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Kevin Ward Jr. started young, loved to race

By Steve Almasy, CNN
updated 11:49 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kevin Ward Jr. finished second in his first race -- when he was 4 years old
  • He had a lot of potential, director of racing series tells USA Today
  • Four years ago, he was the rookie of the year in his circuit
  • Neighbors remember him as polite, a good guy

(CNN) -- As soon as he could, Kevin Ward Jr. got in a race car. As soon as he could, Kevin Ward Jr. started winning races.

Ward was just 4 years old, not even in school, when he got behind the wheel of a go-kart. In his first race, he took second. In the next eight years, he won 250 events and six championships, according to his racing website.

Racing was his passion, people who knew him said.

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"He loved it," his next-door neighbor, Robert Shue, told CNN affiliate WSYR.

"He's just a good kid, a hard worker. He loved doing what he did, and he loved his family," Vicki Shue told the station.

Ward died Saturday night from injuries suffered when he was hit on a small dirt track by the race car of NASCAR star Tony Stewart. The 20-year-old had gotten out of his car after a tangle with Stewart caused him to spin out, and he appeared to want to vent his anger at the three-time NASCAR champion.

Police are investigating to see if criminal charges are warranted.

When Ward was little he would hop in a go-kart and drive it until it ran out of gas. Then he would put some more fuel in and go so more, family friend Steven Mooney told CNN affiliate WHAM.

People could see him riding his bicycle as fast as he could up and down the streets of Port Leyden, a village in upstate New York.

"He was always polite. He always said, 'Hi,' when he rode by," Larry Loomis recalled.

As he grew bigger, Ward raced bigger cars. He moved from go-karts to Micro Sprints (and won 30 more times) then moved to Sprint cars.

He was the Empire Super Sprints series rookie of the year in 2010 when he finished seventh in the points standings.

This year he was going to try to squeeze 31 races into a six-month schedule.

Mooney said Ward, who was brought into racing by his father, was an above-average driver.

Chuck Miller, the director of the Empire Super Sprints series, told USA Today the young driver had potential.

He showed a lot of promise and talent," Miller said. "On the track, you couldn't tell him apart from a veteran. He had that kind of talent."

But there isn't a lot of money in sprint car racing, even for the winners.

After high school, Ward followed his dad again, going into the family painting business.

His father was there to support his son's racing career.

"His dad was right there with him every time," the mayor of Lyons Falls, New York, Katie Liendecker, told the Charlotte Observer.

The family released a statement Sunday thanking friends and fans for their support, but requesting time to grieve.

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