Racing on a mix of fumes and pure adrenalin, Canadian star Stewart Friesen brought the partisan grandstand crowd to its feet Sunday afternoon at the New York State Fairgrounds, staving off a late race charge by local favorite Jimmy Phelps to capture the headline SEF Small Engine Fuels 200 Presented by Ferris/Snapper/Simplicity Championship.
Friesen’s first career Super DIRTcar Series victory earned the driver of the Original Pizza Logs no. 44 M.R. Burdick Ent.-Jeff Daley & Sons Oil/TEO Pro Car entry a $50,000 grand prize and officially put his name in the record book as the first Canadian to claim bragging rights in the nation’s premier event for Big-Block Modifieds.
“I started conserving (fuel) during the national anthem,” joked Friesen, after making history as the first chauffeur from north of the border to win the Big-Block Modified main on the Syracuse Mile. The third-generation wheelman from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. established another unofficial mark as he ran the final 132 laps on one tank of fuel and the same set of tires.
“I have to thank my buddy Jeff Strunk, he was over in turn three and had a really good look at my lines down there. He just kept drilling it in my head … conserve, conserve, conserve. The cautions fell the way we needed them to, which we kind of banked on, and it really paid off. This car was just a rocket all day, probably could’ve run a second quicker if we needed to,” said Friesen, after matching Matt Sheppard to become the second straight 27 year-old to claim SEF 200 honors in October. All-time DIRTcar Big-Block winner Alan Johnson remains the youngest victor, taking top honors just after turning 26 in the fall of 1983.
Pole-sitter Phelps from nearby Baldwinsville, N.Y. finished just 0.848-sec. behind Friesen in the HBR Motorsports no. 98H Wave Energy Drink-Mohawk Northeast/Troyer machine, followed by two-time SEF Small Engine Fuels 200 champion Jimmy Horton from Neshanic Station, N.J., 1999 SEF 200 titlist Kenny Tremont from West Sand Lake, N.Y. and Garden State invader Ryan Godown from Ringoes, N.J. Rookie of the race Craig Atkins from Clintonville, N.Y. finished 14th and was the last to complete the prescribed 200-lap distance.
Looking to match his success found the day before in winning the 150-lap SDW 358-Modified main event, Phelps’ front row partner Billy Decker charged out to an early lead at the drop of chief starter Dave Farney’s initial green flag.
An opening lap red flag could have been an early signal to Friesen that today was his day as a number of red and white Canadian Mapleleaf flags were visible throughout the grandstands. The first lap set-back began when Dale Planck lost his steering trying to navigate turn three and careened high into the outside retaining wall. Four of his closest trailers piled in right behind with Todd Milton’s mount getting airborne before coming to rest on its side with no hope of repair.
Two more early cautions kept the race pace slow and following a lap 16 restart Phelps needed only one more trip around the historic Salt City oval to duck under Decker for the first lead exchange. With 30 laps showing on the scoreboard, Phelps, Decker, his Gypsum Express teammate Pat Ward, Friesen and Bobby Varin continued to show the way while fans took notice of 25th-place starter Larry Wight who was rim-riding lap-after-lap to move into 15th position. Eventual ‘hard charger’ Rick Laubach was even quicker, advancing from 39th to 18th-place in the same amount of time.
While runner-up Decker pitted during a lap 37 yellow, Phelps made his first trip down pit road to relinquish the lead to Ward under caution on the 68th circuit --- the same time Friesen would make his only visit with crew members during an extended period of yellow flag laps observed for in-race track grooming by the seasoned maintenance staff.
“When lap 68 came, we pitted and we were done, didn’t even really pay attention to the number – and then all of a sudden we realized it,” said Friesen, noting the irony of making his decisive pit stop on lap 68 – the car number of his late uncle Alex Friesen, a well-known track promoter, sometimes-DIRTcar Sportsman driver and winner at Syracuse in the 1996 Dig Safely NY Last Chance Qualifier for Big-Blocks, who was killed later that year in a tragic snowmobile accident.
“Strunky (Pennsy 358-Modified star Jeff Strunk, who provided Friesen crew help all week) came on the radio and said, ‘Do you know what lap we pitted on?’ Jeff was one of Uncle Alex’s best friends, so we were just about in tears on the backstretch. We thought, ‘Maybe Uncle Alex is helping us with this one.’ That was a big deal for us.”
Back under green flag conditions, Tim McCreadie was suddenly shoved out of the groove between turns one and two and yellow lights were forced on once again as the no. 39 CME-Sweeteners Plus ride sat motionless on the track sans a front end. A dozen front-runners took advantage of the situation to turn pitside with Ward, Ronnie Johnson and Wayne Jelley the top-three drivers yet to make their mandatory pit stop.
The game-plan backfired soonafter for Ward as he turned over the top spot to Johnson ---sporting his father Jacks’ no. 12a and familiar orange paint scheme--- on lap 96 when he suddenly ran out of fuel, just three laps after Jelley suffered the same fate following the a similar pre-race strategy. The yellow flag was thrown for Ward on lap 97, giving Johnson time to pit, as well as Phelps and a half-dozen more lead lap drivers looking to gain an edge.
Wight moved to the point on lap 100 just in time to gain ownership of a unique 2011 chassis package posted by Troyer Race Cars of Rochester, N.Y. valued in excess of $7,000. Friesen was next in line to assume the number one spot when Wight elected to pit the following circuit, but lost the point to another second-generation pilot Donnie Corellis on the ensuing lap 103 restart.
While returning trackside among the top-20 after his second pit stop at the century mark, Phelps was forced to the infield for the third and final time after contact with Godown flattened his left-rear tire. His hesitation down the back chute caused a seventh caution period but it was the next slowdown due to cut tire on Danny Johnson’s mount that gave Friesen back the lead for good the 122nd time around.
As the remaining laps dwindled, so did some of the stiffest competition; Decker who lost a cylinder on his Kevlar-powered machine and 2004 winner Tim Fuller who lost a right-rear wheel at the same time to send the Smith Bros. Concrete Foundations no. 74 Hudson Valley Concrete Pumping/TEO ride slamming into the turn once concrete up high.
After 10 more laps of green flag, a rare red flag flew for the second time on lap 161 when Corellis over-corrected his slide exiting turn four sending the Rifenburg Construction no. 57 John Ray & Son/Bicknell Modified spinning backwards into the wall. The sudden impact forced the car to flip over with a stray wheel finding it sway down the front straightaway as the scattered field came to a halt around the entire speedway.
Yellow lights flashed on before the restart, giving Wight the first opportunity to experiment using a the soft Hoosier D400 tire compound that was allowed only during the final 50 laps. Making his fifth stop of the afternoon, ‘Lightning Larry’ had nothing to lose and so much more to gain, yet his day came to an abrupt halt soonafter as mechanical failure rendered his mount motionless.
Cracking the Top-10 before Corellis took his wildest ride on the Moody Mile, all eyes focused on Phelps as he paraded seemingly at will to the front with little confrontation. The ‘B’Ville Blizzard’ grabbed ninth from defending SEF 200 winner Matt Sheppard on lap 164, put Godown behind him the next circuit, then flew past both Richie Tobias Jr. and Brett Hearn on lap 166 to secure sixth. Phelps was far from finished, storming past Craig Mitchell on lap 167 before moving ahead of Justin Haers one lap later.
“I honestly thought we did everything we needed to do after the flat,” figured Phelps, who figured in one of the most dramatic finishes of the new millennium on the Syracuse Mile. “The way the pace of the race was, I thought we had the first car with enough tire and fuel to (finish) it. With 10 to go I still thought we had this thing in the bag. I tried to put the heat on (Friesen) real hard at the end, but I honestly thought he’d run out with five or 10 to go. We got caught by surprise with the fuel mileage those guys were able to get.”
In an unexpected turn of events, Sheppard’s day came to a close when the JB Motorsports no. 9s Bicknell ride went up in smoke crossing the line to complete lap 170. Hearn made sure a caution came out as the Madsen Motorsports no. 20 Wentworth Custom Homes-Benjamin Moore Paints/TEO entry sustained a broken driveshaft at the same time, with the ‘Corporate Jet’ sliding into the front stretch chain-link fence beyond pit road to end his ascent into the front-five.
“I can’t figure out why we can’t get a car to finish,” remarked a bewildered Hearn, who won his record fifth SEF 200 in 1995 and has hardly crossed under a checkered flag since. “When we do, maybe we’ll win again. We’re breaking new stuff here that we don’t break any other time of the year. I was lucky, when it broke apart about a quarter of the way down the straightaway, it blew the shifter off the transmission and the (driveshaft) cover blew out. When it blows it’s slapping the cover and banging against your leg. I had to lock the brakes up, because until I did that and stopped the rear-end, the driveshaft is still banging in there. I got it stopped as fast as I could, but it probably hit me five or six times before I stopped enough where it wasn’t whipping real hard anymore. I’ll know it will hit me tomorrow (the soreness), but it’s not too bad right now.”
Green lights reappeared on lap 176 and when Phelps moved under Horton to take over third, it seemed like just a matter of time before Phelps would dispose of the final two obstacles that stood between himself and that elusive victory at Syracuse. Phelps inherited second when Frenchman David Hebert was summoned pitside for a splash of fuel on lap 185 and when Craig Mitchell had a front tire go down he cozied up to Friesen’s rear bumper for what he hoped would be the last hurdle to clear. Fifth running Tobias fell victim to a dry fuel as did Justin Haers, who stopped between turns three and four to require the 13th and final yellow flag.
The crowd rose to its feet with five laps to go as only a car-length separated leaders Friesen and Phelps as they rounded every turn. Yet that was as close as Phelps could get as Columbus Day Weekend became the newest Canadian holiday for DIRTcar Northeast’s Big-Block rookie of the year as pulled out to a five-car length victory.
“We’ll bring this (trophy) back north of the border, we’re very proud,” said Friesen, who dedicated the win to all his fellow countrymen, especially his late uncle and ill grandfather Stan Friesen, patriarch of the family owned and operated Ransomville Speedway in Western New York. “I hope nobody is going anywhere soon because were gonna be burning this one down.”
With the Friesen brain trust calculating possibly three more laps before ‘game over,’ Phelps came that close to beginning his own celebration with family and friends practically in his own backyard.
“We definitely didn’t want to come from that far back, that flat tire kind of bit us,” stated Phelps 35, who opened Super DIRT Week by claiming his second American Traditions Motorsports Pole Award on Thursday and continued with dominating his Triple 20 qualifying heat race win on Friday. Still, have to hand it to the guys, they got me in and out of the pits, never lost focus and kept us pumped up.”
“We had a great race car … had enough fuel, enough tires at the end. We might have been as good as Stewart, although we weren’t better, so we couldn’t push him hard enough. Our only hope was if we could get him out of gas. I pushed him as hard as I could, he just did a great job,” Phelps added.
Already capturing SEF Small Engine Fuels Championships in both 1987 and 1994, the sensational Jimmy Horton was somewhat satisfied with his third-place showing in a brand new Bicknell car.
“We had a good car, had a real good race team, have to thank Dick Biever (owner) for putting this all together,” said Horton, 54, who finished 22nd the day before steering a nearly identically-prepared Alpha Distribution Solutions no. 14 McKeansburg Hotel ride only sporting a TEO chassis. “Also want to thank Bicknell Racing Products and Penske Shocks, they’ve been helping us all year getting our cars good. Our Morrison motor ran flawless, got us the gas mileage we needed too."
“The early days, if you had a fast car, you were gonna win the race. You could pit late, fill up with fuel, put a new tire on, and a fast car would go to the front. It’s a different story now. It’s gotten to be a fuel-mileage deal over the years, but so have the Winston Cup (Sprint Cup) races.”
“We wanted to race but we just couldn’t, tried to save fuel and we ended up third. The last few Syracuse shows we haven’t finished, been wrecking and stuff has been falling off. We just wanted to finish one and make it to the checkered flag this time,” divulged Horton, while noting how fuel mileage has become a bigger factor in the race over his 37 running the Syracuse Mile.