Howie Ware grew up idolizing two race car drivers – NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin, and ARTGO Challenge Series champion Joe Shear, who was a late model driver at Rockford Speedway.
Ware is now a seasoned driver at Rockford, a high-banked quarter-mile asphalt oval NASCAR Whelen All-American Series sanctioned track in Rockford, Illinois, where he won his first sportsman championship in six tries at the track last year.
For that championship, Ware had Martin and Shear on the car with him.
Ware’s car number, 36, was same as Shear’s, and he painted his car to match a 1981 paint scheme Martin sported. The paint job even got some love from Martin, who liked a photo of the car on Facebook.
“Them being my two drivers growing up, and I won a championship. That felt pretty cool. That meant more to me than winning a championship,” Ware said.
Ware had been trying for a championship in Rockford’s Community Bargain Hunters Sportsmen Division for five years before finally winning a title. He had finished second four times, “and that got old” he joked. The championship was the first in his 32 year racing career.
Racing wasn’t something Ware grew up doing, but he and his dad and uncles would go to the track and watch on Saturday nights, and he always had the urge to give it a try. In 1987, he bought his first car, and raced it for about 15 years.
“I heard there was a race car for sale that was already built. I gave $200 for it and went out and gave it a shot,” he said. “It wasn’t as easy as you think it is. Those corners come awfully quick. It’s like the people in the stands and they’re up there ranting and raving about passing somebody. It’s not that easy.”
In 1992, he switched from the car to the pit crew, working for Bobby Wilberg, who won six straight late model championships at Rockford. Ware volleyed between the pits and the cars for the next two decades. He got the chance to race full time again in a road runner he bought with a friend in the early 2000s.
“We got the car done and we went out for the first opening night, and the guy had never been in a car before and he thought he was really going fast and realized that he was being passed by girls so he didn’t like that,” Ware said. “So he ended up telling me to take the reins and go ahead and drive it because he had no ambition to do it anymore. So I did that for probably five or six years.
“Then I ended up selling that car and bought a sportsman car and been in it, this is my seventh year.”
Getting wins and a championship was nice for Ware, and after all these years he still gets a thrill with the speed of the car and going around corners. But at the end of the day none of that is what makes him happiest on the track. Just like Mark Martin and Joe Spear, Ware has become an idol to other young race fans. He’s usually the last driver to leave the track after races, because he spends so much time letting young fans come down and get autographs and candy and sit in the car.
He also has grandchildren who are just as big a part of the team as the crew chief and spotters. His 5-year-old granddaughter, Kennedy, has taken a particular liking to the sport. It means a lot to Ware for her to help him out.
“The car doesn’t get loaded until she is ready to load it, or she doesn’t leave until the car is loaded,” Ware said. “So she sits on my lap on my left side and kind of just rides into the trailer with me and she helps close the doors and undo the power cords. She’s into it and I’m hoping one of these days that she’s the one that will be wanting to get into something in racing.
“I have grandkids that come out and watch me. That’s one of the biggest things why I keep going. I’m kind of starting to get burned out on it, but seeing them come out and watch me race, that’s deep down inside. Because I know some day they’re going to want to get into that kind of stuff. So I will be selling my stuff to put them in something, I can see it now.”
Ware keeps it in the family with his crew too. He’s joined by his brother Greg Ware, Doug Fermanich, Steve Stoltz, his son Mike Noordwal, grandson Ashton Noordwal, and Caiden Stoltz.
A first lap accident leading to a DNF last Saturday took Ware out of the lead in the points standings at Rockford, but he’s firmly in third with a win and seven top fives with five races remaining. If he’s not able to get the championship trophy back, Ware is hoping to at least pick up a few more wins.
No matter what happens, he is just hoping for a good rest of the year with his family by his side.
“We’ve got a lot of tough competition this year,” Ware said. “I hope we can at least finish second if we can’t get it. But we won it last year so I guess I’d be greedy if I won it two years in a row.”
NASCAR racing will return to Rockford Speedway this Saturday for the Cintas Kids Night, featuring Late Models, Sportsmen, American Short Trackers, Bandits, Winged Women on Wheels, Bandit Figure 8, Sixers, Spectacular Drags beginning at 7:07 p.m.