Kevin Ward Jr.'s father and fellow racers want the 20-year-old driver remembered as a talented and aggressive competitor who had a bright future in the sport rather than as a victim in an accident involving NASCAR champion Tony Stewart.
The funeral on Thursday was set for South Lewis Senior High School in Turin, 55 miles from Syracuse. Ward, a 2012 graduate, lived in nearby Port Leyden.
Ward was killed Saturday night at a dirt track 140 miles away in Canandaigua. The accident touched off angry 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.
Kevin Ward Sr., who was at the track with his wife Pamela, told The Syracuse Post-Standard this week that Stewart was the best driver on the track that night, and there was no reason for him to hit the young driver after other cars avoided him.
"The one person that knows what happened that night is possibly facing 10 years in prison," Ward said. "Is he going to say what he done?"
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.
"His goal was the race in the World of Outlaws," the top level for sprint cars, Ward said.