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Canandaigua, N.Y. — The raindrops stopped long enough for another Saturday night racing show at Canandaigua Motorsports Park.

It had been quiet at the half-mile track, dark after sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. was killed Aug. 9 during a race on the clay surface oval after he was struck by a car driven by NASCAR superstar Tony Stewart. Ward was 20 years old.

A scheduled show on Wednesday was canceled. There was no guarantee the season would continue, according to a post made by track promoter/owner Jeremie Corcoran.

But the fans were asked to come back in orange, one of the colors on the No. 13 winged car that Ward used to drive and slide in races all over New York state. The show at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, with blessings and some encouragement from Ward's family, was a tribute to the young driver.

"I didn't know him," said 22-year old Brandon Lewis of Webster. "I felt the least I could do was come out and pay my respect. I have a lot of racing buddies down in southern New York. It hit home down there, too.

"That's another thing I like about this track," Lewis said. "Not a lot of promoters and owners get a hold of the (victim's) family, talk to the staff about re-opening. The guy in charge talked to his own family (for guidance). That tells you that they respect the situation and not all about the money. That's big for me."

Fans walked through the gates wearing orange jackets, hoodies and T-shirts, some of which were customized with designs or messages.

"Everybody is doing it," said Derek Brown of Brownsville, Jefferson County. "Can-Am had it, but they were rained out. Everyone was wearing orange at Brewerton Speedway and at Fulton.

"It's a family thing."

PHOTOS: Photos from the tribute at Canandaigua Motorsports Park

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Mike Mallett, who calls the action at tracks on the Empire Super Sprints tour that Ward was a part of, welcomed the fans back. His voice cracked as he thanked everyone who decided to wear orange — down to their toenail polish, in some cases.

Mallett called the support shown by the racing community around the state and Northeast amazing.

Rain later stopped the racing action and caused some improvisation of a ceremony honoring Ward, but it failed to douse two tributes. Drivers and crew members of 305 Sprint car teams, with orange glow-sticks in their hands, formed a horseshoe around Mallett.

While every bulb in the infield scoreboard helped form the number 13, a sign with the same digits in Turn 2 of the track was unveiled.

A basket to collect donations of money for the Ward family was set up behind the Canandaigua Motorsports Park track's grandstands. A sponsor was inspired to donate $1,000 to the track's safety crew.

Ward's death may have had an impact across the nation. Asphalt and dirt tracks large and small, in addition to racing sanctioning bodies — including NASCAR — have formalized or vowed to enforce rules for drivers to remain in their cars while on the track.

"It was one of those nights you wished never happened," said 305 Sprint Car driver Bob Dreste of Penfield. "I knew Kevin when he was a kid at Paradise Speedway.

"He showed up at 13 and won his first race (in a microsprint), came out of nowhere. That kid loved to race.''
It is that love of racing that drew Stewart back to local tracks, even after winning NASCAR and IndyCar championships.

Stewart and Ward made contact at Canandaigua Motorsports Park during a race, which went under a caution flag period that required drivers to slow down their cars. Ward climbed from his car to confront Stewart.

Another driver avoided contact, but Stewart's machine struck Ward, who died of "massive blunt-force trauma," according to autopsy results. The incident remains under investigation by the Ontario County Sheriff's Department. Stewart has not resumed driving in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since.

"I'm so tired of reading the stuff by the media absolutely vilifying Tony Stewart," Darwin Jepsen of Bluff Point said. "It's disgusting. Nobody thinks about ruining a guy's life.

"It's crazy, he's a person."

Jepsen did point out with just as much passion about how he felt bad about Ward's fate and for the driver's family.

"Once you are a racer or around it, they are going to want you to race," Brian Thran of Irondequoit said. "It's part of racing, it's no one's fault.

"Everyone is going to remember him."

Michael Tilly of Macedon, Wayne County, said he and his wife had their doubts that the track would reopen.

"We didn't think there would be any more racing," Tilly said. "It pays respect. It's kind of tough to see something happen to a 20-year-old. I was told that in racing you have to take the punishment, but not this kind of punishment."

James Johnson writes for The Democrat and Chronicle, a Gannett company in Rochester, N.Y.

PHOTOS: Funeral for Kevin Ward, Jr.

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