Kenzie Ruston can relate so well to NASCAR star Danica Patrick.
Just like when Patrick was working her way up through the racing ranks early on in her own career, Ruston has also had to outwork other male drivers for virtually everything she’s achieved up to now.
“When I was younger, (fellow racers) thought of me as a girl first and then a racer,” Ruston told MST recently. “I feel that the older I’ve gotten, you race more older guys and they kind of understand. Once you earn their respect, they respect you and they kind of race you the way you race them.
“It’s definitely gotten easier. Back then, I used to just got taken out instead of raced. I feel nowadays, I actually get raced. I may get raced tougher at times, but you earn their respect and they race you with respect.”
Not surprisingly, Ruston has patterned her career after Patrick. But while the pride and joy of Roscoe, Ill., took a path to open-wheel and eventually IndyCar racing first before moving to NASCAR, Ruston is focused solely on making it to the Sprint Cup world.
Patrick has given her great advice on what to expect, and Ruston has put those lessons into practice.
“I just asked her all she went through, how difficult it was, how she handled some situations because being a girl,” Ruston said of the first time she met Patrick two years ago. “You sometimes have to handle things a little bit different than the guys.”
Not only has she applied Patrick’s advice to her own career, the K&N Pro Series East driver is now finding herself being somewhat of a mentor to other young girls coming up through the racing ranks.
“Girls in go-karts, Legend cars and all that always ask me for advice,” Ruston said. “I just tell them that there’s a lot of people that are going to tell them they can’t do it, so I’ve always told them just not to let that get to them or into their head and use that as fire.
“Instead of fueling the fire, just use that to fight for what you want. That’s always been my goal, to prove everybody wrong.”
The 22-year-old El Reno, Okla., native has come a long way in a relatively short period of time, having started racing at the age of 13.
“I grew up around racing,” Ruston said. “My dad grew up racing motorcycles, dirt bikes and stuff, and that’s what I wanted to do. But he never would let me on a dirt bike, so when he remarried, my stepmom’s grandfather raced dirt cars. I was always around the track, scraping dirt and all that. I was always hands-on and I told my dad this was something that I really want to try.
“We went to a track in Texas where you can rent a school car for like $20 bucks for 10 laps. A funny story, some guy came up to my dad and said, ‘Hey, your son would be really good if he was in a (race) car.’ My dad told him, ‘That’s not my son, that’s my daughter.’ I was 13 back then. I got my own (Bandalero) car a few months later and started racing.”
Her apprenticeship was admittedly rough not just due to oftentimes rough treatment from male drivers as well as her own mistakes. But once Ruston got the hang of things, she began advancing quickly.
After moving to the ranks of Legends cars at the age of 16, she enjoyed outstanding success.
“That summer I got like 39 wins or something,” Ruston said. “I won the national championship and I told my father that I thought this was something I wanted to pursue and to make it my career. I moved to Charlotte the next year when I was 17 and I’ve been chasing the dream ever since.”
She’s definitely on the right track.
Last year in K&N Pro Series East, she finished sixth in the final standings, the highest finish by a female driver in series history. She started 14 races and finished with four top-five and six top-10s.
This season, with one race remaining next week at Dover, Del., she’s eighth in the standings after 15 races, with three top-fives and seven top-10s.
She also became the highest-finishing female driver in K&N Series history when she finished runner-up at Iowa Speedway last month.
She’s in good company: she’s racing this season for Ben Kennedy Racing. Kennedy is the great-grandson of late NASCAR founder Bill France, Jr., the grandson of the late Bill France Jr., and son of International Speedway Corporation president Lisa France Kennedy.
Ruston, who turns 23 next month, is the only female member of this year’s NASCAR Next class, but with the racing chops she has acquired over the last decade-plus, she’s at home with other young up-and-coming drivers such as Ben Rhodes, Erik Jones, Gray Gaulding, Brandon McReynolds (son of Fox Sports NASCAR analyst Larry) and others.
Ruston expects to return to the K&N Series for a third straight year next season, but definitely has aspirations of moving up from there and eventually into NASCAR’s three pro ranks.
“I’ve never wanted to move up too fast,” Ruston said. “I’ve never wanted to go faster than my abilities. I’ve always wanted to prove myself at every level.
“My ideal next five years, I’d like to run one more season in K&N while also running five or six Truck races and then maybe a full Truck schedule the following year, stay in Trucks for a couple of years, and then move on to the Nationwide Series.”
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