Dirt-track racers feel loss, but keep on racing

Canandaigua Motorsports Park was empty earlier in the week, but racing returned on Saturday night.

Mel Evans)/Getty Images


At $2,000 a pop for winning, they’re not doing it for the cash.

With maybe 1,500 people packing the weathered wooden bleachers on a good night, rule out adulation, too, as the motivation.

And forget about it serving as catharsis to wipe away sadness when tragedy strikes.

"It’s not healing, it’s what we do," local sprint car standout Darryl Ruggles said Saturday, standing beyond the far turn at Canandaigua Motorsports Park hours before the track’s first event since the incident last weekend in which driver Kevin Ward Jr. died when he was struck by the car driven by NASCAR Sprint Cup star Tony Stewart.

Hundreds of fans lined up at the gate waiting to get in, with many of them clad in orange shirts in keeping with the theme at many tracks in the northeastern United States and southern Ontario this weekend. On Friday night, officials at Ohsweken Speedway also encouraged fans to wear orange in memory of Ward, who had scored a second-place finish at the Canadian track in a car featuring orange racing stripes one night before his death.

Ruggles, too, wore an orange shirt bearing the words, "In loving memory of Kevin Ward Jr."

"Last night, I was at Brewerton," he said, referring to a track 90 miles northeast of Watkins Glen in upstate New York. "The grandstand bends around the turn a little bit, and I’ve had many nights there where you could pick someone out in the stands. Last night, forget it. It was orange from top to bottom."

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Ruggles, 48, was competing Friday in the Empire Super Sprints series, the same circuit that was featured in Canandaigua the previous Saturday when the Stewart-Ward incident happened. Racing for fourth place, he got caught up in a mess and crashed.

"I flipped my car about nine times at Brewerton," the Canandaigua resident said matter-of-factly. "That’s what we do.

"The car weighs 1,400 pounds. That’s why when you flip, you flip for hours."

Ruggles, the exception Saturday as most drivers politely declined interview requests, was competing last week in the race in which Stewart struck Ward after the young driver wrecked, exited has car and attempted to confront the Sprint Cup Series veteran while competitors were proceeding under a yellow caution flag.

Ward was pronounced dead on arrival at nearby F.F. Thompson Hospital.

Ruggles, who was at the far end of the half-mile oval when Ward was struck, referred to the accident as "one of those tragic deals. We’ve lost racers in the past as well as track officials, and it’s tough to deal with."

Though Wednesday’s scheduled card at Canandaigua Motorsports Park was canceled, Ruggles, winner of six of the season’s first 13 sprint car events here this season in between working at his collision shop, had little doubt that racing would return soon and that he would be part of it. His first victory was in street stocks there with a black V-6 Camaro three decades ago, and he’s won in seven divisions along the way.


"When something like this happens, everyone joins together," he said. "I know the funeral service (Thursday) was awesome with a large turnout and support for the family. Kevin would have wanted us to go on racing. The Ward family was there last night at Brewerton; it was part of their grieving process."

Ruggles said drivers at small tracks are mindful of the sport’s danger — cousins Denis Taney, a driver, and Fred Taney, a flagman, were killed at Canandaigua in 1980 and 1997, respectively — but not deterred by it. He pointed out that everyone faces unexpected danger at times.

"There’s risk involved here, just like there’s risk when you’re out driving and a deer runs in front of your car.

"Unfortunately, Kevin let his safety net down and got out. I pray that, if anything, we learn no one should get out of his car."

The fact that it was Stewart’s car that struck Ward resulted in attention far beyond what fatalities in the sport typically attract — a reporter saying she flew 12 hours from Ukraine to work on the story showed up at the door of Ruggles’ daughter during the week — but Stewart’s appearance the night before he was scheduled to drive in the Sprint Cup road track race at Watkins Glen was not promoted.

"Last year when they hyped the race, they packed the place," said Billy Brown, 47, of the nearby town of Webster as he waited out rain in the top row of bleachers before the races. "They didn’t advertise it this year. I kind of suspected he might be here because of Watkins Glen. It might have been a bigger deal if people had known."

The lack of publicity may have been in part due to what happened last year in Canandaigua.

Ruggles’ daughter, Alysha, got caught up in a wreck that Stewart quickly took the responsibility for, and she suffered a broken bone in her back.

Alysha Ruggles, 20, has resumed racing and is second to her father in the track’s season point standings. Dressed in jeans and an orange shirt, she declined interview requests Saturday while patiently detailing the brand labels on her car’s tires with an orange marker in another tribute to Ward.

Her aunt, Debbie Hance, described the family’s relationship with Stewart in the aftermath of that wreck as cordial.

"They never blamed Stewart for what happened that night," Hance said.

On Saturday, Stewart’s name didn’t come up at the track. Rain that had threatened beginning in the late afternoon finally won out after the prelims. Track officials called off the remainder of the prelims and conducted a 10-minute ceremony in remembrance of Ward, unveiling a sign in Turn 2 with his car’s No. 13 and firing 13 volleys of fireworks into the cool mist over Central New York.