NASCAR: Kevin Ward crafted reputation as wheelman before death
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 Monday.
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 Saturday night 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 Monday, 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 Saturday night and went to Watkins Glen to talk to him again Sunday. Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said that investigators don't have any evidence at this point to support criminal intent. Povero said Monday 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 Monday and found Ward died of blunt force trauma.
Stewart said Sunday "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 appear Saturday in a race in Warsaw, Indiana.
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