It was a busy day of racing for Niagara-on-the-Lake native Stewart Friesen this past Sunday. He began by competing against the likes of Kyle and Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Bubba Wallace in the Dixie Vodka 150 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He ended it with another race, on dirt, at Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
From Miami, to Pennsylvania, with two races, all in one day, made possible by the world of iRacing.
When NASCAR and the entire stock car world shut down its races on Friday, March 13, Friesen was at Atlanta Motor Speedway with his team, preparing for his next race in the NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series that weekend.
There were no fans in attendance, as NASCAR had previously made the decision to run races that weekend without spectators. With the COVID-19 crisis changing rapidly, however, the drivers were informed that day the race would not be run.
Friesen says “between the top three series, there were probably a couple of thousand people there, with competitors, crew members and stuff like that. It was in everybody’s best interest, with everything that was going on.”
Friesen and his team headed back to his home near Albany, New York, to use some of the down time to get back to the shop. “There’s work to be done,” says Friesen, “in the shop, on the truck team. It kind of buys us some time to get some stuff done. We kind of rushed over two months in the winter, and we have a couple of trucks to build still.”
But the 36-year-old, who grew up with racing with the family business, couldn’t stay away from the track for long.
He was elated to learn the following week’s NASCAR event would run on the virtual track at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And for an added bonus, he was able to compete from the comfort of his own home.
In the offseason, most NASCAR and stock car drivers spend time on simulators getting ready for competition. Restrictions on how much time they can spend in their actual cars, on tracks, are part of the reason for this.
With Friesen’s Halmar team moving from Chevrolet to Toyota this year, that simulator time on the Toyota rig was crucial for him to learn how to handle his new truck.
Back in Albany, he has had his own racing simulator in his basement for about five years.
“I never really got on it much before this weekend,” he says. “If I got on there, it was more of a game, you know, and my wife would be yelling at me to get off it, but today was a bit more serious so she gave me a couple of hours.”
He began preparing for Saturday’s first “serious” race on Friday night, running practice races with Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr., as well as some of the world’s top iRacers.
“All those guys are good at iRacing for a reason, they’re on there doing it, getting different races, and knowing different parts of the simulation.”
The morning race, billed as the opening event in the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series, didn’t go so well for Friesen. Driving a virtual Toyota Camry sporting his customary number 52, he had to earn his way in via the 20-lap last chance race for Xfinity and Truck Series drivers. He got tangled up with Myatt Snider, crashed, and did not qualify.
The race was won by NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin, who edged Earnhardt Jr. for the title. There was no purse for the winner, but Hamlin donated $6,400 to assist Miami-area residents affected by the COVID-19 virus. Another $20,000 was donated to the NASCAR Foundation by sponsor Dixie Vodka, iRacing and Fox Sports, who carried the race live on its FS-1 platform in the U.S.
“It’s pretty cool, with live sports shut down, what NASCAR did today, as far as getting this on Fox, and having a really great race. It was exciting. It’s not the real thing, you know, but it’s live sports,” says Friesen.
The afternoon virtual dirt race at Williams Grove was billed as the Short Track Super Series Quarantine 500. Friesen fared a little better in that one, but there were glitches with the platform on which it ran, making it difficult for some of the drivers, Friesen included, to communicate and compete. He didn’t finish his heat in that one, either.
“It was a good start with the Facebook Live platform, but it’s going to take a bit more to get it right the way NASCAR did, with the broadcast. It was kind of tough for me to follow along to that, but I will learn from it.”
Friesen admits to be more competitive in the iRacing world, he has some work to do.
“The iRacing platform has been around for about 20 years. More and more people are getting into it, buying the hardware that goes into it,” says Friesen. “It’s a real racing seat. There’s some that simulate movement. You use about 50 per cent of the same motion as you do driving the racing car.”
Of course, Friesen hopes the current layoff won’t last much longer, but as things go on, he realizes iRacing may be in the cards for much of this year’s racing season.
“It shows how fragile everything really is, and this is (a good) lesson for everybody to appreciate what we have and what we can do,” says Friesen. “It’s scary. Hopefully we’ll be out of this deal sooner rather than later, but we’re kind of led to believe it’s going to be later.”