Kevin Ward Jr. was remembered as a “small-town boy” who loved his sport during Thursday’s funeral for the 20-year-old dirt-track racer whose car was hit by one driven by NASCAR champion Tony Stewart.
More than 700 mourners jammed the South Lewis Senior High School auditorium for the 90-minute service, a mix of tears and cheerful recollections of someone who began racing at a young age.
“Even if he had rough day, he always had a smile,” a tearful Dylan Swiernick said of his best friend and car-obsessed buddy. “We were just two small-town boys trying to make it in the big world. He was always working on something. It was unbelievable how smart he was. He never got down on himself when weren’t going his way.”
Other friends and Ward’s three sisters also spoke during the service, which filled the auditorium to capacity, with some mourners standing along the edges of the venue. Ward, a 2012 South Lewis graduate, was buried in his nearby hometown of Port Leyden, 55 miles from Syracuse.
After the service, as Ward’s casket was taken to the hearse for the short trip to the cemetery, mourners let loose helium balloons in orange, white and black, his racing colors.
Ward died Saturday night at a track 140 miles away in Canandaigua, where Stewart was riding a day before the Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen.
The accident touched off debates as video of the crash circulated online, with fans questioning whether Stewart, known for his hot temper, tried to send his own message by buzzing Ward, or whether Ward recklessly stepped onto a dark track clad in black.
Stewart was racing a day before the Sprint Cup event at Watkins Glen. After a bump from Stewart sent Ward’s winged car spinning into the wall, the young driver climbed out and walked onto the track in his black firesuit, gesturing angrily. Stewart’s No. 14 car seemed to fishtail, and Ward was thrown through the air as his parents and fans watched in horror.
No charges have been filed, but Ontario County Sheriff’s deputies are still investigating.
Ward grew up in a racing family and started racing go-carts at age 4. He moved on to sprint cars and was Empire Super Sprint racing rookie of the year in 2012. He was one of a small, tight group of drivers that traveled to various races around New York state, parts of Canada and Pennsylvania.
Racing and working on cars in his father’s shop, Westward Painting Co. of Lyons Falls, were his “double love,” Ward’s father told the Post-Standard of Syracuse this week.
“His goal was the race in the World of Outlaws,” the top level for sprint cars, Ward said.