Entry Into The Dirt Modified Hall Of Fame Cements Pat Ward’s Place As A “Giant” In Racing History

Story By: BUFFY SWANSON / NORTHEAST DIRT MODIFIED HALL OF FAME – WEEDSPORT, NY – “The Genoa Giant,” second-generation driver Pat Ward of Genoa, NY, long a stalwart on the Central New York racing scene, has been selected for induction in the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame.

Ward, the only addition for 2021, will join the held-over Class of 2020 — including drivers Brett Hearn, Harold Bunting and the late Joe Donahue — as they are honored on Thursday evening, July 22 at the Museum and Hall of Fame on the grounds of Weedsport Speedway in New York. Tentative plans call for pre- and post-program festivities, sponsored by the speedway, with formal ceremonies at 7 pm. The free event is open to the public.

Ward grew up surrounded by race cars in King Ferry, NY. “My dad raced, all my uncles raced. I can remember ’em all having cars out in our yard — we had no garage or nothin’,” he looked back. “When I was six or seven years old, they used to set me in the seat and I used to ‘steer’ and ‘race’ while they were working on ‘em.”

Pat’s father Bud raced an old Hudson hobby with a flathead six, at tracks in Waterloo, Weedsport and Dryden in the 1960s. “My dad won 11 out of 17 races one year with his Hudson, I remember that,” Ward reminisced. “My uncle Chet won a lot of championships at Skyline. He used to dominate there for a lot of years, driving for Jimmy Podolak. Good memories, right there.”

Ward followed his family into racing when he was a high-school sophomore. “In 1973, me and my dad built a Late Model Mustang — got it out of the junkyard, put a roll cage in it,” he said. Starting out at tracks like Weedsport, Skyline and Rolling Wheels, “we didn’t have a lot of success,” Pat admitted. “That was when they were beginning to build Late Models at Show Car and other places. I just had a junkyard car.”

By 1979, he moved up to the Modified ranks, running a blue #43 Pinto as his dad was still racing the family 42. “I don’t think I ever qualified for a race with it, to be honest. It was hard times,” Ward conceded. “I had absolutely no money.”

Nonetheless, he managed to scrape enough together to buy a used Mod from Show Car Engineering’s Howard Conkey. “Howard had a car in the shop for sale — Wes Moody had flipped it at Syracuse, he only ran it one time. Howard rebuilt the whole thing and talked me into buying it,” Pat recounted. “I hadda go to the bank and take out a loan — it was maybe $5,000 or something.

“That’s when I started running really well,” he noted. “We weren’t winning because I still had our homemade motors, but I was running top five at Canandaigua against some really good guys.”

The “good guys” Pat was pitted against each week were the best in the business: Alan Johnson. Will Cagle. Bob McCreadie. Danny Johnson. Yet, he was able to qualify each week, finish in the top 10 consistently. People began to notice. “I actually started to get some sponsors out of it,” he said.

In 1982, Ward went to work for Howard and Aida Conkey at Show Car. “That’s when things really started to turn around for me,” he said of the opportunity.

“At first, he was building chassis and fabricating. Pat was such a good employee that Howard taught him how to use the CNC machine after we started the machine shop,” Aida Conkey related. “He was a fast learner — and so happy to do whatever Howard asked. It was a very, very good relationship.”

Howard Conkey, a Hall of Fame builder with a reputation for innovative engineering, took Ward under his wing. “I’d walk in there Monday morning and he’d call me over first thing — ‘What did you think? What was going on?’ He’d tell me what to do, I’d do it — and it always helped,” Pat pronounced. “He never drove a race car, so I don’t know how he did it. But he had it figured out.”

Plugging away, Ward won his first Modified feature in 1987. “Howard let me build a new car at the shop during weekends and after hours. Brought it out and we started running Fonda regularly,” he reported. He scored that first win in a twin 20 program, over all-time Fonda favorite Jack Johnson, who became a friend.

“Jack was really helpful — always gave me used tires that he was getting rid of,” said Pat, who also picked up support from Dick Myers and Gorge View Lanes for the Fonda effort. “We won a couple races there that year.”

That momentum was accelerated by a B&M motor Ward purchased from Alan Johnson. “Alan sold me one of his motors that his dad had built. I think I won four or five races the first year out with it,” he said of his first professionally-built powerplant. “Alan was sorry he sold it to me, I know that!”

Pat took his first stab at the Super DIRT Series in 1989, driving for R.C. Putnam. Then he was back in his own equipment until 1995, when he started a successful six-season stint in John Finch’s #56, which produced 26 wins, including an SDS event at Can-Am and a Labor Day 50 on the Syracuse mile.

In 2000, a sponsorship from Gypsum Express owner John Wight turned into an offer for a full-blown ride. Ward has driven for Wight’s “red team” ever since, with current stablemates Larry Wight and Billy Decker. The team’s Bicknell cars have been powered by engines built by Kevin Lamphere since 2008.

There are two things that can be said about Pat Ward: he steadfastly sticks with it, no matter the odds; and he’s a nice guy who’s maintained friendships and steered clear of controversy his entire career.

To the first point, Pat has come from hardscrabble beginnings to record wins in five decades, from his first victory in his own car at Fonda Speedway in 1987 to his most recent win at Land of Legends on June 6, 2020, driving for John Wight’s Gypsum Express team. Strung between those stanchions are 143 more victories, earned at 17 tracks in New York, Pennsylvania and Florida. Among his career highlights: the Syracuse Fair race in 1998; the 2012 Outlaw 200 at Fulton; a pair of Florida tour titles; championships at Can-Am, Utica-Rome and Fulton speedways; three consecutive ROC Dirt Modified championships, from 2007-2009; and the 2004 overall Mr. DIRT 358 series title.

“We followed the whole tour that year. Didn’t start out planning to, but we got to running good and decided to stay with it,” Ward said of the 23-race DIRT 358 series in ’04. “It was down to me and Alan there for the last half of the year — every week, we’d switch the lead back and forth, for points. I think I ran top three everywhere we went with that car.”

He credited team manager Scott Jeffery, who came aboard that year along with star driver Billy Decker, with “changing everything for us,” Pat proclaimed. “I don’t want to put anybody down, but I think he’s the best mechanic out there.”

To the second point — that “nice guy” appraisal — Ward’s loyalties and longtime relationships speak volumes.

Jennifer Saville has been with Pat since they met in high school, never missing a race in all that time. “She’s a wonderful girl — no matter what, she was always with him and on his side,” said Aida Conkey, who went on to talk about leaning on Ward in 1989, when a fire decimated the Show Car shop and Howard was diagnosed with cancer.

“In the early ’90s, Howard was in the hospital for three years, on and off. If it wasn’t for Pat, the shop probably wouldn’t have kept going,” she confided. “He was just so loyal. No matter what I asked him, he always did it.”

Likewise, Ward has established an enviable 20-year relationship with John and Laura Wight, both personally and professionally. “They’re definitely my second family, that’s for sure. All of my family has passed away, pretty much. I’m very lucky to be with them, and see Larry grow up and get married and have kids.”

Now a force to be reckoned with everywhere he races, John and Laura’s son Larry was the little guy who shadowed Ward in the Gypsum shop 20 years ago. “He’d be struggling to lift a tire up and put it on my car when he was eight years old,” Pat chuckled. “Now, look at him! I’m just proud as heck, as if he was my own son or little brother.”

As for his own career, at age 64 Ward looks back and wonders at the success he had, against the kind of cutthroat competition that would make other men weak. “I raced against everybody when they were in their prime! At Fonda, I had Jack, Lape, C.D., Ray Dalmata. At Canandaigua and Weedsport, I had Bob, Will Cagle, Alan, Danny, Billy, Fuller, Sheppard. Then I went on the series — ran against Brett, Doug Hoffman, Horton, Brightbill, Cozze,” he listed the legendary names. “Now, Larry’s getting into his prime.

“I was thinking about that the other day. I don’t know how the heck I won any races, running against that crew!”

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