Always Improving – Johannes van Overbeek

Johannes van Overbeek has done what many people have dreamed of, take a hobby and transform it to a profession. How did he make it happen? Continually improving himself, never giving up and doing whatever it takes. Now in the top class of IMSA sportscar competition he still applies these ideas on a daily basis.

Mecca of Speed: How did the DPi feel this morning running in mixed conditions, was your target for the session to develop a baseline for the car or focus on a particular area of development?

Johannes van Overbeek: No matter what the conditions, we are always trying to go as fast as we can. You have to find the limits because until you get to the limit you don’t know what is not right with the car that you need to address.

The car is surprisingly very comfortable to drive at speed on the track. The set-up was nice; the Continental rain tires worked well, just what we are looking for in our first session.

Mecca of Speed: This car was strong out of the box. Now that the series of over half way through the season where have you found areas to improve the car?

Johannes van Overbeek: The Nissan Ligier chassis is good and we have been close to being competitive, sometimes more that others. It’s really a process of slow evolution. Every weekend we learn more, how to get more mechanical grip, improved aero or to get the car to shift better. We are in the mode of improving five things a half of a percent all the time. The car gets better and better every time we race.

Mecca of Speed: How does this car compare to the one you have been racing in the WEC for the last couple of years?

Johannes van Overbeek: This new Ligier is easier to drive as the older one was always very edgy. Oversteer was always a concern with the previous car. With this car if anything it’s the opposite, understeer is more prevalent then oversteer. That makes it easier from a driver’s perspective, especially in fast corners. But, overall it has the same personality.

Mecca of Speed: You have a lot of experience racing in the GT class, how would you describe the transitioning to the prototype class?

Johannes van Overbeek: It’s not as big of a step from a modern GT car with a competitive field to go to the prototype. The current GT cars have good tiers and aero compared to the past. Driving the prototype is essentially the same, but the straightaways are shorter. That is probably the best way to describe it.

It’s much easier than going from a prototype down to a GT. Always reaching for the next ring in the prototype if you come from a good GT car is not that big of a step.

Mecca of Speed: Do you find having run in the GT class in the past gives you any benefit as you work through traffic in the DPi?

Johannes van Overbeek: Coming through GT traffic with experience in that class you defiantly know their limitations. In any given lap where you could help or hurt the GT cars and where you may be putting yourself at risk.

It does vary from driver to driver but for the most part, having been in those shoes I understand what they are experiencing. Hopefully I’m viewed as a guy who doesn’t cause a lot of trouble as I work through their class in traffic.

Mecca of Speed: What are your thoughts on Team Penske and Joest Racing joining the series next season?

Johannes van Overbeek: Penske and Joest coming into the series is good news for everyone. We all do this for competition and the only way to get better is to work harder and smarter. Having teams like Joest Mazda and Penske Honda helps raise the level of competition for everyone. Engineering, drivers, strategy, it will make everyone better.

Mecca of Speed: How would you compare the Honda to the Nissan engine?

Johannes van Overbeek: I don’t know which Honda engine they will ultimate race with. The Honda I have experience with is an excellent engine, especially when you consider it came out of a production car.

The Nissan engine also came out of a production car. A very high-performance car, the GT-R, so it’s a little more advanced from the get go.

I do have to thank Honda, without them we would not have won at Daytona or Sebring. They are a formidable competitor.

Mecca of Speed: You drove the open cockpit Acura ARX-03b, can you compare and contrast the open cockpit to the coupe?

Johannes van Overbeek: The two things that jump out are in an open cockpit the visibility is much better, you can see everything. In the closed cockpit, with the way the A-pillars, you can’t see some of the corner apexes, or you can’t see them when you want to.

The second thing is the open cockpit car is much cooler. The airflow is much better in this Ligier, but on a hot humid day it’s still quite warm in the car.

Mecca of Speed: Is there any sort of distortion with the curved windshield in the closed cockpit car and if so is it easy to adjust to?

Johannes van Overbeek: There is distortion in the windshield, which is made worse by the tear offs put on to protect the windshield. Sitting in the car statically you think this is terrible, there is no way I can drive like this. However, once you get going you look right through it.

Mecca of Speed: You have driven a variety of GT cars including the Porsche 911 with Flying Lizard. The Porsche is a rear engine car, what do you have to do differently then in a front engine car to make it quick?

Johannes van Overbeek: I have experience in BMW, Porsche and Ferrari GT cars and the common thread is if the rear is stable you can be fast. When I was racing with Porsche those cars were a challenge to get a really good setup that everyone was happy with compared to the front and mid-engine cars.

At the end of the day, be it a prototype, BMW, Porsche or Ferrari, if it’s setup well they are all a joy to drive.

Mecca of Speed: There have been remarks about the challenge of stepping up to a world based series like WEC, what were the challenges making the move from then ALMS to the WEC?

Johannes van Overbeek: The WEC was a big change but I wouldn’t say it was a true step up. Logistically it was a lot more challenging.

They run the races differently, they have a Pro-Am arrangement in the LMP2 cars, which everyone gammed. I was in a true Pro-Am situation and the racing just wasn’t fun. There are safety cars, but the gap never changes, They freeze the field and everyone drives at 45 mph. When the race goes back to green you can reaccelerate.

If you got behind in hour one you would drone around for five more hours but never really had a chance. In IMSA everyone packs up under caution so if you have a flat tire or a bad stop you can still have a chance for close racing at the end, which for the fans is pretty exciting.

The travel involved moving two semi trucks worth of equipment around the world. That was defiantly a much bigger step for the team and they did great. We always had tiers, engines, cars and gear. It was a wonderful experience but I’m happy to be back competing in IMSA.

Mecca of Speed: There are a lot of tracks internationally that IMSA fans may not be aware of, what tracks did you find the most satisfying?

Johannes van Overbeek: We did a four day test at a track called Aragon which I loved. It’s southwest of Barcelona and it looks a bit like New Mexico with the high rolling mountains.  A lot of teams test there; it’s a fantastic fast track.

I also got a chance to test at Monza and it was amazing. I also liked Spa, Nurbergring on the Grand Prix course. To be there on race day and see all the fans. Something like six out of ten German workers are related to the auto industry so they all show up, it’s amazing.

Mecca of Speed: From a driver’s standpoint was Eau Rouge what you thought it would be?

Johannes van Overbeek: In our car we could take it flat out, so it didn’t require any technique besides getting the line right. The first two or three times taking it flat out is an experience, but after that it’s just another corner on the racetrack. But, it’s still a very cool corner.

Mecca of Speed: What sticks with you about racing at Le Mans?

Johannes van Overbeek: What really sticks out is the event is bigger than any one team, driver or manufacture. It’s a race with a deep history and you feel a certain kind of aurora, an energy you get there that you don’t get anywhere else. It’s like a Formula One race with sports cars in that it’s a big, big event.

Mecca of Speed: Racing started as a hobby, what was the catalyst that made you decide you could transition to becoming a professional driver?

Johannes van Overbeek: After school I was working for a silicone valley startup and a magazine was in my cubical at work with an advertisement for a street race in Reno. My family vacationed a lot around Reno so I know the area and thought it was a really cool idea. I had Kumho Tires as a tire sponsor and pitched the idea to them. They thought it was great, told me to find a car and that was the catalyst. I learned if I could not pay for racing I can still raise the money by a sponsor subsidizing my efforts.

From that experience, I went out and raised more money. I learned if two guys are looking for a ride and you can bring a little money things all of a sudden are better looking for you.

From there I gained more experience. As my driving record started to speak for itself, I was required to bring less and less money, which lead to me helping start Flying Lizard. That was the last time I really had to work to find sponsorship.

Like anything you have to be tenacious, persistent and not take no for an answer.

Mecca of Speed: Your recommendation for young drivers is to never give up?

Johannes van Overbeek: Never give up. It would have been easy for me to give up a thousand times, but if I did then I wouldn’t be standing here with you. Racing is something you have to be truly passionate about, really want it and then you do whatever it takes.

I remember one of my first World Challenge races I showed up at the airport and didn’t have money for a rental car or a hotel but I decided ahead of time I would figure it out when I got there. I saw somebody putting wheels in a van and said “ Hey, you going to the track?” They were and told me to jump in for a ride. Luckily one of my tire sponsors was there so I sheepishly asked “ Can I sleep on your floor?” and they said no problem. I was willing to do what ever it took to make things happen. Granted I didn’t have a family, was living at home and didn’t have anything to loose. It was a great experience.

I look back at it now with fondness. I was young, dumb and willing to do what ever it took.

Mecca of Speed: Does your family come to the track?

Johannes van Overbeek: My boys who are eight and ten will be here this weekend. Normally they make the racing that is drivable which is Long Beach and Monterey. They have also made Houston.

Mecca of Speed: Have your son’s shown any interest in racing?

Johannes van Overbeek: The younger one for sure, anything with wheels just like I was. Motorcycles, lawnmowers, anything with wheels and an engine he is interested in. He has done a little karting and motorcycling, but nothing serious.

Mecca of Speed: Do you ride a motorcycle currently?

Johannes van Overbeek: I’ve always had dirt bikes and have a street bike, a BMW GS 1200.

Mecca of Speed: Are you looking forward to the series returning to Mid-Ohio?

Johannes van Overbeek: Yes, the majority of my wins have been at Mid-Ohio. In a way my professional career took off there. I did the SCCA runoffs in 1995 and I finished third on Kumho Tires as their back-up guy. Their lead guy finished something like fifteenth and that moved me to their lead guy from that point on. That was followed by the street race in Reno and my career hasn’t stopped.

Mecca of Speed: As this team is always working to do better, is there a target for when you want to be contending for the championship?

Johannes van Overbeek: Next year, this year is out of the question. A lot of it is taking things race by race. We need to do everything we can to control our end perfectly. The things out of our control we can do nothing about.

This is a championship caliber team and we are developing the tool to fill in the last piece of the puzzle.

Mecca of Speed: Who are some of the drivers you have been teamed with that have helped you develop as a driver?

Johannes van Overbeek: I have been fortunate to have been able to drive with so many great drivers. Early on Hans Stuck and Boris Said, Boris in particular was super helpful. In the Porsche days I drove with main guys, Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Long, Mark Lieb and Mike Rockenfeller. They have all given me something that I’ve been able to apply in various situations, both good and bad.

Mecca of Speed: Looking at things from a professional driver’s view, where do you think the average motorist could work to improve their driving on the street?

Johannes van Overbeek: Two big things, the first is not being distracted. There are so many distractions in current cars. In my home state of California we have hands free driving, which means you can’t have a cellphone in your hands while drive, which to me is ridiculous.  People have been talking to each other as long as cars have been around, this issue is not talking but taking your eyes off the road. You look away to dial a number on your phone or use your fancy navigation system which has every function on the touch screen down low out of your sight line. That is a big problem.

The second thing is looking ahead and anticipating what is going on. For example, looking five cars ahead in traffic. When you see brake lights up ahead you know you should start checking up. I always find it interesting in traffic when I see things are backing up and I start to slow down but the guy in front of me is going gang busters until the last moment. Then he hits the brakes and is on the verge of locking up and crashing into the car in front of him.

Mecca of Speed: A driver’s helmet is his signature, can you tell us about your helmet design?

Johannes van Overbeek: Growing up Hans Stuck was a hero of mine. He had a blue helmet with white stars around the opening. I’ve always liked old Porsches, in particular there was this signal orange color that I thought was cool. Without a lot of deliberation it was an orange helmet with black stars on it.

I didn’t want to make an absolute copy of Han’s helmet, but it was the theme and the design has evolved over time from small black starts to bigger stars. I worked with Troy Lee and he did his thing to it and that is how it’s evolved.

Content credit Johannes van Overbeek and John Vatne. Photo credit John Vatne and Randy Erdman.