When Kenzie Ruston was told by an Oklahoma high school coach she had to decide whether she wanted to play volleyball or race, the decision wasn’t a difficult one.
She picked motorsports, without hesitation.
The Mooresville resident since has become the first female to win the U.S. Legends Car Asphalt National Championship and to emerge victorious in a Champions Racing Association event. She’s also been a Driver of the Year at Texas Motor Speedway and named to the NASCAR Next program.
Ruston is vying for a top-five position in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East standings with Daytona Beach, Fla.,-based Ben Kennedy Racing. With five races remaining in the season, Ruston, 22, finds herself 10th, just 19 points out of fifth.
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“I hope that I can show them this year that I can get them a win and, hopefully, a top five in the championship,” the El Reno, Okla., native said. “I feel like they went out on a limb putting me in this car this year, and I hope I can make them proud.”
Ruston is in her first season with Ben Kennedy Racing, a team fielded by the great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. She was named to the ride when Kennedy moved to NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series. Since joining the team, Ruston has had two top-five and five top-10 finishes in 11 races.
“She’s a smart racer,” crew chief Mike Fritts said. “She’s got a racing mentality that a lot of guys don’t have. People don’t expect, her being a girl, to be what I call race savvy, but she is, and I think that’s one of her biggest strengths.
“If she has the opportunity to move up to trucks or something, I think it will show up even more, because they are longer races and there’s more strategy.”
Fritts also said that while his driver was “very talented,” she didn’t “have any kind of attitude or cockiness to her.”
“If you didn’t know she drove a race car you would think she was just somebody’s sweet little daughter,” said Fritts, who’s in his first season with Ruston. “She’s very nice and polite. When she puts a helmet on she’s a race car driver, to me, as good, if not better, than most of the guys out there. She doesn’t take stupid chances, wreck people and tear stuff up like a lot of these younger boys do. She’s very smart and she’s has a lot of respect for everybody, which is a good thing as a driver.”
Like many drivers, Ruston, the younger of two girls, grew up around racing.
Ruston’s father, Darren, raced dirt bikes in the Oklahoma City area, while her step-grandfather, Jerry Morrison, competed in dirt cars throughout Oklahoma.
Prior to her debut in a Bandolero, Ruston rode four-wheelers, ran track, was a cheerleader and played soccer, basketball and volleyball.
Ruston still laughs about the remark an onlooker made to her father when she stepped into a Bandolero for the first time at Texas Motor Speedway.
“A guy came up to my dad and said, ‘So, your son’s really good. If he had a car that was set up and his tires cut right, I feel like he would do pretty good,’ ” recalled Ruston, who at that time was living with her mother in Garland, Texas. “He said, ‘Well, that’s not my son. That’s my daughter.’ ”
At 14, Ruston began competing in Bandoleros, and in her rookie season finished second in the TMS standings. The following year she was the speedway’s Bandolero Young Guns Spring Nationals champion and placed fourth in the national standings.
Ruston advanced to the Legend cars at 16, competing in the Semi-Pro and Young Lions divisions. In Texas’ Young Lions, she finished third in the standings in the Winter Series, then focused on two summer series.
Ruston finished second in the standings in Texas’ Summer Stampede and in the top 10 in Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Summer Shootout. She also raced mini sprints on dirt “for fun” for about two years.
At 17, Ruston moved to North Carolina with C.J. D’Addario, who oversaw her cars. Her mother wasn’t pleased about her daughter relocating to the Tar Heel state, but her father had no problem with it.
Ruston, who viewed D’Addario as her big brother, equated the move to going to college. She began dating her boyfriend of nearly five years soon after moving to North Carolina and quickly made friends in the area.
Ruston won the 2009 TMS’ Winter Series, Summer Stampede and was voted that track’s Driver of the Year. That year she also earned the U.S. Legends asphalt title.
Ruston moved to super late models in 2010 and finished 12th in the PASS Series Southern Division standings. The following year she competed in more than 20 super-late-model races and made her ARCA debut with a 10th-place finish at Toledo (Ohio) Speedway.
In October 2011, she won her Champions Racing Association race at Lucas Oil Raceway Parkway in Indianapolis.
Last year, Ruston made her NASCAR K&N Pro Series East debut with Mooresville’s Turner Scott Motorsports and became the highest-finishing female in series history with a third-place at Greenville-Pickens (S.C.) Speedway.
She ended the season sixth in the standings, the highest for a female in the series, and was named to the NASCAR Next program. The ride with Ben Kennedy Racing followed.
“I’ve always been a firm believer that you don’t move up until you prove yourself in what you’re racing,” Ruston said. “I’ve moved up but not too fast. I hope in 10 years I’m in Nationwide or Cup.”
Fritts also hopes Ruston’s career progresses.
“I don’t want to see her career end because of sponsorship or something like that,” he said. “I just hope she can keep moving up and find the right people to help her. I think she will really impress everybody when she gets up to the next level.”
MDHRA Pro Tree Racing returns to Mooresville
Mooresville Dragway Heads-up Racing Association Pro Tree Racing has scheduled an event for Aug. 16 at the Mooresville facility. The classes in the series are 7.0, 6.0, PTE, 7.90 Junior Dragster, Outlaw 275/28 Drag Radial and Outlaw Open.
GoPro Motorplex slates Enduro
Registration is underway for GoPro Motorplex’s Aug. 10 six-hour rental kart endurance race.
Officials at the Mooresville facility are assisting individuals with team placement and offering a “Speed School” prior to the event. The cost is $900 per team with a minimum of two drivers.
Rain alters Hickory schedule
Hickory Motor Speedway officials have made several changes in its racing schedule due to the inclement weather that forced cancelation of July 19 events.
Round 8 of the Paramount Kia Big 10 Chase for the Championship is now set for Aug. 9, with Round 9 on Aug. 16.
Twin events have been added to Sept. 6 to make up for July 19, with the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Late Model Stocks, Limiteds, Street Stocks and Four Cylinders featured. The Renegades and Sportsman Racing Classics have been added to the Aug. 2 schedule.
Breuer victorious at Carolina Speedway
Mooresville’s Dan Breuer won the July 18 Late Model feature at Carolina Speedway. Johnny Pursley of Clover, S.C., took second, while Stanley’s Jay Sessoms rounded out the top three.