This Saturday, an Oklahoma woman will be among the drivers at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina for the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. Kenzie Ruston, a 21 year old from El Reno, will be racing for the second time in the series. She made her debut on March 16, finishing 11th out of 40 drivers at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. She has been named a Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate.
Ruston is a star on the rise in the circuit. Since 2009, she has racked up dozens of championships and is the first female to win a Legends Car National Championship.
Although she is only in her early 20s, she's been around racing her whole life. Her father races motorcycles and her grandfather used to race pro stock at the Oklahoma City Fairgrounds. As a child, Ruston wanted to race dirt bikes, but said her dad wouldn't allow it.
That's when she turned her attention to car racing.
At 12, she got her first taste behind the wheel. She was living in Texas with her mom at the time and her dad was in town for a race weekend. He called her one afternoon to come out to Texas Motor Speedway and she tested a bandolero car, an entry-level miniature stock car, at a fifth mile behind the track. That's when the racing started, and it hasn't stopped since.
"He called and I went over there one afternoon and we tested a bando and I think we got like 10 bucks for 50 laps," she said. "After that it was over."
Ruston moved back to Oklahoma her freshman year of high school. Her car was here and she wanted to start taking her racing career more seriously.
"At first it started as a family fun thing," she said. "My dad would travel down to Texas when I lived in Texas then I started competition and I couldn't stop."
In 2010, Ruston moved to Mooresville, N.C. – also known as "Race City USA" – to make a go of it as a full-time career. She said it consumes her life; everything she does is centered on racing and increasing her ability as a driver.
"It's an everyday deal," Ruston said. "You have to eat right, and workout, and go to the shop. It's just a whole life deal. I'm hoping to make it a career. That's what I'm shooting for."
Ruston may be in a male-dominated sport but she has role models who are increasing the visibility of women in racing. She lists Danica Patrick and Johanna Long, a 20 year old NASCAR driver, as inspirations in her own career.
"They're out there trying to show the boys what they can do," Ruston said. "I just hope they can capitalize on it so people in NASCAR give more girls a chance; because if they can go out there and do well then they can think maybe girls can actually do this."
Ruston is also paving the way for women in racing. In addition to being the first female to win a Legends Car National Championship, she's also the first to lead laps and finish top 10 in an ARCA debut, to win ARCA/CRA Super Series feature, to receive fast qualifier award for ARCA/CRA event, and the first to be honored as Speed51.com's "Most Popular Driver."
It's not always easy being a woman in the male-dominated world of racing and Ruston said she's faced numerous challenges along the way.
"I had my struggles," she said. "I mean the guys always race you harder than another guy out on the track. They're always like, ‘I don't want to get beat by a girl.' But I don't think out there on the track I'm a girl. I just think I'm another racer out there trying to go for the win."
She encourages other up-and-coming women drivers to work hard and not give up on the dream.
"It's hard," Ruston said. "You definitely get criticized a lot more because there's not as many girls in the sport, so if you do something wrong it is way bigger. If you do something right it is way bigger than any guy. It's just something you really have to work for and if you want it that bad you will stick your mind to it and you won't quit until you get to the top."
Ruston is on her way to the top and her determination is backed by a solid support system that includes her sister, who she says is her biggest fan.
Ruston's drive is also fed by her refusal to lose.
"I am just so competitive. I hate losing," she said. "I'm probably the worst loser."
Her dream is to compete alongside her role models Patrick and Long in NASCAR.
"Ever since I started racing it's been my dream to make it to NASCAR and I'm just so close that I can't stop now," Ruston said. "I guess the drive in me is just my competiveness and willing to work hard."
As she races to take her career to new heights, she said she hopes she can leave her mark in the racing world.
"I just want people to remember me," Ruston said. "I just want people to say ‘Man, not that she was just a female driver, but she was a great racer and she just showed those boys how to get it done and win races and win championships.' That's what I want people to remember me by. I just hope I get that opportunity to show people I can do it."
If her finish in Bristol, Tenn. over the weekend is any indication, she's well on her way to achieving it.