IN THE MOMENT WITH JESSICA ZEMKEN
She’s smart, pretty, and quick as the wind tunneling
down that racing-rich Mohawk Valley of upstate New York. Her partner
is megastar Dirt Modified driver Stewart Friesen.
season she’ll be leaving her Sprint Car and tearoffs at home on
Saturdays. Following a spectacular maiden appearance at the Oswego
Classic last fall, she will be full-time aboard the Corr-Pak/Ray
Graham big block Supermodified on the pavement of the “Steel
I have been following Jessica Zemken for years,
having known her family from back when I was racing at Fonda.
Clearly JZ has reached a tipping point in her career and her life.
Here’s what she has to say:
I remember it so clearly. It was
2008. We were at Ohsweken up in Ontario for a World of Outlaws
Sprint Car race. It must have looked like a struggle and it was.
There were just the two of us, Mom and me, the car, no spares, same
set of tires all night long. We had qualified through the B main and
were getting ready for the A. Mom was under the car changing the
gears, and this guy walked up to me and announced he wanted to help.
No one had ever said that before, so I asked him what in the world
he meant. He said he wanted to sponsor me! I couldn’t believe it. It
was John Brush of Corr-Pak Merchandising. And let me put it this
way: I have talked with John and his wife, Wendy, every day since.
It’s hard to explain how tough the road has been.
(Otto Graham Photo)
My mom is an optometrist in Ft. Plain (NY). My
dad had a repair shop and always raced stock cars. Mom went to
Boston for her training so she could improve our lives, so during
the week I was with Dad a lot – and, of course, I went to watch him
race on the weekends.
I just loved the cars – and Dad’s guys
became like my brothers. I never wore pink or a dress. My hands were
greasy. Guess I was supposed to be a boy.
really thought so. How she preached that girls don’t get dirty and
garages are for rednecks.
Then, when I was six, Dad got me a
fun field kart, and a couple of years later I saw a couple of girls
racing real Karts. I had never thought that was possible, and I was
on it and started racing competitively. By 14, I had a Sportsman car
at Fonda, a half-mile dirt track. That was pretty intimidating. It
sure was more complex than the Kart or the way it looked from the
stands. I found it especially difficult that people wouldn’t take me
seriously, or they’d say the only reason I got the opportunity was
because I was a girl. But even my grandmother began to turn around
in 2004 when I won the Utica-Rome track championship and seven or
eight features. Meanwhile, my dad’s mother has been my biggest fan
since day one.
I just had to keep going. Going into
Sprinters was a challenge, but not as much as from the Kart to the
Sportsman. Sure, the speeds were pretty noticeable at places like
Knoxville, Eldora, and Williams Grove, but it’s all I’ve ever known.
It like an adrenalin rush that over time becomes more comfortable.
I found I tend to run better when the track is slick and you
have to be smooth and keep your tires under you. I like it when the
track gets wide so it’s not just about horsepower and equipment.
It’s more about the driver and the setup.
A JZ kind of track
(Otto Graham Photo)
But what has never been easy for me is the thought of that next
race. Constant pressure, always worrying about how we would get
there. The needle always pointed to me. Who’s around to help the
next couple of days, can I afford all the pit passes, do we have the
right setup, did I check the shocks, the air density?
God for John and Wendy, who have been 100 percent responsible for me
being able to hit the track every weekend for the past six seasons.
I am so appreciative of their support, and now John and Corr-Pak
have pieced together and sponsored our Oswego effort. The Classic
last year was such a cool experience. I did get to practice a lot
the week before – Otto Sitterly helped me, and Ray Graham.
John and Wendy Brush
(Otto Graham Photo)
It was fast and very tricky with that huge fuel load at the
beginning. I knew not to wear out the brakes early with all that
weight, and we were in the top ten at lap 75. Looking good, and then
I tangled while lapping a car. I will have to learn more about how
each of these guys drives.
I’ve never run an Asphalt Modified
or Pavement Sprint Car, but I am ready for this. The scariest thing
for me in racing has been worrying about that preparation stuff.
I’ve crashed, had concussions, broken vertebrae. At the Copper
Classic at Manzanita in 2007 I was in a Midget for the second time.
Someone blew, and I flipped down the backstretch, into the wall, and
into the trauma center for 24 hours, no clue who I was.
Knowing I might get hurt doesn’t affect my mind when I strap into
the car. I have confidence in my driving. And it will be wonderful
this year not to have to worry about all those adjustments – and the
pit passes – really for the first time in my career.
no idea what will come next. Stew and I talk about it all the time,
that we are both living our dreams, doing what we love day to day
and are lucky enough to share that. We’ve started putting down our
roots with our new house. When will we have a family? What does that
mean? How long will each of us race? I guess it’s not a big rush.
Stew is 30, and I am 27. Actually, I don’t believe it ever gets
easier for a woman in racing. What would happen with children? The
racing lifestyle has all those special challenges.
But, I am really looking forward to this summer, both in that cool
Pavement Super and in my Sprinter, and to settling into our new
home. And, you know, Stewart won that huge final Modified show in
North Carolina last fall. We were really happy and we made a stop on
the way home and got a puppy. We named her “Charlotte.”
|Getting to know that Super
(Otto Graham Photo)
© 2014 Lew Boyd
- Coastal 181