PORT LEYDEN, N.Y. — Kevin Ward Jr. was crafting a reputation as a wheelman, the kind of driver who could race vehicles on any track without fear.
He’d sit up on his seat, floor it, and zip his way through a maze of cars straight toward the front of the pack.
For points. For fun. Often for little money.
“He would go to tracks that a lot of other drivers wouldn’t go to,” Chuck Miller, the Race Director and President for the Empire Super Sprints circuit, said.
“If we had co-sanctioned races with other organizations where we really weren’t giving points or anything, but it was a deal where you wanted to see how you stacked up against the other competition, the Wards were willing to go and do that and see where they were at.”
Ward began racing go-karts in 1998 at age 4. In 2010, he moved on to sprint cars and was Empire Super Sprint racing rookie of the year in 2012. The 20-year-old raced mostly on dirt tracks a few hours from his home in Port Leyden, a village of 700 in northern New York.
Ward was killed the night of Aug. 9 about 140 miles away at a clay track in Canandaigua. NASCAR champion Tony Stewart was the big name in the field, racing with the young guys while he was in the area for a Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen the next day.
Ward and Stewart tangled, and Ward hit the wall. Ward walked on the track apparently to confront Stewart, and was struck when Stewart’s vehicle seemed to fishtail.
On Aug. 11, several cars were parked in front of the Ward home in Port Leyden. A police officer stood across the street, politely asking reporters not to park on the road’s shoulder.
Helen McHale has lived across the street for 30 years and remembers hearing the noise when Ward raced go-carts. Kevin Ward Sr. runs a successful painting business, and locals thought his son might make it big in the racing world.
“His dad goes to every race,” she said. “He’s a good kid, polite, big smile, and they’re a good family.”
Stewart and Ward shared a love of racing sprint cars: high-powered, winged cars built for running on short oval or circular dirt and paved tracks. Drivers have to hit the gas to turn, not necessarily use the wheel.
After the crash, Ward was standing to the right of Stewart’s familiar No. 14 car on the dimly lit track. According to video and witness accounts, Ward was struck by the right rear tire and hurtled through the air.
Authorities questioned the 43-year-old Stewart once on Aug. 9 and went to Watkins Glen to talk to him again the next day.
Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said that investigators don’t have any evidence at this point to support criminal intent. Povero said there were no plans “at this time” to talk to Stewart again.
“At this time, there are no facts that exist that support any criminal behavior or conduct, or that any probable cause of a criminal act, in this investigation,” he said.
Povero said the autopsy was completed Aug. 11 and found Ward died of blunt force trauma. Stewart said “There aren’t words” to describe his sadness over Ward’s death.
Stewart hasn’t announced whether he’ll drive in this weekend’s NASCAR race at Michigan International Speedway, but his short track “hobby” is on hold. He won’t Aug. 16 in a race in Warsaw, Indiana.
“It is still an emotional time for all involved, Tony included. He is grieving, and grief doesn’t have a timetable,” spokesman Mike Arning said.
Canandaigua Speedway promoter Jeremie Corcoran said the track has canceled the Aug. 13 event to give “my family, staff, fans, and racing teams time to grieve and process all that has occurred.”
Driver Matt Tanner, a friend of Ward’s, was a few cars back from the collision. Ward had been a good friend for years, a member of a small, tight group of drivers who traveled to various races around New York state, parts of Canada and Pennsylvania.
“I saw his car sitting there and when the ambulances pulled up I realized what was happening,” Tanner said. He hasn’t watched the video and doesn’t plan to.
“Your emotions are running so high. Stewart’s known for being competitive, and Kevin was just as competitive,” said Tanner. So competitive that he’d take his life into his own hands by stepping into traffic in a black firesuit on a dark track?
No one will know for sure why Ward made the treacherous decision to stalk Stewart.
But perhaps he was inspired by Stewart himself. Known for his volcanic temper, Stewart is among the drivers who made highlight reels by tossing helmets at windshields or throwing punches at competitors.
The action captivates fans and is part of NASCAR’s allure — and inspires the next generation to mimic the bumping and brawling of their heroes.
What better way for a young driver to make a name for himself than being the one that stood up to Smoke?
Driver Cory Sparks, a fellow driver in the race, said he and Ward became friends five years ago. He said Ward was aggressive and competitive and that the two men had “had our feuds” but that he was proud to call him a friend.
“I don’t want Kevin Ward to be remembered as a victim in a Tony Stewart accident,” he said. “He definitely had a future in this sport. He was a very aggressive driver. He was one hell of wheel man.”
Doug Elkins is a former race announcer who now writes about the sport. He had known Ward and his father for several years. Elkins said he expected rules prohibiting drivers from getting out of their cars during races will be better enforced around the country.
He hadn’t heard of any bad blood between Stewart and Ward. “Anyone would want to beat him, Elkins said, “he’s Tony Stewart.”
Memorial services will be held Aug. 12 at the Trainor Funeral Home in Boonville, New York. The funeral is Aug. 13.
(DAN GELSTON and DAVID KLEPPER)R