By 10:30 a.m. Central time today (about 30 minutes into her first practice), Kenzie Ruston will have a good idea if she can win the NASCAR K&N Pro East Series race at Iowa Speedway starting at 8 p.m.
“It just depends on how you unload off the truck,” said Ruston, a 22-year-old native of El Reno, Oklahoma, who has been in Des Moines since Tuesday doing media advances for opening weekend at Iowa Speedway. “First practice you’re going to know if you are going to be decent or not, especially in the K&N stuff, where you don’t get a lot of practice.”
Ruston, in her second year in the K&N Series, recorded four top fives and six top tens in 2013 to finish as the runner-up for Sunoco Rookie of the Year and sixth in the overall standings. This year she drives for Ben Kennedy Racing. The K&N Pro East and West series are 15-race developmental leagues for NASCAR and race primarily on ovals of one-third to one-mile, with two road races on the East schedule this year (Watkins Glen and Virginia International Raceway). Many of the K&N drivers and crew aspire to move up the ladder to Campingworld Trucks or NASCAR Nationwide.
Ruston said because of the limited practice time and lack of pit stops in K&N, it’s usually apparent very early in the race if there’s cause for great optimism behind the wheel.
"You know by lap five if you are going to have a car that’s going to be decent,” Ruston said. “At that point if you think you have a good enough car to win you wonder if there is anybody else who’s going to have a good car too. You just hope at the end of the race that you’ll have the car that dominates.”
Much of the frustration and fascination with racing comes from how many variables have to align to create an opportunity for victory. Car setup, track condition and temperature, driver skill, how the yellows flags fall during the race, and so many more. That’s not even considering getting punted or caught up in some other driver’s on-track drama.
Ruston said she usually knows if the stars are at least in partial alignment very quickly, and that in the K&N series you learn to work with what you got.
"We get one shot. A soon as you start the race you got what you got,” she said. “It’s really difficult to get you car just perfect. In our series sometimes you’re not going to have a 100% of what you need just because you don’t get a lot of practice and you don’t get any pit stops. If you can get it 90% of what you think you need to win you’ll be in great shape.”
And when it’s bad, the yellow flag – which creates an opportunity to pit for adjustments to the car -- becomes your best friend.
Even pit stops aren’t a sure thing in K&N, which is designed to be more of a sprint race than a marathon.
"Some races we do get pit stops that helps but a lot of the races we don’t so it’s hit or miss. You hope the track stays the same as it was in practice and usually it doesn’t, so you have to adjust to that. So many different things and you just hope you got it right in practice.”
Ruston has been racing since 2006 when, at age 14, her father took her to a small track near Texas Motor Speedway. “Bandoleros,” which are similar to quarter midgets but with a full body, were Ruston’s racing gateway drug.
She finished second in points in Bandoleros at Texas Motor Speedway in both 2006 and 2007 and was the Bandoleros Nationals champ at TMS, Oklahoma state champ and fourth in national points in 2007.
Ruston moved up to Legends in 2008 and finished second in season points at TMS along with top-10 finishes at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Summer Shootout and the Young Lions Nationals.
The year 2009 was a breakout for Ruston, when she earned seven championships, including the National Legends Championship, Winter Series, Summer Stampede, and overall series title at TMS, where she was also named the track’s Driver of the Year.
In 2010, Ruston transitioned to Super Late Models and competed in PASS South. In 2011 she earned a CRA pole and won a feature at Lucas Oil Raceway, and led laps and finished in the top 10 in an ARCA event. In 2012 she finished second in the ARCA/CRA Super Series standings and was voted the Speed51.com National Short Track Most Popular Driver.
Ruston says her driving style varies from track to track. Iowa Speedway is the K&N version of a superspeedway, Ruston said, so she drives a little more cautiously.
"On the short tracks, I’m a beat-and-bang person, coming from the Legend cars,” Ruston said. “I’ve always said you race people like they race you. So if someone is going to race me dirty, I guess I’ll race them dirty. If we are going to race with respect, we’ll race with respect that day.”
Like every driver, Ruston builds up a mental database about how each of her competitors tends to race.
”When you race with these people on and off all year round you learn how everybody races and you learn how to race people and how you can’t race people. How much you can give them and how much they’re not going to give you when you are in that position.”
Ruston said every move up to a new level of racing starts with a bit of an informal rookie initiation phase.
"You have to gain respect before you go out there and race people awful or rough or whatever,” she said. “I think every series you go to you have to gain respect.”
Ruston came to racing at a relatively late age (an elderly 14), so many of her competitors in K&N are younger than her 22 years. Still, she’s not in a hurry to bound up the NASCAR developmental ladder.
“Last year I got called old for being in the K&N series. People don’t understand that I didn’t start until I was 14 and a lot of kids start when they are four and five years old. I kind of feel like I am on my own path right now and the K&N series is where I belong right now and that I need to prove myself and win races before I can move up to the next level.”
Iowa Speedway hasn’t been overly kind to Ruston.
"I’ve never had that good of luck here. We finished 12th here last year. The first year I raced here I blew a right front, so that was no good,” she said. “I like it. The bumps give it a characteristic that you have to work around. I like place that have those things that you have to work around, and it’s not just have at it.”
The K&N Pro East Series practices from 10 to 11:20 a.m. and 1 to 2 p.m. today (Saturday), with qualifying at 4:35 and race time for the Casey’s General Store 150 is 8:30 p.m. NASCAR Nationwide races Sunday at Iowa Speedway, with the green flag for the Get to Know Newton 250 set for 1 p.m. For the full weekend schedule at Iowa Speedway go here. For tickets, visit iowaspeedway.com
Kenzie Ruston is the 26th Woman of pressdog®, joining Sarah Fisher, Danica Patrick, Erin Crocker, Johanna Long, Pippa Mann and more. Check out the full list here. For more on Kenzie's path to NASCAR go here. Learn more about Kenzie on her site at GoKenzie.com. Follow her on Twitter at @KenzieRuston.