TURIN, N.Y. (AP) — They came to grieve and share stories about Kevin Ward Jr., who was born into a racing family and buried with racing flags in his casket.
A high school auditorium overflowed with friends, family and racing enthusiasts Thursday in tribute to the 20-year-old driver, who was hit on a dirt track by a car driven by NASCAR champion Tony Stewart.
With Ward in an open casket piled with orange flowers, his family's team colors, mourners wept and laughed at favorite stories about the boy who began racing not long after he began walking. The 90-minute service was held at the South Lewis Senior High School to accommodate crowds from this tight racing community in central New York.
"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," 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."
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.
A recording of the Dixie Chicks singing "Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)" 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.
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. Stewart did not race at Watkins Glen and said Thursday he won't race this weekend at Michigan.
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.
After a bump from Stewart sent Ward's car spinning into the wall, the young driver climbed out and walked onto the track in his firesuit, gesturing angrily. Stewart's No. 14 car hit him 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 races around New York state and 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 to race in the World of Outlaws," the top level for sprint cars, he said.