Competing in his virtual race car over the first two months of the pandemic “just wasn’t cutting it” for Niagara-
on-the-Lake native Stewart Friesen.
Luckily, he had a couple of real big-block modified race cars to tinker with at his New York State home base.
So, when word came that racing in both the Short Track Super Series and the NASCAR Gander RV and Outdoor Truck Series were resuming two weeks ago, he and his team were ready, and raring to go.
On May 18, his Halmar Friesen Racing team loaded up and headed south for his first six races of the season, five with his #44 modified and one with his new #52 Toyota truck. Racing is a family affair, by the way, as his wife Jessica would also be driving her #1 Halmar modified on the dirt tracks during this southern swing.
Their first stop was in Brasstown, North Carolina, where they were to compete in the Short Track Super Series Return to Racing. Running in front of empty stands, Stewart spun in the third lap of the 40-lap race, causing a pile-up that he admits was his fault. But he recovered, took the lead with 10 to go, and held on for the win on his first night out. Jessica did not race in the feature.
Back on the same track the following evening, Stewart picked up where he left off, quickly driving to the front of the pack. On lap 24, however, he got caught up in a four-car tangle and was forced to hit the pits for repairs. He clawed back into the race for a third-place finish. Jessica, finished 18th.
From there, it was off to Cherokee Speedway in Gaffney, South Carolina, where Stewart picked up his second Short Track Super Series win in three days. His move down low in the bottom lane put him in the front on lap 28, where he remained for the next 12 laps to capture the checkered flag. Jessica was 15th across the finish line.
The next stop was at the Halmar truck shop in Statesville, North Carolina, where Stewart and his team were to hitch up his new Toyota for his first NASCAR Truck race since February 21.
As in South Carolina, NASCAR’s NC Education Lottery 200 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, would be run to a mostly-empty venue.
“It’s definitely different,” he says. “The truck race was pretty odd, just the limited time at the track, and not having all the fanfare before the race, but once we got to the race, it felt like any other race.”
His #52 Tundra is emblazoned with “Thank You Health Care Workers” on the hood, a tribute to those on the front lines during the COVID-19 crisis. His team is owned by Halmar International, a construction company from New York City. During the downtime before the trip south, Stewart and his team used their truck hauler to deliver food to four different food banks in Long Island, Connecticut and Maryland.
“It was cool to use our race team to help give back a little bit,” he says. “We had a full-blown 53-foot, NASCAR semi truck hauler right in the middle of the Bronx. It was a little stressful for the drivers, but the people absolutely loved it.”
The success of the previous weekend did not carry over to the truck race. “We had some brake problems that we fought with all race long,” Stewart explains. “And we struggled with some handling, obviously, without practice and qualifying (laps). We kind of went at it blind. We made some good adjustments, and were charging back through, then a lap truck (driven by Jesse Iwuji) broke up, and we got tangled up.” Friesen settled for 30th in the field of 40 trucks.
Next stop for the Halmar Friesen team was at Chatham Speedway in Louisiana last weekend, where he would be back on the dirt track with the #44 modified for the Corona 32 Saturday, and the Corona 75 the following evening. He capped the southern swing finishing third in both events, his first in front of racing fans since February 21. Jessica followed closely, placing fifth on Saturday, and fourth on Sunday.
“Louisiana is open for business,” says Stewart. “The past two races have been packed houses. It’s been really refreshing to get to mingle with the fans and kind of get back to normal.”
After the weekend, Stewart, Jessica and their young son Parker inched their way back home to New York state to catch their breath after a taxing, but successful, whirlwind trip.
“It’s been fun. We’re wrapping up a two-week tour here, and we’re burned out, but it’s been great to get back to normal, get back to work, and to get back to our lives.”
He is back in the south by now, getting ready for NASCAR’s Vet Tix Camping World 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway this Saturday, June 6, with the successes of the trip down south leaving him feeling confident.
“The last couple of weeks have been refreshing,” he reflects. “We’ve obviously done a lot of work at both shops, the modified shop in New York and the truck shop in Statesville, so it felt good to get some races under our belt, get a couple wins, and we’re looking forward to keeping it going now.”