we decided to open the track to the event."
Like most gymkhana courses, the VIR Bosch Oktoberfest event fielded a course comprised of about 15 to 20 cones. Drivers were required to follow a pre-determined course including figure eights, reversals, 360-degree turns and a number of other challenging maneuvers. While courses can change from event to event and venue to venue, the rules do allow for keeping the same course layout for up to a year, unlike autocross, which requires a change every race.
For Lief, gymkhana races present one of the largest challenges in motorsports -- the need for a good mind. "There's a lot of mental skills involved," he said. "You have to have patience to learn the track and you have to have the experience to know what to do where." This mental acuity is combined with driving skills that are drawn from drifting, traditional racing and autocross. Essentially, a driver has to really get to know their car well before they ever hit the course. "All-wheel drive is great for gymkhana," Lief said. "But any car can do it if the driver wants to try it."
There are still a few twists and turns a driver must take before he or she can attack the track. Keep reading to learn about what it takes before a newbie can set tires to the gymkhana pavement.
Gymkhana: Getting Started
It's best to arrive at an event early to allow time for registration, technical inspection and walking the course. Registration usually involves showing a valid driver's license, paying the entry fee and establishing your car's appropriate class and number.
Technical inspection varies from event to event but usually requires securing loose items (like the battery), removing hubcaps and checking seatbelts. Just be sure to inquire about a complete list of what's required before you attend any gymkhana event -- that way you won't have any surprises on race day.
After inspection a driver can walk the course. This is a critical part of the event and every driver should take it seriously. Memorizing the course early -- maps are usually published before the event -- makes the walk-through even more effective.
The final step is the drivers' briefing, a mandatory meeting that's a part of any organized racing event. After this, the race is underway. Cars are sent through in order, and the timer starts when you pass the initial gate. Your fastest run of the day determines your final standing. Various time penalties are given for knocked over cones, missed turns and incorrect routes, while a mechanical failure or an incomplete run will land you a DNF (did not finish) penalty.
The open nature of gymkhana -- low-cost and easy to race -- plus the fact it's a timed event where people can try to beat the clock or other driver's times makes it alluring to first-time racers.
Ainsley Hyman, also a member of the DG Trials club, is also involved in gymkhana. The 25-year-old said she's been involved in motorsports for several years and found gymkhana to be one of the most accessible forms of racing. "You don't have to be a car person or a driving person to get involved," she said. "The best way to get involved is pass the certification and get out there and do it, you don't need a lot of money. It's kind of like a gateway motorsport," she said.
Eric Jacobs agreed that the best way to start was simply to get involved in any way you can. "We always need volunteers at these events," he said. "There's always room for another set of hands, so just find an event, volunteer, hang out with people and see what it's about."
As for the skills required to start driving, Jacobs had a firm opinion. "The biggest silly thing is people saying they need to practice first before they race," he said. "The event is for practice. It's completely unrealistic to think you can practice this before you race."
He said even the most experienced drivers, those who've taken to the track for hundreds of hours, lose their way on the course. They still get confused when it's time to slalom or slide, and sometimes they break free during a drift and skid off to the side. While competitive, the idea is to have a good time, to challenge yourself mentally and to challenge your driving skills while building new ones; but mostly gymkhana is all about having a good time. Like Jacobs said, "You just have to go out there and do it."
For more information about gymkhana and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- California Gymkhana Association. (Nov. 10, 2009) http://www.calgymkhana.com/
- DGTrials. (Nov. 10, 2009) http://www.dgtrials.com/
- GymkhanaForums.com. (Nov. 10, 2009) http://www.gymkhanaforums.com/
- Gymkhana USA. (Nov. 10, 2009) http://www.gymkhanausa.com/index.html
- Hyman, Ainsley. DG Trials race club member. Personal interview. Conducted Oct. 24, 2009.
- Jacobs, Eric. Principal, DG trials race club. Personal interview. Conducted Oct. 24, 2009.
- Lief, Joshua. General Manager, Virginia International Raceway. Personal Interview. Conducted Oct. 23, 2009.
- Virginia International Raceway. (Nov. 10, 2009) http://www.virnow.com/