Friesen may not have won yet in NASCAR, but his long-winded ride to get here is another great story that will reboot NASCAR’s fan-base.
Editors Notes: I’ve updated the article to ensure the clarity that Friesen isn’t the only dirt modified driver to win a World of Outlaws race. Billy Pauch, a multi-talented driver and dirt modified hall-of-famer has also won (twice) with the series. Also, Jimmy Horton was a dirt modified driver that ran in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for 48 starts in the 80’s-90’s, his best finish was 36th. Included as well is more information around Friesen’s wife, phenom Jessica Zemken Friesen and how Stewart Friesen ended up in her sprint car for his WoO win.
Stewart Friesen won Stage 2 in a heated, action-packed NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race this past weekend that found the best and brightest of the series (including Cups series driver Kyle Busch) in the mix on a tacky racing surface that looked more like a Indy Car race than a NASCAR Trucks race on a 1.5 mile.
Why this all matters for Friesen is because he showed strength for the second week in a row without it being at Eldora Speedway, the lone dirt track race for the series. It’s the only track he’s really ever shown himself in this series, nearly winning it last year.
This season we’re seeing a refreshed presence and last week, Friesen finished 6th in Atlanta; a worn out slick track that plays heavy towards the veteran drivers. Although newer to NASCAR, Friesen knows slick well, but on a different surface, dirt in Upstate New York where the kind of slick you see would allow you some nights to see your own reflection. It can be glassy, nearly impossible to put the throttle down. Atlanta is blacktop of course, but Friesen showed his skills could compete no matter the surface.
This past weekend at Las Vegas we saw a totally different track. It was cold, tacky, and a near wide-open throttle the whole way around. It doesn’t seem like such a great place for a finessing Upstate New York dirt driver, especially with a small single truck team that has an “alliance” to a larger GMS Racing team. But competitive he was. Friesen was 4th fastest in practice, then 2nd fastest in qualifying which placed him on the front row next to Las Vegas native, Cup series future legend, and track favorite, Kyle Busch.
And that’s where the build up starts…
Stewart Friesen is no young gun dirt racer turned NASCAR driver, like a Kyle Larson or Christopher Bell. He’s a decade older, and a decade more decorated in a sector of dirt racing that brought elder colleague and local legend, Brett Hearn to NASCAR where he only competed in twenty Xfinity Series events in his career, spanning from 1985 to 1989. Hearn earned just one top-ten (10th at Dover), and earned his best points finish of 41st in the 1986 season. To put it plainly, it wasn’t impressive, and sure Hearn went back to winning at dirt tracks throughout Upstate New York with the occasional trip elsewhere, but the fact he couldn’t compete doing something else always left an asterisk for some fans. As I’m writing this, Hearn, who is 59, is approaching an astounding 1,000 wins in his career as a big block modified driver.
If you’re a rising star in big block modifieds, like Stewart Friesen, the only drivers to look up to that moved up in the sport are Brett Hearn and Tim McCreadie, who only competed in six NASCAR events. However, Tim McCreadie is no slouch, he’s the 2006 Chili Bowl winner and World of Outlaws Late Model Champion. Regardless of such great accolades…
There really is no successful path to NASCAR from being a big block modified driver, and that’s why Stewart Friesen matters.
The key for Freisen earning a spot in NASCAR was winning in other things, like McCreadie, but there’s one big difference. Friesen won a World of Outlaws Sprint Car race, something very few DIRT modified drivers can say. He did it using his wife, Jessica Friesen (previously Jessica Zemken)’s sprint car with her notes on how to set it up. Friesen’s wife, Jessica is a stout modified and sprint car driver herself, and mentioned to me that she only let him drive it because she was pregnant with their son, Parker (otherwise, she would have raced!).
It was a local race track for them, Ohsweken Speedway in Canada, and Stewart Freisen ousted the great Donny Schatz and the best of the best this country (and perhaps the world) has in Sprint Car racing. It was not only shocking, but a tell tale sign to fans that this kid might have something beyond what he was doing with the little resources he had.
This was in 2015, and you pair that with his win record as a big block modified driver at New York dirt tracks like Ransomville, Five Mile Point and Utica-Rome, coupled with winning the Syracuse 200 modified race four times, it opened the doors for an opportunity in the NASCAR Trucks race at Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway.
Well, you know the saying “timing is everything,” and with the big move of NASCAR going to dirt with trucks at the Eldora Dirt Derby, why not give versatile dirt drivers a shot to compete in a truck? Similar to bringing the road racing guys in for the NASCAR road course races giving smaller teams a competitive shot. It’s like Dorsey Schroeder or Boris Said at Watkins Glen every year coming into Winston Cup just for the road courses, giving struggling teams a chance to win.
Chris Larsen decided to give Friesen his first NASCAR ride at Eldora Speedway doing just that. It was was supposed to be a one-time deal. Friesen put the No. 16 Halmar Racing truck into the twelfth starting spot after finishing second in his heat. Unfortunately Friesen’s maiden voyage resulted in a 28th-place finish after getting caught up in a wreck.
Larsen must have been convinced he saw something in Friesen, and decided to run five more races that season. Friesen’s best finish in that first try at NASCAR was a 13th at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
In 2016, Friesen announced that he would run the full 2017 season in the now Halmar Friesen Racing No. 52. They went to Eldora again, but this time Friesen won the pole and led over half the laps, claiming victory in the second stage. He ultimately lost the lead to Matt Crafton in the closing laps, finishing a career-best second. He was now on the radar.
About a month after that Eldora run, the team took a two-race break, and made an alliance with the very competitive, GMS Racing. After returning to competition, Friesen scored four finishes of seventh or better in the season’s last six races, climbing to fourteenth in the season-ending points tally. An inspiring and quiet rise that perhaps only NASCAR insiders saw coming, aside from his legion of dirt fans in New York and Canada.
So, why does he matter?
Because Stewart Friesen is the story of a “little guy” who built a reputation over fifteen years racing at local dirt tracks earning it the hard way. He’s the epitome of my article The Canaries in the Coal Mine: A Look into the Future of NASCAR in the dirt track side of the stories… he built up a grass roots fan base, albeit smaller, but something that lacked in the early 2000’s NASCAR stars who seemed to skip steps to get there.
Friesen can now inspire a future generation of young drivers that feel they can run on Northeast dirt tracks and make it to NASCAR, even in an area like New York where big block modifieds are king. We’ve always seen the USAC guys produce NASCAR and Indy Car talent, but not from Friesen’s background of dirt racing. And he’s slowly proving it can work to the “powers that be” who have never had it on their radar…