Town coping with Ward Jr. tragedy

LYONS FALLS, N.Y. -- The garage bay at Westward Painting Co. had been a workplace and a workshop and a museum-in-progress. Kevin Ward Jr. and his father had built race cars there, and the trophies the younger Ward had pursued for 15 years lined the walls and stretched to the ceiling.

On Saturday night it became a memorial.

Ward Jr.'s death on Saturday after being struck on the track by Sprint Cup driver Tony Stewart at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in a sprint car race quaked this tiny interlocked collection of hamlets of just a few thousand residents. With Ward Jr.'s parents ensconced in their nearby home off Kelpytown Road and much of the large family there paying condolences, friends and well-wishers fumbling not to intrude pulled into the quiet gravel lot off Laura Street at the sight of an open bay door.

They would step inside. They would gaze again at the trophies, the timeline of a budding career that began neatly in the upper left corner of the room with the go-kart Ward Jr. literally ran treadless in his backyard at age 4. Obvious from a distance was the Ward Racing banner and a panel from a car with Ward Jr.'s slanting "13" hanging near the ceiling. More subtle, in proximity only, was a bumper sticker on the wall reading "The Cannibal, Kevin Ward Jr., The Sun Never Sets On A Badass."

The passersby would gaze and pause and almost every one of them would utter the same word as they turned to leave.

"Sad ..."

Steven Mooney's large family has intertwined with the Wards for 45 years. They attended local schools together, trekked to Florida to paint houses for a while and many of them began racing on the scores of short tracks in this upstate expanse between Syracuse and Montreal. When their kids did the same, they became their fans.

Standing in the shadow of the garage bay, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a likeness of the 20-year-old Ward Jr.'s sprint car and neon orange and black No. 13, Mooney hoped aloud that the family wouldn't take all these memories down. He knew it wasn't his place to even have an opinion. But he hoped it would stay.

"This helps a little bit because it's so sad," he said Monday. "It's awful sad but you look at the good times up here that we had. All these 15 years, all the fun, the traveling.

"I wouldn't say he was consumed by it. It was still fun. It wasn't, 'You gotta race this weekend.' Nothing like that. Everybody enjoyed it and this right here is what we did with him for 15 years."

While the aftermath of the accident in an Empire Super Sprint Series race was spiked with vitriol, the mood in these rolling green hills by Monday was of a small community trying to move to a next phase of grief, or yearning for the seclusion it had known before the death of a popular and talented local kid made the town a footnote in the history of a world-famous NASCAR driver.

With barely 700 residents and one stoplight, Ward Jr.'s hometown of Port Leyden is a tiny village on the southern rim of the Adirondacks, still stung by the loss of the furniture factory and pulp mill, a mix of quaint homes with ornately painted wraparound porches and others more hard-bitten by time and circumstance. Halved by the Black River, its dot on the map became smaller when the boat canal was abandoned in 1900. Blending fluidly with neighboring Lyons Falls and Lyonsdale, it is differentiated only by the names on the tidy red banners hung from telephone poles. It's a place where neighbors actually wave to each other at the one stoplight.

It's a place that collectively lowered its visor and politely began refusing to say much about the 20-year-old seemingly everyone in town knew, and liked, after the Ward family requested privacy to grieve.

Everyone knew Ward Jr. at Lock 96, a gas station, restaurant and de facto community hall off Route 12. The lady selling ice cream there, whose kids all attended local schools with him, the elder men arguing about block motors at a picnic table outside, the woman behind the counter of the grocery on Main Street who was a classmate -- they all honored the family request.

But left for a moment of consideration, almost all of them felt compelled to offer something. And it was almost always the same, but genuine in its simplicity.

"He was a good kid ... just a good kid."

"As a kid, he liked to have fun," Mooney said. "He went to school activities just like a normal kid. Raised hell a little bit, but he worked hard. It wasn't all just play."

Ward Jr. was described in his obituary as the head mechanic and a painter for his family business since age 16. His progression as a sprint car driver suggested he might make his little upstate town notable as the home of a big league professional one day, like Regan Smith from Cato, a hundred miles to the southeast. In an odd coincidence, Smith replaced Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Chevrolet on Sunday at Watkins Glen International when the three-time Cup champion opted not to compete.

Part of the difficulty of coming to terms with Ward Jr.'s death has so far been the circumstances around it, the murkiness of intent and consequence in the video clip of his death that so many in Port Leyden cannot bring themselves to watch. That Ward Jr. left his car to apparently confront Stewart under caution after their on-track incident seems out of character, Mooney said.

"I mean, he'd get fired up once in a while if somebody spun him or crashed him," he said. "But I've never seen him in a fight with anybody or hear him bad-mouth anybody. A regular kid. Like all of us he'd get a little hot once in a while, you know? But as far as being in trouble, getting hot-headed, flying off the handle and stuff like that, no."

The outpouring of respect from the entire region has been heartening, say family members, who also wish not to be named to heed the request of Ward Jr.'s parents, Kevin and Pam. Adirondack International Speedway canceled its racing card on Monday, in part, it said, because of Ward Jr.'s death. So many are expected to attend the funeral on Thursday that it will be held at South Lewis Senior High in nearby Boonville, where Ward Jr. graduated in 2012.

"Basically, the whole family showed up at Kevin's on Sunday," a family member said. "They put it on the radio to ask for time to themselves because so many were in and out."

At the family business on Monday, a crew continued its work as scores gathered to pay respects at the family home. Ward Jr. was the youngest of four and the only son. First nicknamed "Budster" and then "Junior," he has four uncles and two aunts, all living near Port Leyden.

Terry Swiernik isn't family, but hurts like it. It's worse for his son, Dylan. And that pains him deeply, too. Swiernik was handling phone calls in his small corner office of the cinder block Lyonsdale Highway Department building on Monday, balancing a FEMA visit and confronting emotions that he and his 20-year-old son were sharing together. Being busy was no distraction. Swiernik's son, Dylan, was best friends with Ward Jr., attended school with him, began karting at the same time. They drove through two feet of snow to race go-karts indoors on the concrete in Syracuse last winter. Swiernik still remembers the day: Dec. 12.

When Swiernik's sponsors and family could no longer muster the $75,000-$100,000 needed to run for a season in the Empire Super Sprints Series, he switched regimens as Ward Jr. pressed on. Pressing on from this will take a while, he said.

"He was just like my own. ... Treated him like my own kid," Terry Swiernik said, eyes welling as he diverted his gaze out his window. "They were two peas in a pod there, my boy and him. That's what they loved to do, is race.

"If we can get through these next few days and get to the funeral ... so sad."