NASCAR prospect Kenzie Ruston Raring To Go -- If She Gets A Ride
Kenzie Ruston is amid a common millennial dilemma. She's probably a bit overqualified for the job, but money is low and she needs the work.
She really hopes she nailed the job interview. She thinks she did, mostly. But she won't know for several weeks.
Such is the tenuous life of young professionals and budding NASCAR drivers alike.
"I've never really had to try out for anything like this before," Ruston said in a phone interview after undertaking the 11th NASCAR Drive for Diversity combine at Langley Speedway in Hampton, Virginia. "I just didn't know what to expect."
Ruston, 23, reached this crossroads of her brief racing career this offseason as one of 20 multicultural hopefuls auditioning for three spots with Rev Racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. The diversity program has produced high-profile graduates recently in Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson and truck series winner Darrell Wallace Jr., and a deepening talent pool has made competition ever more difficult.
"What the program has done is continued to improve the caliber of candidates for our class," said Rev Racing CEO Max Siegel. "It's getting harder to pick the class every year because we're seeing more and more consistent, high-level performances, and not a lot of separation at this point in the evaluation."
At the combine, drivers are paced through on-track lap sessions and off-track tutorials on the ancillary aspects of racing. The combine consists of evaluations in driving laps, physical fitness, résumé, communications skills, driving knowledge and media aptitude.
"I don't think I did badly. I definitely think I could have been faster," Ruston said. "I was maybe one of the more consistent ones. Still pretty confident. It's just a little nerve-wracking, and you never know how they judge you."
Ruston was, in effect, auditioning to return to a series in which she has raced for the past two seasons. In a self-described "roller-coaster" 2014 campaign for Ben Kennedy Racing, she posted three top-5s and seven top-10s in 16 races and placed ninth in points. She became the highest-placing woman in K&N history when she finished second at Iowa Speedway on Aug. 1.
Ruston's opportunity for 2014 developed when Kennedy, great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France, moved to drive in the truck series, leaving his K&N team in need of a replacement. Ruston had met Kennedy in 2013, when they were each members of the NASCAR "Next" talent identification and marketing campaign, and was quick to express interest in his race team when his plans became apparent.
Ruston lost that ride for next season as she was unable to secure funding to bring to the team. She was replaced by 15-year-old Kaz Grala, who finished seventh as the youngest driver in the K&N series this year and won a race in the Whelen All-American Series.
Kenzie has great potential for moving to the next level. No doubt in my mind she can race day in and day out, door to door, with any of these guys on any given weekend.crew chief Mike Fritts
"Kenzie has great potential for moving to the next level," said Mike Fritts, her crew chief this past season. "No doubt in my mind she can race day in and day out, door to door, with any of these guys on any given weekend. All she needs is the backing to move to the next level."
JR Motorsports general manager Kelley Earnhardt-Miller mentioned Ruston with former Nationwide Series driver Johanna Long and Rev Racing alum Mackena Bell as potential female breakout performers who "have done good things" but are in need of benefactors.
K&N East series champion Ben Rhodes deemed Ruston "really tough competition."
"She is very passionate behind the wheel," he added, "and that has made her a great competitor."
Racing became Ruston's sole sporting focus before her senior year in high school, when her varsity volleyball coach in El Reno, Oklahoma, issued an ultimatum.
"I never missed games but I missed tournaments on the weekends, and she said it wasn't fair to the other kids that I still got to play and I didn't come to the tournaments, so she kind of made me choose," Ruston recalled. "So, I said, 'OK. See ya.'"
She said the same to El Reno at age 17, relocating to the Charlotte, North Carolina, area with crew chief C.J. D'Addario to be near the epicenter of stock car racing. Her mother wasn't pleased, but her father, Darren, a former dirt bike racer, was amenable. He had hired D'Addario, 27, two years earlier to prepare his daughter's race cars.
"I thought it would work. I knew she was talented," D'Addario said. "If you want to be a professional golfer, you move to Georgia. If you want to drive race cars, you come to North Carolina. She always had a home to go back to if it didn't work out."
"For me, it was like going off to college," said Ruston, who home-schooled her final year of high school.
Ruston began racing and winning in powerful, small-track Bandolero cars at Texas Motor Speedway at age 14, finishing second in points as a rookie. She won the track Bandolero "Young Guns" championship the next season at Spring Nationals, finishing fourth nationally in points.
She went on to 39 feature wins and seven Legends car championships in 2009, becoming the first female driver to win the U.S. Legends Asphalt National Championship. Ruston began her advance through grassroots stock car series in 2010, and in 2011 became the first female to lead laps and finish in the top 10 in her ARCA debut for Venturini Motorsports. She had subsequent 10th- and 12th-place finishes in four starts. That same year, she became the first woman to win a Champions Racing Association Super Late Model event.
Although NASCAR has not released an announcement date for the new diversity class, Ruston said hopefuls were told to expect news by early December. The prospects of finding a full ride just before the commencement of the 2015 season will be sparse if she is not selected for the program. The next phase of her career, therefore, is dependent on making this diversity class and hopefully finding enough funding to buy a ride for a few NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races.
"That's where I feel like my next step is, definitely the Truck series after this next year in K&N, if I get into the Rev program," she said. "I feel like your first step is to run a couple and get your feet wet and then go full-blown the next season. That's definitely my goal."
Ruston hopes that industrywide familiarity with her performance in the series helps her diversity candidacy, but she worries that not being able to reach Victory Lane in 30 career K&N races over two full seasons will be construed negatively.
Like everyone else, she will have to wait to find out.
"Hopefully I get picked," she said, "but if not, I'm sure I will figure something out like I have in the past. I would really like this opportunity with Rev Racing. I just think it's really cool how much they support girls in racing, and I feel like it's just a really good fit for me."
And therefore worth the wait.