Sitting at an Iowa Cubs baseball game in Des Moines on May 16, Kenzie Ruston’s eyes sparkle at the mention of Knoxville Raceway about 45 minutes down the road.
“The first races I saw when I was younger were sprint car races,” said Ruston, a native of El Reno, Oklahoma, who is in her second year in the NASCAR K&N Pro East Series and racing for Ben Kennedy Racing. “That’s what I grew up around so I wish I could get in one (a winged sprint car at Knoxville). I know a lot o people freak out about them and the safety and stuff, so I doubt I’ll ever get to drive one.”
If she ever did get into a sprint car, chances are the self-described “highly competitive” Ruston probably wouldn’t be content to just cruise around the track.
“I grew up playing every sport there is to play, except softball. Basketball, track, volleyball, just really involved in everything, cheerleading too.”
She set all he other sporting endeavors aside during her first race ever, held on a small track outside Texas Motor Speedway, when she was introduced to racing’s combination of competition and adrenalin.
“I knew right way (racing was her passion),” she said. “When I started racing bandoleros the people I raced with, it was the first race ever for all of us. We all grew up racing against each other. I knew in my first race when I was leading and I got spun out. I knew right then it was something I had to do. I knew it was something that I had to conquer.”
So does the Fierce Competitor ever drop the occasional F-bomb on her in-car radio during races?
Ruston smiles. “Oh … geez .. maybe,” she says with a laugh, “If something really bad happens. But I am pretty laid back on the radio. I might have that split tick-tick moment. Other than that I’m pretty calm.”
Ruston’s Path to NASCAR
Ruston’s father, Darren, who raced dirt bikes, might not be too calm to hear his daughter talk fondly of winged sprints. Ruston said she grew up wanting to race dirt bikes like her dad, but dad said no. It had nothing to with gender and everything to do with the savage pounding dirt bike racing inflicts on riders.
“I think he said ‘You’ll never wake up every day feeling like I feel every day when I wake up,’” Ruston said. Instead, at her dad’s suggestion, Ruston got into “bondaleros,” similar to a quarter midget but with a full body.
“My dad didn’t want to put me in a go-kart,” Ruston said. “People wreck and get hurt really bad. Bondaleros were racing in Texas, where I lived with my mom at the time, so it was the closest thing to me and it just worked out.”
Ruston took to the pavement like a natural, rising through Legends cars and into K&N in 2013. She returned for her second campaign in the series in 2014 and finished 16th at Iowa Speedway on May 17. Story about Kenzie's race at Iowa here.
Even while her day job was racing on asphalt, Ruston enjoyed getting dirty now and then.
“I raced mini-sprints on dirt while racing Legends cars,” she said. “It was kind of a fun thing when I started racing dirt because my asphalt things were so serious and I was running for championship and all that, so when I ran the dirt stuff it was a relief and fun and get to do something different.”
There’s different, and then there are the 410 sprint cars which are racing’s version of bull riding: brief, powerful and elevated danger, even by racing standards.
“I love it though,” Ruston said. “Those are some of my favorite races. I love going to the World of Outlaw shows. All that stuff.”
NASCAR Next Program
While it’s interesting to ponder what might have been, Ruston’s path has taken her into the world of stock cars and asphalt where she’s more than held her own. (More about Ruston's accomplishments here.) She’s was named to the NASCAR Next program in 2013 and 2014. NASCAR Next is an overarching industry initiative to help spotlight NASCAR’s rising stars. In addition to competing on various NASCAR series across the country, NASCAR Next members participate in several media and promotional activities throughout the year.
Ruston and her NASCAR Next classmates made appearances around Newton and Des Moines in advance of last weekend’s races, including a visit to a pediatric ward at a Des Moines hospital and an autograph session before the Iowa Cubs game on May 16. They also get to do media events alongside NASCAR Nationwide and Cup drivers.
“We get to do so much cool media stuff,” Ruston said. “Last year went to the Contenders Live at Chicago. It’s really cool to see what they go through at the Cup level. We got to go to Daytona 500 media day, which is intense. They’re there at 8 in the morning till 5 at night doing commercials like that (Ruston gestures to a NASCAR promo on the television inside the Iowa Cubs suite). It’s really cool to see how much you have to go through when you get to that point.”
Ruston said she’s ready to meet the media expectations that increase with every level of racing. While acknowledging it’s “part of the job,” she also acknowledges that the expectations for drivers to be involved in finding and keeping funding can also be frustrating.
“It’s hard,” she said. “It really it makes you angry somtimes. You feel like back in the day it was all off of talent. They went out and scouted drivers and brought them to the race team they already had funding. It’s really hard that it just takes so much money to get into it. Kind of disheartening sometimes. You always have to think if it’s meant to be it’s meant to be.”
Being part of the NASCAR Next class elevates the drivers’ profiles, but Ruston said she’s still in no danger of being recognized and besieged for autographs away from the track, and that’s fine with her.
“Some people get into racing because they want to be famous, you know what I mean?” she said. “I’ve never been that person. I just love the sport. My goals are championships and to just be the best racer I can be. I know a lot of people say ‘do you want to be the best female?’ But I don’t want to be the best female. I just want to be the best I can be and if that’s holding every women’s record there is in NASCAR then that’s what it is, if not then I’m OK with that too.”
Racing is an up-and-down life and Ruston said perhaps it would have been a good move to get a college degree as a back-up plan. But that’s not how the cards played out for her. Bondaleros at TMS led her into the NASCAR feeder system, whereas racing in dirt-track-intensive Oklahoma might have put her on a path to Knoxville Nationals. Ruston seems to have no regrets and is taking it as it comes for as long as it comes.
At age 22, it’s not as she’s in the final lap of her career. But, when her career is over, Ruston said she wants to be able to say “I gave it a hell of a run. I gave it all I got and that’s what I want to leave with. I want to leave at the top of my game.”
Kenzie Ruston is the 26th Woman of pressdog®. View the entire wopd lineup here. For more on Kenzie's background and approach to racing, go here. Learn more about Kenzie on her site, GoKenzie.com. Follow her on Twitter @KenzieRuston and check out her Facebook page, facebook.com/KenzieRuston. For the remaining 2014 K&N East Pro schedule, go here.