How Gymkhana Works

Announcer: They're behind the wheel and under the hood on everything automotive, with High Speed Stuff from

Scott: Hi, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Scott Benjamin, the auto editor here at

Ben: And I'm Ben Bowlin, a video writer here, also at the same website. And I don't know, Scott, I was thinking maybe we could talk about some high speed stuff today.

Scott: Sounds good. How about high speed pumpkins?

Ben: High speed pumpkins, yes. You've seen me on stuff and you've raised me, pumpkins. Yeah, as you know, if you listen to our podcasts or some other podcasts in the fine HowStuffWorks family, you'll know that we have been asked to tell you about punkin chunkin.

Scott: Yeah, that's right, pumpkin chunking, or punkin chunkin as they call it.

Ben: Yes.

Scott: There's actually a couple of shows that are coming out, I believe it's on the evening of November 26th; is that right?

Ben: Yes, sir.

Scott: And there's two shows, really, The Road to Punkin Chunkin, which is at 8:00 Eastern time.

Ben: And then Punkin Chunkin itself, which is at 9:00 p.m.

Scott: And so I guess that's Thanksgiving night, right?

Ben: Yeah.

Scott: On the Science Channel and I think it's going to be worthwhile, something to watch because they've got some pretty cool pumpkin chunkers on there. I've looked at the site and seen a few of the devices, and they can really throw them.

Ben: There you are, pleasantly full of turkey or your favorite turkey substitute - people do different things - and sit down, relax, take a load off. You probably won't want to run to a pumpkin catapult yourself, but you'll enjoy watching it.

Scott: Maybe. It kinda makes me want to. I mean, throwing a pumpkin nearly a mile, that's pretty awesome.

Ben: It is nearly a mile?

Scott: Yeah, that's kinda the record now is nearly a mile.

Ben: That's crazy. I'm kinda into that too.

Scott: It's amazing.

Ben: Maybe we should do something about catapults, they're fast.

Scott: Maybe.

Ben: But today, we should do something a little different.

Scott: What do you want to talk about? Something exciting, something fast or something different?

Ben: Let's do - you know what? Let's do something - I'm go ing to test your skills here a little, Scott. Let's do something that I have never heard of.

Scott: Then I've got the perfect thing.

Ben: Okay.

Scott: Gymkhana.

Ben: What is that, some sort of barbeque?

Scott: No, no it's not. Gymkhana is a - it's very laid out, very precise, very precision sport, kinda redundant there. It's all about control, car control in this case. And speed is of course important, but really what's important in this sport is a good memory, mental acuity, I guess, when you're on the course, and you'll find out why in a moment. And just, again, car control. Just precision is - you have to be just deadly accurate in this sport.

Ben: Now, Gymkhana, is this a U.S. thing?

Scott: It is. It's a worldwide thing, really.

Ben: Okay.

Scott: It's all over the place, but kinda - there's a little bit of a dispute as to where - not really a dispute, but some question as to where the automotive version of Gymkhana originated. And I say automotive version because the roots of this sport come from centuries ago.

Ben: I love the history. Do we have some history?

Scott: It's not Da Vinci, not Da Vinci, no, no, like everything else is.

Ben: He can't do everything.

Scott: He didn't invent Gymkhana, but actually it comes from the days of Genghis Khan, the horsemen of Genghis Khan. And it's skill events, equestrian events. These guys were at full gallop and they had to pick up flags that were on the ground. They had to turn and do different maneuvering with their horses, just in unbelievable ways in this unbelievable manner that showed their horsemanship, their skill on horseback.

Ben: I see, and so it was more about maneuvering the horse for control than it was about a straight on gallop race.

Scott: Yeah. Have you ever seen modern day barrel racing?

Ben: Yes.

Scott: Horse barrel racing.

Ben: Yes.

Scott: Same idea in that the horse rides just full speed right at a barrel, does a tight, tight turn around that barrel, and there's a pattern, kind of a cloverleaf pattern that it runs. And the same idea with a Gymkhana course for automobiles in that it's not set up like a normal racecourse would be where it's always forward motion; you're just finding the smoothest, simplest, fastest way through the track. You're still doing that, but you're incorporating a lot of different aspects of car control. You're incorporating acceleration, braking, drifting, 180-degree turns, 360-degree turns, even parking boxes, figures eights - it's just all kinds of maneuvers and things you typically wouldn't find in another type of auto racing.

Ben: You know what this reminds me of, now we're talking about it, it reminds me of the earlier podcast we did on precision drivers.

Scott: Yeah, it's sorta like that. The thing about precision drivers is they're often used to weave in and out of traffic; they're often the ones that slide into a parking spot in a crowded downtown area. Same idea, only you're doing it in a safer scenario, I guess, with - I say safer because that's usually on a movie set or something like that, but safer, what I me an by that is that you're in a parking lot and the only thing that you're going to hit, really, is a parking cone. They do it so it's not an immovable object that you're sliding against or into. You're sliding into a cone. So if you make a mistake, it's a little bit more forgiving than, say, hitting a wall or hitting a light post. They try to set them up away from that or so that you're not angled towards that. But really, this is a parking lot event, flat pavement typically. Maybe nine or ten cones at the most, that's the layout of this thing, but the courses are really complex. They're really intricate, they're really detailed in that you run - let's say that you accelerate out of the gate, you have to run slalom in a certain direction. You have to approach the first cone from the left, say, and you do the slalom, and you come back through the slalom the opposite direction. Then you cut all the way across the course and hit the cone, do a 180-degree turn around a cone. Come back, slide into a parking box, which is just like a parking spot would be, I guess. Accelerate out of it, make sure that you hit the marks and that. You have to be completely in there, make sure you don't hit any cones along the way. Then you have to accelerate out of that and go through the slalom again the opposite direction, but you have to remember which is the opposite direction? Then, again, cut across the course, the track. It's just - that's just an example of some of the things that they can do. It's really, really complex and the biggest part of this is just being able to memorize that course because, if you go off course, you're going to suffer penalties, you're going to hit cones, you're going to have a sloppy run.

Ben: So the most important is memorization. I got to let you know, for having my first Gymkhana lesson, right now it sounds like the driving test from hell.

Scott: It does, yeah. It's very difficult.

Ben: It's just the weaving in and out, the high speed, parallel parking -

Scott: Yeah, but the thing about this is that - and this goes back to the history of the event. What a lot of people say is the beginning of the automotive part of this. Remember we talked about the horses earlier?

Ben: Yes.

Scott: The beginning of the automotive, I guess, not origin, generation of this would be when - and this is the common belief - is that in the United States - this comes from the United States.

Ben: Cool, okay.

Scott: In the United States, when the soldiers returned from World War II, they came back from Europe and they had these new smaller sports cars that were kinda popular over there. They had cars like the Triumph or the MG, or the mini, or even the Fiat, and they found that they cars were really nimble. They weren't flat out fast, they were quick and they were nimble. And they had a way to kinda not test them, but the course that this would be better suited for would be something like a Gymkhana course where dexterity and nimbleness of the car would be able to take advantage of that course. Unlike the big powerful cars that we typically think of as racecars, where they can take advantage of the long straight on a racetrack, cars like this may or may not be able to do that. Sure, they're quick and they're fast, but where they really stand out is in the handling. So the origin of this comes from these small European cars that came back with the soldiers and they quickly found a way to take advantage of that. Then it just kinda spread from there. Now, today, Japan is really the only country that has a distinct Gymkhana racing group or sanctioning body, which it's sanctioned by the French FIA actually, which is kinda strange. The Japan Auto Federation is sanctioned by the French FIA, so strange.

Ben: That is weird.

Scott: But they're really the only ones that have, right now, an official sanctioning body. There are events here in the United States still. In the UK it's very popular, Ireland, areas like that. I've seen some fantastic online videos of some examples of cars in Gymkhana events in the UK, and they often use reverse as well during their events, which is not all that common here in the United States, I guess.

Ben: Because that would be, I mean, that's an order of magnitude more difficult, right?

Scott: It is, yeah. I mean, if you watch online, there's some great YouTube videos of cars. I blogged about this recently. I had two links to videos that are just - I think they're pretty exceptional examples of Gymkhana racing. One is a mini that's going through a course it's an extremely tight course. You wouldn't believe the handling of this thing. Then at the end the brakes are so strong that the back end lifts up in the air. It's really - they're really powerful, they're really strong in every way, starting, acceleration, handling, braking, unbelievable cars. Then there's a Lotus 7 which is, when you see - if you go to the blog and you look at this, the title of the post, just so that you can quickly find it - I could send you to YouTube, but I forget what I was called. The blog post is, I think its The Strongest Brakes You'll Ever See On A Mini Cooper I th ink is what it's called. At the end of that, there's a link to a Lotus 7 on a Gymkhana course that you won't believe what you see this guy do with this car on this course. He's remarkable, the skill and just the control involved in this.

Ben: Is there any kind of world championship?

Scott: You know what? Honestly, I don't know if there is a world championship. I would guess that if there is a sanctioning body in Japan that they probably have a championship there. Here, I'm sure that there's plenty of local events, and I bet there's some type of structure because it's a timed event. It's not a race that's run against anybody else.

Ben: Right, it's like Pike's Peak.

Scott: It's one car at a time. That's right, yeah, perfect example. It's a timed event. It's from your start to your finish and you get two runs. And I think it's the better of the times that is scored for you. Sometimes you'll have two cars running side-by-side. They start side-by-side. When one car turns right, the other one turns left. It's a mirror image course of the other one, so you can see who matches up where because, when they finish, they should finish at the exact same time if they've done the exact same thing. But again, you're just competing against yourself and the clock.

Ben: That would be really interesting to see, but I would not want to drive that course.

Scott: No, no, it's -

Ben: You wouldn't do it?

Scott: You know what? I would like to, but I know that I would go off course, and I think that even seasoned pros goes off course in this a lot. It's not that uncommon.

Ben: I've just - if we could describe for the listeners the way the racetrack looks because Scott here has a course map. You're probably seen the Family Circus comic series where, every so often, they'll have a traced out map of the entire neighborhood and the crazy things that the children have done walking around.

Scott: Yeah, I know what you mean. Like, hop the fence, climb the tree, go the neighbors, yeah, I know.

Ben: Walk in a circle around the doghouse or something, that's what this looks like.

Scott: Yeah, it's pretty nuts. It looks like a big piece of string kinda just tangled up. It's a big knot, but really once the driver gets to know that course, and oftentimes - actually, every time - after registration the drivers often walk the course just to visualize what they're going to do in the car. And it's not a requirement that the course changes every time either, so they can have the same course time and time again. And what you're trying to do is you're trying to minimize, you're trying to perfect your technique. You're trying to reduce your time. You're always trying to go for that half a second less or whatever it would be.

Ben: That's intense.

Scott: Yeah, it really is. It's got to be difficult mentally to get through this race and, at the same time, pay attention to what you're doing physically in trying to make that car do what you want it to do.

Ben: Well, touché, Mr. Benjamin. It appears that when I did ask you for something I had not heard of, you more than exceeded my expectations.

Scott: I think we'll come up with some more here and there, maybe through the year. We'll see.

Ben: That's true, that's true. Well, now, through the year is not that far away.

Scott: Yeah, you're right there.

Ben: I didn't think about that.

Scott: I'm not promising much, I guess.

Ben: Sure. Well, you know what would be awesome is we heard from listeners who are familiar with or maybe even involved with Gymkhana.

Scott: I would love to hear from listeners that are involved in Gymkhana because this series, to me, has great interest. I think it's really, really cool to watch and I can't tear myself away from the videos when I'm watching them. I would love to attend an event in person.

Ben: Wouldn't that be cool?

Scott: So if there's one in the area, I'm definitely going to seek it.

Ben: Maybe we could get the powers that be to send us.

Scott: Maybe.

Ben: Yeah, but also, to even take it up a notch past that, listeners, any of you guys or gals out there involved with racing, we'd love to hear about it. As you can tell, we like things that go fast. That grabber was a little messed up.

Scott: That's okay.

Ben: It's all right?

Scott: That's okay, we do.

Ben: Well, I guess that wraps it up for us today. Scott, again, hats off to you, man. I wish I had - I'm going to start wearing a hat to the studio so I can do this. And to everybody else, thanks for tuning in. Please stay tuned and please remember to check out Scott's excellent blog, and while you're at the Internet, why not send us an email at

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