As an aspiring driver, Jessica Zemken never dreamed she would race at the NASCAR level.
After meeting, then marrying fellow driver Stewart Friesen in 2014, the accomplished dirt tracker and second-generation racer continued to fuel her competitive spirit. The Friesens spent their honeymoon racing and finished one-two in sprint cars at their home track—Utica-Rome (N.Y.) Speedway.
The couple was soon blessed with son Parker, but when he was diagnosed on the autism spectrum just after his first birthday, Jessica felt the need to put her career on hold. Four years later, Parker is 5—and thriving. His transformation afforded Friesen the time to take baby steps back to the track.
“My racing has been completely on the back burner for about last six years,” Friesen said. “I tried to run at least 10-12 races a year just because I wasn’t ready to completely give it up—yet.”
However, the offer from Halmar Friesen Racing’s co-owner Chris Larson to compete against Stewart in the Pinty’s Dirt Truck Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 27th was completely unexpected.
There was an older speedway truck sitting in the corner at the HFR shop in Statesville, N.C. Jokingly, someone wrote Jessica’s name in the dust atop the cab. The crew used to quip, "Maybe ‘Mom’ will get to run it some day."
That day will come next Saturday when Friesen straps into the No. 62 Halmar Toyota. The Friesens will be the first husband and wife duo to compete in the truck series and the first married couple to race against each other on one of NASCAR's top tours since Elton Sawyer and Patty Moise ran the Busch Series in 1998.
“To have an opportunity like this with Halmar is awesome,” Friesen said. “We have a great relationship with Chris Larson, and I was fortunate to get some of my old sponsors that supported my sprint car team.
“And I still get to run the big block and the small block modified about 15 to 18 times a year. I’m starting to get back into it. Our son is doing amazing. He loves coming and going to the track and playing with the other kids. He’s finally into it. He’s in a good place. Our business is in a good place. Now, I’m getting to run a little bit more. So, it’s pretty cool.”
The Friesens credit the Crossroads Center for Children in Schenectady, N.Y., and the commitment of a variety of speech and educational therapists with expediting Parker’s progress—so much so that the couple has raised close to $100,000 for the school over the last two years.
“For the first couple of years—when he started getting older and we knew something was wrong—we knew we had to get him help,” Friesen said. “He’s been going to the races since he was two months old, but as he got older, we noticed he didn’t want to interact with people. He didn’t want to make eye contact or socialize. It was very different the first couple of years until he started getting ABA (applied behavior analysis) therapy.
“It’s been a lot of time and a lot of work, but he has done amazing. He has reacted to all of the treatments and therapy and he’s doing great. When he was first diagnosed, we weren’t even sure if he would ever speak. Now, he communicates better than most people I deal with on a daily basis.”
Friesen considers the resources at Crossroads a lifesaver for Parker. She also advocates for CASP—the Council of Autism Service Providers—and shares Parker’s journey with other families to offer the best avenues for support. Although most autism experts recommend a very structured environment for children on the spectrum, Jessica has noticed a dramatic difference when Parker accompanies the family to the race track.
“Parker does much better living our lifestyle,” Friesen said. “He’s definitely accustomed to it—accustomed to going non-stop, being around people and socializing now. Specialists recommend that children on the autism spectrum have a typical routine and receive regular therapy, or they might regress.
“But when he was on the road with us, he always progressed being around the different atmospheres and different situations. It’s been amazing. It all worked out with the therapy. So it’s been a night-and-day difference. We’re definitely living the dream. We’re doing what we love to do and we’re getting to do it with our family. It’s been really cool.”
Like any driver aspiring to obtain a NASCAR license, the 35-year-old Sprakers, N.Y.. native had to submit references prior to being approved. Along with track and series promoters, she listed her husband, Stewart.
“I knew if he said anything bad about me he’d be looking for a new place to live,” Friesen said with a laugh. “We’re competitive—very competitive. We’re very tough on each other when it comes to racing. We’ve been on and off together since 2004 when I won the track championship at Utica-Rome in the sportsman division and he won it in the small block modifieds. That’s when we started dating.
“It didn’t go exactly smooth, but we never got away from each other after all these years," Jessica said. "We figured it out. We’re each other's biggest critics for sure, but no one is going to be more honest with each other than we are.”
In 2015, when Friesen was pregnant—and sidelined from competition—she turned her sprint car over to Stewart but continued on as his crew chief. Stewart won his first World of Outlaws feature in his fourth start at Ohsweken Speedway in Ontario—and became just the second Canadian to win an Outlaws feature.
“We won 10 or 12 sprint car races with me as his crew chief,” Friesen said. “After Parker was born, I got back into the sprint car for maybe four races. I got in a wreck in the 360 and flipped the sprint car when he was six or seven years old and that really changed my perspective of ‘Yes, I love racing. Yes, I love sprint car racing,’ but we couldn’t do it all the time, and we couldn’t do it right. So it didn’t make sense.
“Being a mom made it different. Just the safety (aspect) and the travel, it just didn’t make sense. So we sold the entire sprint car team, and I got into big-block modifieds. I do that now—and it’s awesome.”
Despite Friesen’s vast experience on dirt, last Friday night she ran a pro stock at The Georgetown (Del.) Speedway to get acclimated to a heavier feeling vehicle.
“I ran sprint cars the majority of my career—a lot of horsepower and lighter weight, so the trucks are going to be a lot different,” Friesen said. “We had a lot of good runs in sprint cars between the 360s and the 410s. We traveled a lot, but it has been different the last six almost years or so.
“We’ve been 100-percent focused on our son, getting him therapy and working with his autism and getting him where he needs to be.”
Friesen says she won’t be satisfied just making the Bristol truck race. She wants to be competitive. Adam Crigger will be crew chief for the second squad.
Given the caliber of the HFR teams, Friesen knows the determining factor will be her.
“I don’t think we’ll have any trouble making the race,” Friesen said. “I have dirt experience, but I don’t have any experience in a truck. I have great equipment. I have a great team, great guys, and a great teammate that can rip my ass and point me in the right direction for the entire weekend. It will be fun. It will be a lot of fun.”
The bigger question, however, is who will Parker be cheering for next Saturday?
“I don’t know,” Friesen said. “We’ve asked him a couple of times, and he’s replied, ‘Mom, you don't drive the truck. Dad drives the truck.’ He’s also confused about the dirt. He was at Eldora, but that was two years ago. He’s just getting accustomed to Stewart running the late model on the dirt, but that’s different because he’s only really been around the modified where he was really into it.
“When we talked about the trucks and running on dirt, he said, ‘No, Mom. Modifieds run on dirt. You race the modified. Dad races the truck.’ And I told him, ‘No, we’re both racing trucks on dirt.’ So he hasn’t given us a straight answer. He’ll say he’s going to root for me when we’re together. Then he’ll tell Stewart he’s going to root for him when they’re together. He knows how to work us, that’s for sure.”
NOTE: Stewart Friesen announced on Tuesday he will also make his Cup debut with Spire Motorsports.