One of our goals this year was to create a cross section of interviews with various personalities of the racing community. We have focused the majority of our interviews on drivers with a core group of questions mixed into the various interviews. We hope this gives you an idea of the various approaches and values that many drivers feel are keys to their success, be they a veteran of many series, or early in their career at a top level series.
Talking with Charles Zolsman you get the feeling he is a levelheaded individual with great aspirations in motorsports. He understands that the road to success may not always have a defined route, but the key to success is to keep moving forward.
Mecca of Speed: People new to the Champ Car series may not be familiar with the name Charles Zwolsman. You started your career in go-karts and then progressed through the formula ranks in Europe. In 2005 you joined the Atlantic series and won the championship. What attracted you to the Atlantic series?
Charles Zwolsman: It was a kind of coincidence. We had several options in Europe to race in the world Nissan series. A week before the Atlantic series started, somebody called me an asked if I would like to do one race in Long Beach. I thought, ‘Hey, why not?’
After taking a look at the website to see what the series was all about. I said, ‘Take the adventure and see what we can do’. Six months later I was the champion, so it was a good decision.
Mecca of Speed: How did the 2005 Atlantic car compare to the Formula 3 car you were previously racing in Europe?
Charles Zwolsman: It was pretty comparable with a couple of differences. The Formula 3 has a flat bottom while the Atlantic car has a tunnel system underneath the car. This system creates a lot of down force that you feel in the high-speed corners, making it quicker then a Formula 3 car.
The Formula 3 was better in the slow corners because it was a more modern car back then, but the Atlantic car is different with the new chassis.
Mecca of Speed: After you won the Atlantic Championship you got your first taste of a Champ Car with Team Australia, racing the season finale in Mexico. It was a trial by fire with no testing before the race weekend. What was your first impression of the Champ Car series?
Charles Zwolsman: I was very thankful Champ Car gave me that opportunity. It was very hard to go head to head with these guys, who have been racing with each other all year. I could not really go out and try to beat them in these cars (champ car), but it turned out really well.
In the race I ran competitive lap times compared to my teammates. I was up there with the rest of the field so it was very encouraging. It really helped me when I went out to try and find a contract to race in 2006.
Mecca of Speed: You participated at the open test here (Road America) in August. Has there been a big change in how the car is performing with the current cooler temperatures?
Charles Zwolsman: Right now it’s raining pretty hard, When we tested here it was dry. This morning when it was dry and we did work on our set-up. The experience we gained while testing here last month we can still use, even though it’s a lot cooler now.
Mecca of Speed: Looking at the season so far, where do you feel you have made the biggest improvements with the car?
Charles Zwolsman: I would have to say using the brakes. Entering a corner I’ve made the most progress. There are so many little places to improve. The more you drive the more you understand what the car is doing. In the set-up you know what is doing what on the car and it’s all the small things working together. Working through all the little things, I think has helped us grow as a team.
Mecca of Speed: What are your prospects for next season and the years to follow?
Charles Zwolsman: I’m currently planning in the short term, because the racing business is a performance-based business. You have to focus on being quick now and see what comes towards you. Things are looking good for next year and I’m looking forward to driving the new car.
Mecca of Speed: Your racing experience is in open-wheel cars. Having grown up in Europe, do you have any interest in running a sports car races such as Le Mans?
Charles Zwolsman: The Le Mans 24-hour race – or Sebring here in the States – are both historical races. If I had a chance to do one of those races I surely would take the opportunity. But, I have to say my heart is in open-wheel racing and it’s what I have been doing for a long time.
I have tested a DTM car previously with Mercedes-Benz. It was a fun car to drive, but right now I’m here in Champ Car, enjoying open wheel racing. We will see what happens in the future.
Mecca of Speed: This is your second year racing in the United States, do you have many opportunities to visit your home in the Netherlands?
Charles Zwolsman: I was just home for two weeks after being the United States for six months. It was great to see friends and family again. Sometimes it’s hard when you are away from home for a long time. I do have an apartment in Indianapolis I call my second home. I enjoy my time there as well.
Mecca of Speed: Does your family make it over for any of the races?
Charles Zwolsman: For Mexico City some of my family came over. The last race in Montreal my girlfriend came over. I get to see them from time to time, but I would like to see them more often.
Mecca of Speed: So if Champ Car can add the two proposed European races next year, that would be a welcome addition to the schedule?
Charles Zwolsman: That would be great. It would be great to run in front of a home crowd. It would be a lot of fun.
Mecca of Speed: What do you miss most from the Netherlands?
Charles Zwolsman: I don’t know. The season is going so fast. I’m working out all week and then racing on the weekends. I don’t spend much time thinking about what I’m missing. It’s mostly the people I miss from the country I grew up in. That’s the biggest thing.
Mecca of Speed: A casual fan may only think of a race as a Sunday event, but the reality is each race is a 3-4 day event. What is your average race schedule like?
Charles Zwolsman: Usually you come to the track on Thursday. You have a track walk at 2:00 P.M. most of the time. You make notes about various corner camber, bumps and condition of the track.
Then we talk with the engineers and develop a plan on what we want to do with the set up the car, and what we want out of the car.
On Friday you start testing and work with the engineers. We follow testing with first round qualifying and repeat the process on Saturday.
We have an autograph session, which is a lot of fun. It’s a great way to meet the fans. We also have media activities throughout the weekend.
By the time everything is done, we race on Sunday and the next thing you know the weekend is over.
Mecca of Speed: Outside of winning, what do you really enjoy during a race weekend?
Charles Zwolsman: The most enjoyable part is just driving the car. Being on the limit and knowing that you have gotten everything out of the car. You have used every last piece of track. It’s a good feeling to pull off the perfect lap, if you can do it.
It’s also a lot of fun to try and set up the car and then improve the car. Seeing things that my engineer and I talk about that work on the track, that is pretty rewarding.
Mecca of Speed: It sounds like you enjoy the technical side of racing.
Charles Zwolsman: Definitely, it’s very interesting to see how a car works. If you manipulate it with cretin settings you are able to improve the car. You give more feed back and go out again to see if this change is working or if it’s not working. When you make a change and it’s working to improve the car it’s a lot of fun.
The Champ Car is a racecar with a lot of adjustment capabilities so you have a lot of things to think about.
Mecca of Speed: Do you find you like a car with a little under steer, or a little over steer?
Charles Zwolsman: I have always liked a neutral car. Some drivers like a little under steer because they don’t like the rear to come out, but I always try to work towards a completely neutral car because I think that is the quickest.
With a car with as much horsepower as this one, you need a good stable rear end.
Mecca of Speed: What is your personal streetcar?
Charles Zwolsman: I drive a Ford Mustang GT. Ford is kind, they give one to each driver to drive for the year. It’s a nice little car. A lot of fun to drive.
Mecca of Speed: Can you tell us about the design on your helmet?
Charles Zwolsman: There is no real story behind my design. I drew it my self. I picked a couple of colors I like and drew some artistic designs on it. I think the painter did a great job.
Mecca of Speed: Is there a strong racing history in the Netherlands?
Charles Zwolsman: Oh yes, defiantly, it seems like it’s getting bigger at the moment. We have two drivers active in Formula One and one in Champ Car. I think with the Dutch company Spyker buying a Formula One team you can say we are a motorsports loving country
Mecca of Speed: Have you had and aspirations to go to Formula One?
Charles Zwolsman: As a young kid that is what you dream about first because it’s the pinnacle of the sport. You never know what will happen. If something like that comes along you have to look at it carefully.
For example, you can be here in Champ Car with a top team or drive for the worst team in Formula One. It would be nice to stay here. It’s something you have to seriously consider if the opportunity comes along.
Mecca of Speed: What is the hardest part of a race weekend?
Charles Zwolsman: The traveling is the most boring part for sure. You sit in an airplane or car for hours. You try and enjoy the time with a book or a computer game, whatever I happen to take with me.
While it may be boring, the good side is it allows you to see a lot of different places.
Mecca of Speed: Looking at your career to-date, what is your favorite track?
Charles Zwolsman: Spa Francorchamps is my favorite track, for sure. It’s nice, elevation changes, quick corners, and a really good overall track.
Mecca of Speed: You always hear talk about the challenge of Eau Rouge, is it as daunting as many drives claim?
Charles Zwolsman: It depends on which car you are driving. In a Formula One car it’s probably pretty impressive because you go so fast. In a Formula Ford it’s also pretty impressive. You have no wings, so you go down there and it’s not an easy flat. You are just about flat which makes it pretty daunting. You can not see through the corner, which is pretty cool.
The first time I went around in a Formula Renault in Formula 3, I went flat the first lap so it’s not really a challenge, just a nice corner.
I can imagine in a Formula One or Champ Car it would be pretty impressive.
Mecca of Speed: How would Eau Rouge compare to a corner such as the Kink (Road America), which may not look like a challenge, but to run fast you have to be very precise on picking your line?
Charles Zwolsman: I think the Kink in the dry is flat so it’s not a big challenge. The corner before the Kink, the Carousel is more of a challenge. That’s a nice corner, it asks a lot of the driver, to pick the right line and keep the throttle on.
Mecca of Speed: What are you looking forward to in the off-season?
Charles Zwolsman: I’m looking forward to testing the new car. Maybe a little bit of a holiday, depending on how things fit in with our testing schedule. Otherwise I’ll keep training to be fit when we test to be ready for next season.
Mecca of Speed: Will you be back with Mi-Jack Conquest next year?
Charles Zwolsman: I’m not sure. I would not mind, I’m enjoying my time with the team. I like all the people that work here. It is a good atmosphere. At the same time I’m very ambitious and want to fight for victories. Whether it will be with this team, or another team, we will have to see.
Mecca of Speed: What advice would you give to a young go-kart racer?
Charles Zwolsman: I think it’s very important to drive go-karts because you can gain so much experience. You need to race in the championships that are very competitive. When you are racing very close to each other you learn from each other. You can learn quite a lot. The experience you gain you can use later racing cars.
If you have got the talent and the goods it’s important to make the right choices – the right equipment and team so you can display your talent – otherwise it all goes to waste.
Mecca of Speed: Do you still race go-karts?
Charles Zwolsman: Not for a while. I did about four months ago and really enjoyed it. Before that it was two years. With our busy schedule I have little time to go-kart, but I would love to do more because I really enjoy it.
Mecca of Speed: What advice would you give fans that want to approach you for an autograph, or wish you luck?
Charles Zwolsman: I have no problems with fans coming up to me. I actually enjoy it. People are coming out to see you race, to support you, and I enjoy them coming up asking for autographs.
Obviously when you are getting ready to go out, have your helmet on and about to get in the car you don’t have time so I ask them to come back later.
Mecca of Speed: It’s better for a fan to approach you when you are walking back from a session, then going to a session.
Charles Zwolsman: Yes, normally I take a little extra time when I’m going to the car so I don’t have to blow off anyone.
Mecca of Speed: Thank you very much; we appreciate your time and good luck.
Charles Zwolsman: Thank you
Content credit Charles Zwolsman and John Vatne. Photo credit Scott Rohloff and John Vatne