TURIN, N.Y. (AP) — Kevin Ward Jr.'s friends, family and fellow racing enthusiasts overflowed a high school auditorium Thursday to grieve and share stories about the 20-year-old dirt-track racer who was struck and killed by a car driven by NASCAR champion Tony Stewart.
With Ward lying in an open casket decorated with racing flags and piled with orange flowers, his family's team colors, mourners shed tears and laughed at favorite stories about the boy who began racing when he was barely more than a toddler. The 90-minute service was held at the South Lewis Senior High School auditorium to accommodate crowds of people from the close-knit central New York racing community.
"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 things weren't going his way."
Ward, a 2012 South Lewis graduate, was buried in his nearby hometown of Port Leyden, 55 miles from Syracuse.
"He was an amazing sprint car driver and had a family like no other," his cousin, Amanda Ward, said in a eulogy. "We used to tell him before every race, 'Drive it like you stole it.' He never let us down."
His sister, Kayla Herring, said the orange and white lapel ribbons worn by family and friends were to signify that the team colors would remain bright, even in the darkest times.
There was barely a dry eye in the auditorium as a recording of the Dixie Chicks singing "Godspeed, little man, sweet dreams, little man," was played at the request of Ward's mother.
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.
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