Looking into the rear view mirror at his 2020 season, Niagara-on-the-Lake native Stewart Friesen is amazed at how it all went down.
Despite an interruption in both his Modified Stock Car and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series loops due to COVID-19, Friesen ended up having his busiest as well as one of his most successful racing years ever.
“It was crazy,” Friesen says from his home near Albany. “We kind of shot from the hip and just hit races as they were scheduled. We ended up doing 68 races altogether, and we had a bunch of wins, a bunch of top fives. We had a really strong year.”
Those top five finishes on the DIRTcar circuit helped Friesen capture his first Hoosier Racing Tire Weekly Championship (formerly Mr. DIRTcar), ending rival Matt Shepherd’s six-year hold on the title.
“It takes your best finishes at all the DIRT-sanctioned big-block tracks,” he explains. “We started down at Volusia (in Florida) in February, had some good runs, had a couple wins at Orange County in Middletown, New York, and a bunch of wins (four) up at Albany-Saratoga as well. Beating Matt Shepherd was definitely a highlight of my year.”
Coming from a racing family in NOTL, it’s no surprise Friesen and his wife Jessica have begun a racing family of their own. For many of his starts this summer, he found himself competing against his wife on the track.
“It’s stressful,” he admits. “Her team operates first-class and top-notch, just like we do. She had some really strong runs. She had a third-place finish in Middletown in a big block race, and beat me that night. That was really cool.”
He credits his Halmar Friesen Racing team for making it possible for them to vie for some of the same titles. When they are both on the track, their son Parker, who just celebrated his fifth birthday, is watched by either Jessica’s or Stewart’s parents (when they were able to cross the border this year) or (crew member) Tom Conroy’s wife.
“We have a pretty good staff that we try to rotate to take care of Parker,” says Friesen. “He’s a wild man. He’s just starting to get into the racing, and really pays attention now. But we have a good group of people who help out when we’re on the track.”
Jessica also grew up in a racing family, so both parents are familiar with the long stretches on the highways travelling from race to race.
“It’s something we’ve grown accustomed to, and adapted to, through the years. It can be tough, but summers mean being at the racetrack. We love it, that’s the life we chose, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
With the COVID break, Friesen, like many others, had a couple of months of down time at home when all races were postponed. And once things got moving in mid-May, changes to the NASCAR Truck schedule actually played into his family time as well as his ability to enter more DIRTcar races.
“It was different this year,” Friesen explains. “Usually I travel three days for each truck event. There’s practice, there’s qualifying that takes place beforehand. This year they streamlined the schedule. We didn’t practise, we didn’t qualify, they used a seeding system. It was nice. I could catch a commercial flight in the morning, race that night, then take a red-eye back home to Albany. I was gone for less than 24 hours, which was key for New York State’s travel restrictions.”
A little slower to get moving in his number 52 NASCAR truck, Friesen says he was just finding his groove when that circuit concluded. He chalks that up to learning and adapting to his new Toyota truck, after running Chevrolets for the past few years.
“It was a building year for us,” Friesen says. “It was big, you know, moving into a new shop, hiring the right people, building trucks from the ground up. We have a new engineer, Jonathan Leonard. When he came on it kind of righted the ship for us. We ended the year really strong, with a bunch of top fives and running up front, which was awesome. Hopefully we’ll carry that momentum into 2021.”
Aside from all the positives on the track, Friesen is probably happiest about the efforts of the Halmar Friesen Racing team to raise funds for local charities this summer. Every top five finish by Friesen and other teammates resulted in a donation to local food banks.
“The fundraising campaign (Halmar Racing to Beat Hunger) was spearheaded by Chris Larsen, who owns Halmar International in New York City,” he says. “We had a lot of people join us and donate in raising money. All in all we raised over $117,000 for local food banks.”
Friesen enthusiastically describes accompanying his Halmar crew in the 53-foot truck hauler packed full of food as they drove into the Bronx to stock local food banks. He fondly remembers the reaction of passersby as they spotted the big truck rolling through the packed streets. They also helped stock food banks in Connecticut, Montgomery County and Maryland. The team plans to continue to support food banks next year as well.
Stewart and Jessica also successfully raised more than $70,000 to support the Crossroads Center for Children in Schenectady, New York. Parker, who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at just over a year old, attends the school. In April, for Autism Awareness Month, the Friesens sold puzzle pieces to put on Stewart’s truck for his May 3 race in Dover. They also sold T-shirts and stickers to support the cause. It is the largest single donation the school has ever received.
As 2020 winds down, Friesen is a bit disappointed he won’t be able to visit his parents in NOTL
this Christmas. With the border closed, they’ll be staying home in New York for a quiet Christmas celebration.
Then it’s back into the shop to get the stock car ready, and some time on the simulator to practice with the truck for the 2021 season. Friesen will be on the dirt track in mid-January with four races at Bubba Speedway in Ocala, Florida followed by the Sunshine Nationals at Volusia Speedway near Barberville, Florida, before heading to Daytona on Feb. 12 for the first race in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series schedule.