Andy Ward cherishes a photograph from Kannapolis' 1979 Christmas parade in which he appears in the background on his grandmother's porch, with hometown hero Dale Earnhardt Sr. riding by as grand marshal.
Since he grew up in the Cabarrus County mill town, auto racing could easily have weaved its way into Ward's DNA. Instead of being a racing fanatic, though, he grew up as a light-hitting catcher and played on a couple of conference-winning A.L. Brown High baseball teams.
The irony is not lost on Ward, 38, who now is head of pit crew instruction for Roush Fenway Racing. Becoming one of NASCAR's top coaches in the past decade wasn't a career path he saw for himself, but he has settled into it quite nicely.
Among Ward's achievements is the recent recognition his Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 Ford team received as the Mechanix Wear Most Valuable Pit Crew Award in the third quarter of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. The crew, which supports the car driven by Matt Kenseth, received the award before the Bank of America 500 Oct. 15 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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Coincidentally, Kenseth won that race, his third of the season. He sits in sixth place in the Chase for the Cup standings entering today's final Sprint Cup race at Homestead, Fla.
The son of Julie and Mike Ward, a former textile engineer and one-time mechanic at a Kannapolis Ford dealership, Andy Ward grew up a block away from Jackson Park Elementary School. Small-town life included going to Grandma's house after church on Sundays, where NASCAR races and Carolina Tar Heel basketball games played on the radio.
"We were more stick-and-ball (baseball) people," Ward said. "We followed racing a little bit. ... Dale Earnhardt was always a topic of conversation."
The 1991 A.L. Brown graduate finished with a degree in exercise science and physiology from Appalachian State University in 1996. He aspired to be a strength and conditioning coach but settled for jobs in the insurance, medical and banking fields during his first couple of years out of college.
Having made a few contacts with race teams during that time, Ward volunteered to help condition the Roush Racing teams of Mark Martin and Jeff Burton in 1997. The following year, race team owner Michael Kranefuss hired Ward to train and condition Jeremy Mayfield's pit crew.
"I didn't know anything about a pit stop or what they needed," Ward said. "But I knew I could train guys and augment their performance."
Like training for baseball
Ward moved on to Roush Racing for a few years and won a NASCAR Cup Series championship with Kenseth's team in 2003. The year before, at the Unocal Pit Crew Race at Rockingham, the Roush teams he helped coach finished first, second and third.
"That was probably my proudest day," Ward said. "I probably had worked there nine months, and that was the first day Jack Roush knew my name."
After a short stint with Robert Yates Racing, Ward returned to Roush Fenway Racing in 2008. He is head of pit crew instruction, which means he's in charge of the daily practices and preparation of Roush Fenway's four Cup teams: those that support cars driven by Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and David Ragan.
During the NASCAR season, Ward averages more than 40 hours of work Mondays through Thursdays, analyzing video from races and training the pit crew teams. He spends Sundays with the teams at tracks around the country.
"Conditioning for pit stops is kind of like conditioning for baseball," Ward said. "You stand around for a long time and then have to go at it for 15-16 seconds."
Hanging on to his "stick-and-ball" passion, Ward helps coach his son's coach-pitch baseball team in Salisbury.