• Stewart Friesen

A Season of Firsts for Stewart Friesen

Friesen races for a living, so he’s on a speedway somewhere as many as four or five times a week.

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald August 29, 2018

This season has been one of firsts for Stewart Friesen, the 35-year-old dirt track, big-block modified racing driver originally from Niagara-on-the-Lake.

It’s been his first full year of racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

He’s made the Chase for the Championship playoffs in the truck series for the first time. (NASCAR just calls it the “playoffs” but I think the “Chase” sounds so much better, don’t you?)

And this weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP), while driving the No. 52 Chevrolet Silverado entry for Halmar Friesen Racing, he’s going to be in competition on a road course for the very first time and at a facility that he’s never seen.

“I keep telling my friends it’s going to be either really great or it’s going to be really awful,” Friesen laughed during a telephone interview the other day.

“I don’t see a lot of middle ground there.”

Friesen will be among 30 NASCAR truck racers (the truck series is one of three NASCAR travelling series, along with the Xfinity Series stock cars and the Monster Energy Cup cars) who will take the green flag for the Chevrolet Silverado 250 at Old Mosport on Sunday afternoon.

The race will mark the first time in NASCAR history that an international track will host a round of the playoffs.

Eight drivers have qualified for the Chase. In addition to Friesen, Matt Crafton, Johnny Sauter, Brett Moffitt, Noah Gragson, Justin Haley, Ben Rhodes and Grant Enfinger made the cut and will begin their quest for the 2018 Driver’s Championship in a race that marks the series’ sixth visit to CTMP.

In addition to the headline Camping World race, rounds of the NASCAR Canada Pinty’s Series (the TOTAL Quartz 200 will go to the post on Sunday morning), the Ulltra 94 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Canada by Yokohama series (featuring Canada’s hottest driver of the moment, Zachary Robichon), the Canadian Touring Car Championship, and the Nissan Micra Cup series, which could see its championship decided, will be held.

Friesen, who comes from a racing family — they owned Ransomville Speedway in New York state and were partners at one time in the ownership of the Thorold-area Merrittville Speedway — has been racing since he started in go-karts at the age of 10.

He’s best-known for being one of the most successful dirt track, big-block modified racers in the United States, with more than starts.

Racing primarily in the U.S. northeast against dirt short-track legends like Brett Hearn, Matt Sheppard and Billy Decker, Friesen has won more than his share. In fact, before it was shut down in 2015, he had a lock on the Super DIRT Week big-block feature that was held every October on the mile track at the New York state Fairgrounds in Syracuse. That race paid $50,000 to win and Friesen won it four of the last six years it was held.

Stewart Friesen

Stewart Friesen and Jessica Zemken announced their engagement in 2012 at ? where else? ? a racetrack.

But the reason we were talking wasn’t about his skill and expertise on the short tracks; it was about his season in the trucks, the re-awakening of his NASCAR ambitions and his first time shifting gears and turning right on purpose.

So is he really going to be flying blind when he gets to CTMP? It’s a pretty daunting place for a race driver going around it for the first time.

“Well,” said Friesen, “I’ll have been there without really having been there — if you catch my drift. I’m in North Carolina at the moment (on Monday) and I’m about to have a session in a Chevy simulator. I’ll be able to familiarize myself with Canadian Tire Motorsport Park so that when I get there and head out on the track, I’ll know my way around.”

Now, it must be pointed out here that Friesen, who moved on from go-karts to the Can-Am TQ Midget Club — they raced at places like Lancaster Speedway near the Buffalo Airport and at Flamboro Speedway near Hamilton — and then into sportsmen and, finally, the modifieds, is not a total stranger to road racing. He did, in fact, attend the Ron Fellows Driving School at Spring Mountain in Nevada — for a day.

“I did a Corvette school day in Nevada months ago that was through Chevrolet and Ron Fellows (CTMP co-owner) was out there,” he said. “I got to meet him and he gave me some pointers. That was my first taste of it (road racing). It was a lot of fun. That’s obviously not Canadian Tire Motorsport Park but it helped a lot when it came to braking technique and shifting technique and stuff like that. Hopefully it’ll help.”

Years ago, the late Craig Hill told me that any good racing driver can drive any kind of racing car once they get familiar with it. Friesen said he’d heard the same thing.

“I’m kind of hoping my skill set will roll over a little bit once we get racing,” he said. “I hope I’m not going to be too much of a fish out of water.”

Friesen races for a living, so he’s on a speedway somewhere as many as four or five times a week, in addition to racing the truck.

“The northeast modified stuff is so busy,” he said. “Were going pretty much every weekend through the summer months and then there’s mid-week specials and the truck racing. As a race team, we’re trying to hit as many races as we can and we’ve had a bunch of wins, so everything’s good there. All in all, it’s been a crazy summer but it’s also been a lot of fun.”

Friesen said at one time he had aspirations of landing a NASCAR Cup ride but let those dreams go when he couldn’t find a sponsor to go with him to the big league. But in recent years, he met some people — a gentleman named Chris Larsen, in particular — and that’s all changed. He sees the trucks as the start of a climb to the top.

“As my racing career progressed,” he said, “I’d kind of put the NASCAR dream on the back burner. I concentrated on modifieds to make a living for my family and everything was going great and then I got tied up with some people who wanted to try NASCAR and I went, ‘Wow!’ and the dream kind of came back alive and here we are.

“I love it, travelling to all the different tracks. Growing up, I only ever saw them on TV and now I’m out there, makin’ laps. And then this year, with our alliance with Chevrolet, I’m being competitive, and having shots at winning races, and running in the top five, and it’s just been such a cool experience.”

Where does Friesen see his career going, now that he’s making his mark in the truck series?

Stewart Friesen

Stewart Friesen of Niagara-on-the-Lake will be racing at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park this weekend.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Racing is so sponsorship-driven. At the very least, we’ll be back in the trucks again next year but we have to wait and see what happens. Doing as well as we have the last couple of months has kind of gotten a buzz going in the industry. That’s been good. But there’s nothing set in stone, or offers, or nothing has materialized yet, so I’ll keep doing this as long as I can and see what happens.”

Friesen doesn’t think the fact that he’s 35 should have any negative effect on his Cup ambitions.

“Things are looking good,” he said. “Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer and all those guys are in their 40s and kicking butt in Cup. Harry Gant was Cup rookie of the year when he was 40 and had a pretty strong Cup career from 40 to 50, so I have time.

“If I can get there, great; if not, the modified gig is going pretty good. I’m a competitive guy and anything I do I want to do at the highest level. I’m pretty fortunate to have two great race teams — the trucks and the dirt modified team.”

He’s fortunate in another way, too. He married a fine racing driver, Jessica Zemken, who ran with the World of Outlaws sprint car series, and they have a 2-year-old son, Parker.

“She’s kind of backed off from the sprint car deal, with all the travelling, but she hasn’t stopped racing,” Friesen said. “We put a modified together for her this year and when I’ve been home, we’ve raced Fonda (Speedway) together and she’s had a couple of top fives and she’s been doing pretty good.”

Which doesn’t mean that she’s totally responsible for taking care of the child, either.

“We live in Sprakers, N.Y., which is about 45 minutes west of Albany,” he said. “We have a screen-printing T-shirt business we started four or five years ago, so when I’m home and not racing, I’ll take care of Parker and she’ll go out to the print shop. It’s great to spend time with him because he’s growing up so fast.

“Jess will say, ‘Don’t you remember something that happened when he was 2 months old?’ and I don’t even remember. I guess it’s nature’s way of blocking out all the crazy nights.”

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