SPORTS

Kevin Ward's No. 13 car has final race with childhood friend behind the wheel

09/14/2014 02:37 EDT | Updated 11/13/2014 05:59 EST
OHSWEKEN, Ont. - When Kevin Ward Sr. decided his late son's No. 13 car should compete one last time there was only one possible driver: Dylan Swiernik.

Swiernik and Kevin Ward Jr. were childhood friends, trading parts and fixing each other's cars since they started racing go-carts in kindergarten. But all of that ended when Ward Jr., 20, was killed at Canandaigua Motorports Park in upstate New York on Aug. 9.

More than a month later, Swiernik was driving Ward's sprint car in its last competition — at Ohsweken Speedway on Saturday night in the 10th annual Canadian Sprint Car Nationals. Ohsweken Speedway was the last place Ward Jr. finished a race, the night before he died.

"Dylan has always been like a son to me," said Ward Sr., who is also close friends with Dylan's father Terry Swiernik. "And Kevin was always like a son to Terry. It felt only fitting."

Kevin Ward Jr. was killed after being struck by the car of three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart. Ward had spun out as he and Stewart raced side by side. The younger driver then walked out onto the dirt track to confront Stewart, who was still racing.

Investigators have concluded the investigation into the deadly collision, but won't release their findings until later next week.

Ward Sr. owns the sprint car his son drove and couldn't stay away from the track for long after Kevin Jr. died. The Swierniks and the racing community rallied around Ward when he returned.

"Our family has received so much support from the racing community since Kevin died," he said. "I think it was healing for them to see me back at the track."

Taking on the challenge in tribute to his friend was no easy feat for the younger Swiernik, who hadn't raced a sprint car for a year since switching to street stock cars.

Despite that, Swiernik, from Port Leyden, N.Y., did well to honour his friend's memory. He ably handled No. 13 at Ohsweken Speedway, finishing 14th out of 30. He had started at 23.

The elder Ward saw Swiernik as the natural choice to take the No. 13 out for one last race, given how tight the young drivers were.

"We come from a small town of about 800 people," Ward Sr. said. "They were two kids who grew up together. They were two peas in a pod since they were five."

Kevin and Dylan raced go-carts until they were 11, then moved on to micro sprints before taking on sprint cars at 15.

Swiernik spoke at his friend's funeral about growing up with Ward, calling them "two small-town boys trying to make it in the big world."

Now that Dylan has honoured his friend Kevin with one last race, Ward Sr. plans to sell the whole operation.

"Life just isn't the same without him," he said.

Ward said his son was more than just the car's driver. He worked on it five to six nights a week and was dedicated to making No. 13 the best it could be.

And all that hard work paid off. Ward Jr. had competed in four editions of the CSCN by the age of 20, including a top 10 finish in 2011.

"He was accomplished for his age," Ward said. "He was like a sponge. He asked a lot of questions and just soaked up the answers."

Mitch Brown of Brantford, Ont. won the Kevin Ward Jr. Young Stars Challenge on Friday evening. The 13-lap race, featuring the youngest 13 drivers at the CSCN, will be held annually to honour Kevin Ward Jr.

Jessica Zemken, 28, made history Saturday night as the first female to win the CSCN, which has a top prize of $12,000.

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With files from The Associated Press

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