Story and photo by Rhonda Beck
Let the NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series playoffs begin! Well, they actually kicked off last Thursday, August 15, with Brett Moffit winning the first race on the playoff docket in Bristol, TN. He leads the seven other drivers into this weekend’s race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ontario. The 2.459 mi (3.957 km) road course is the second track on the series’ first playoff stage.
Last Tuesday, the playoff drivers gathered for a press conference in Charlotte, NC to talk about the 2019 season and the upcoming races. Three of the drivers, Austin Hill, Johnny Sauter, and Stewart Friesen, gave their input on some of their successes and challenges as well as their thoughts on the promotion of grassroots racing.
Austin Hill won at Daytona and Michigan during the regular season and finished 10th at Bristol. Currently seventh in the playoff standings, he said he spends lots of time out at the short tracks and involved with local weekly racing series.
“I go out to Myrtle Beach Speedway and I go to a lot of the other races and help out my buddies that race late models. I’ll spot for them, do stuff like that. I go out to Charlotte Motor Speedway when they do the Legends cars, when they have the Summer Shootout. I ran Bandoleros and Legends cars out at Charlotte. So to be able to help young kids and driver-coach and teach them things I’ve learned through the years, I think it’s really cool,” said Hill.
One local racer Hill has helped is Carson Ferguson of Charlotte.
“I know him really well. I actually practiced in the car he won in this year, broke in some tires for him. Cool to help him out,” said Hill.
Ferguson, who has been very successful at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Bandolero and Legends cars and is currently racing crate late models on dirt and leading the FASTRAK series, appreciates the help.
“He broke in my tires and was my spotter for a couple of races. The Legends cars allow you to have spotters now. They know what you want to hear and what you need to hear,” said Ferguson. “I always knew who he (Hill) was just from driving the 48 Legends car. This year we kind of worked together with scuffing tires and spotting-wise.”
Another driver recognizing the importance of grassroots racing is Johnny Sauter, the 2016 NASCAR Trucks Series champion and one of the veterans in the playoffs. He finished 11th at Bristol and currently is sixth in the playoff standings.
“I think to really get things back to where everybody is happy, you’ve got to continue to promote the grassroots racing,” said Sauter. “All across the country there’s a lot of good short track racing going on Saturday nights and for that matter, on Sundays, Fridays and whatever. I think that’s where your contingent hard-core fan comes from and you got to do a lot of things to cater to those people.”
Stewart Friesen knows short track racing first-hand, spending years as a very successful dirt modified racer. The Canadian finished fourth at Bristol and currently is third in the playoff standings.
“I grew up in the Northeast at the D.I.R.T. modified dirt tracks. It was fitting to get our first (truck series) win on the dirt at Eldora. The short track racing I see every week in the Northeast with the dirt modified stuff has probably been stronger than it’s been in years as far as car counts, purses, fan turn-out go. It’s been a good cross-pollination of both entities—big-time racing and short track racing.”
Hill, Sauter and Friesen are looking forward to the races ahead and have some tracks they prefer.
Austin Hill is ready for Las Vegas and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
“I think for sure Las Vegas has to be at the top of my list just because last time we were running inside the top five early in the race and then we had an issue that got us out of the race,” said Hill.
Hill also likes the road course.
“In years past I ran pretty good at the road course. I ran there at Canadian Tire only once . We were eighth last year with Young’s Motorsports and I felt that was a really good effort to run top-ten with those guys. I have high hopes going into the road course and Las Vegas,” said Hill.
Hill thinks that short tracks like Martinsville can be more of a challenge.
“I like Martinsville. It’s just one of those racetracks that when it gets down to the end of the race you might get moved up the racetrack or you might not,“ said Hill.
Hill said that was the case for him earlier in the season at Martinsville.
“We had about an eighth-place truck, but we had a green-white checkered and kind of got moved up the racetrack and we finished 16th. With these short tracks you just never really know what’s going to happen. You just gotta try to execute and be there all day long and when it comes down to the end or the last few laps, try to make the right moves at the right time and not get moved out of the way.”
For Johnny Sauter, this time of year the racetracks all get better for him.
“There’s some in the summertime that aren’t exactly my favorites. I like Bristol and although a lot of people dread Talladega, I like it. Las Vegas is a place where I got my first-ever win, so that’s special to me.”
Sauter admits that the playoffs are challenging.
“You can go and get caught up in someone else’s mess and you can find yourself out of it. But it’s the same for everybody.”
Sauter doesn’t give a lot of thought, though, to how the playoffs and points are being handled or might be changed in the future.
“People have opinions on that, but I’m the guy who honestly is just always focused on the next race. I don’t look at points. Wins are great for me. If you win races, the points take care of themselves.”
Sauter wouldn’t mind seeing different racetracks on the schedule in the future.
“There are a lot of great racetracks throughout the U.S that we could go to. That’s not up to me to make those decisions, but I wouldn’t mind if they changed things up a bit.”
Stewart Friesen is glad to be in the playoffs and to have gotten his first win this year, but admits there have been challenges moving into the truck series.
“I grew up on the Northeast modified dirt tracks. We raced Syracuse and that was a lot of pit strategy,” said Friesen.
There are different aspects that go into running a truck.
“This is a team effort and it’s been a little frustrating at times when you can’t recognize the problem and fix it. It’s been tough, but as a group we’ve gotten better and stronger. We finally won one at Eldora which was fitting to get our first win on the dirt,” said Friesen.
Friesen will be heading into this weekend’s race after running the course in 2018 for the first time.
“Last year we went into Canadian Tire, it being in the playoffs, and not having run a road course before. So I am a lot more confident, going in there with some more experience now.”
Another thing that is important to Friesen, which racing has helped to spotlight, involves the charity work he and his wife Jessica are involved with.
“Our son Parker was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at a year-and-a-half… early on. And we were able to get hooked up with some good schools and great teachers and it’s done wonders for him. He went from not talking to now he won’t shut up. It’s been great,” said Friesen who credits his wife for all the work she’s done.
“We’ve been able to use our platforms with the truck series and short track racing to raise some money for the Crossroads Center for Children for autism awareness. Being that we see it first-hand, we were able to see some of the deficiencies and see where the school needed some help and weren’t getting the funding. My wife spearheaded a bunch of different fundraisers and I’m really proud of her. She’s done a lot of work for it; it’s been really good and rewarding.”
Friesen will be in his home country this weekend vying for his second win of the season. Seven other playoff drivers and the rest of a talented truck field won’t be making that easy.