As the year 2019 comes to a close, we at Speed51 are taking a look back, not just at the past year but an entire decade of short track racing. Our work will culminate with a top 10 list of the drivers who have performed the best and have left the biggest mark on the sport in the 2010’s.
But, before we get the those answers, we are starting our retrospective by asking a couple of questions. Throughout the history of civilization and short track racing there have been debates about who is the best at what they do. Over the past 10 years, drivers with tremendous talent have put up truly amazing statistics that put them next to many of the legends of the sport.
Across all racing disciplines, competition has become so tremendous that even the best drivers have had to share the spotlight, garnering some of the most intense rivalries in the sport’s history. Whether it’s full-bodied or open-wheel cars on either pavement or dirt, there is so much to examine. So, we will take the time to present the evidence for these great drivers, as we debate who is the best.
To start things off, we’re going to the dirt tracks of the Northeast U.S. and South Central Canada, home of the distinctive Big-Block Dirt Modifieds that call the region home. Our first two drivers under the microscope with the biggest numbers and fanbases in the last decade: Matt Sheppard and Stewart Friesen.
While Big-Block giants like Brett Hearn and Danny Johnson have maintained their legendary careers all through the last decade, Sheppard and Friesen have risen to become the primary dominators after the two almost simultaneously rose to stardom in the first decade of the new millennium. Separately, they became undisputed kings of their respective weekly tracks, while often clashing for race wins on the Super DIRTcar Series, Short Track Super Series and a number of big-money races.
Again, we will only be examining driver stats from 2010 to the 2019 season. Without further ado, lets take a look at the performance of each driver this past decade.
First, the case for Matt Sheppard. The 37-year-old Waterloo, New York native entered the decade with plenty of wins, but without a major touring championship. That would be a stat he turned around year after year it seemed. Indeed, it would be the sheer numbers that have become the greatest argument towards “Super Matt” earning the moniker of the decade’s greatest in the Big-Block Modifieds.
Just starting with the title numbers is staggering enough. In the Super DIRTcar Series, all seven of his titles came in a nine-year period which includes 59 series wins, that of course being the same series where the best drivers come out to compete for title aspirations. Those seven titles have him second on the all-time champions, just one away from tying Brett Hearn’s record of eight, a mark he narrowly missed in 2019.
However, Sheppard still managed to end the decade with a bang in 2019 with a combination of touring and home track success. He became the first driver to sweep the Short Track Super Series North and South championships, in addition to winning his third straight American Racer Cup, a sweep which netted him an extra $57,000 on the year.
Sheppard’s home track dominance has also bagged him five Mr. DIRTcar Big-Block titles, most recently in 2019. A 2010 track title at Weedsport was only the beginning of his Empire State glory which has seen two titles at Outlaw Speedway, three at Utica-Rome Speedway, four at Brewerton Speedway, and an amazing eight at Land of Legends Raceway in Canandaigua, New York.
Three DIRTcar Nationals titles at Volusia Speedway Park (FL), the 2016 RoC Dirt Modified title, and a hard earned win at the 2017 edition of the Super DIRT Week Big-Block 200 at Oswego Speedway (NY) are some of the bigger stats of his 271 wins in Big-Block and Small-Block Modified competition since 2010. By our count, Sheppard has won an impressive 31% of his 872 starts this decade, with an average finish of 5.56.
Head to head against Friesen in the races they have run together, Sheppard also holds the edge with 93 wins versus Friesen’s 70.
Perhaps most amazing of all is that some of “Super Matt’s” greatest numbers, particularly in Super DIRTcar Series, came after he went his separate way from the powerhouse HBR team and began fielding his own race team full-time starting 2016.
Of Sheppard’s opponents, only his main rival of the past decade has posted such impressive numbers, the other subject of our examination.
The case of Stewart Friesen, 36 years old from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, has also been one of the major success stories in the sport of Dirt Modified racing, while following a different championship trail most of the time. That different path has even led to his career aspirations taking a different direction to another discipline of auto racing in the past few years, but we’ll come back to that.
Already a proven touring driver, Friesen was a home track monster the first half of the decade. He won five straight titles at Utica-Rome Speedway on Sunday nights, while he racked up six straight Saturday night titles; first at Five Mile Point Speedway in 2010 and 2011, then four at Fonda Speedway from 2012 through 2015.
In that time, his touring prowess came through in season championships, winning the 2013, 2014, and 2015 titles on the former Race of Champions Dirt Modified Series, and taking the Short Track Super Series North trophy in 2015, while winning the STSS South in 2016.
In the Super DIRTcar Series, Friesen has only one full season in the past decade, that in 2016 when he came in runner-up in points. Running partial or majority schedules the rest of the time, “Mr. Freeze” has iced the competition in Super DIRTcar Series 24 times for wins.
The overall stats: 208 wins in 807 starts this decade, for a winning percentage of 26% and average finish of 6.78 in Big and Small Block competition. Mouth watering numbers to say the least, but to a cold eye, still second-place to Sheppard. That said, Friesen has managed some massive feats of his own that also leaves a desire in younger drivers.
The Big-Block Modified portion of Super DIRT Week has long been considered the holy grail of Northeast Dirt Modified race wins, whether it was the late “Moody Mile” at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse or the new home at Oswego Speedway. Friesen has claimed the prize five times in his career, four at Syracuse, including the final two ever run at the Fairgrounds. He also became the first to win at Oswego in 2016.
Another great race on the Dirt Modified calendar, the 200-lap Big-Block feature of Eastern States Weekend at Orange County Fair Speedway has become a playground for Friesen, winning in 2016, 2018, and again this past fall. He also has two Gator titles in the DIRTcar Nationals in 2011 and 2014 to boast as well.
While some may argue that Friesen’s move to running full-time in the NASCAR Truck Series the past three seasons has dirtied his Dirt Modified reputation, there are many that say the opposite, and they even have stats to back that up. Over the 2017, 2018, and 2019 seasons, Friesen has still managed some remarkable numbers, scoring 49 wins in 163 races, a 30% winning percentage. The 2018 season being the most impressive, with 20 wins in 50 starts that year and claiming the most Super DIRTcar Series wins out of any driver that year with five.
All this while building up a race winning and championship contending NASCAR Truck team, not bad at all.
Two remarkable stars of the dirt in the Northeast, while on two different paths, have managed to capture great glory for themselves and their teams along the way, building tremendous fanbase and career legacies which will have so much more added in the upcoming decade.
It will be a debate that will go long past this showcase, keeping the fanbases going back and forth for the foreseeable future. Be sure to be on the look out for more driver debates throughout the next week, and stay tuned for the Top 10 Short Track Drivers of the Decade on Speed51.
Let us know which Big-Block Modified driver you think is the best driver of this past decade by voting below.
-Story by: Connor Sullivan, Speed51 Content Specialist – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Stats provided by: Third Turn, Race Stat Central NE Modified Facts, Auto Racing Research Associates
-Photo credit: Speed51