Kenzie Ruston's career has flourished since she moved to North Carolina to pursue her racing dream three years ago, but her heart is still tethered to Oklahoma and her family that still lives in the Sooner State.
It was family that brought her back home May 20.
Ruston's cousin was graduating from high school, and had begged the 21-year-old NASCAR K&N Pro Series East driver to attend. Ruston did. Her airplane landed at 2:30 p.m. At 2:56 p.m., an EF5 tornado touched down in Moore, Okla., and would decimate the area over the next 39 minutes.
Ruston and her sister were helpless in the car, which was pelted by sheets of rain and hail. Eventually, they picked up a weather station on the radio. The host reported that the tornado was barreling down Highway152.
"We were on 152," Ruston recalled in her hauler last week at Iowa Speedway. "We were freaking out. We didn't know (until later) that it was five miles south."
A close call, for sure. But it wasn't over. And the next incident would be far more personal.
Eleven days later, the widest tornado ever measured tore through El Reno, Okla. That's Ruston's home town. The twister was 2.6 miles wide and reached speeds of 295 mph.
"It was just devastating," Ruston said. "It destroyed my aunt's house. Destroyed it. I grew up playing with all my friends, hanging out at that house. My sister and my dad were at my mom's house in the storm shelter when it happened. They didn't have electricity, so I was on the phone with them trying to keep them updated."
The images that came in were startling and heartbreaking. The second tornado cut a huge swath of destruction in El Reno, taking out whole neighborhoods and obliterating natural land. It was tough for Ruston to absorb.
She is a Midwest girl at heart, after all, one who grew up in open fields and plains, who cut wheat on a combine with her dad every summer under the hot Oklahoma sun. Often times she'd wind up back-roading, going way out in the country with her windows down, letting the kicked-up dirt roll in through her window as the radio blared some country song.
"I'm a country girl. What can I say," Ruston said with a smile. "That's who I am."
The driver had never experienced a tornado firsthand, although the house she grew up in certainly had a storm shelter -- which she, to this day, calls a 'fraidy-hole. Her dad still owns a trucking company on Interstate 40 in El Reno. The land around it is in shambles. His buildings and stock suffered no damage.
"My family means everything to me," Ruston said. "I have a lot of support from my family, and my close family friends."
It's because of her family that Ruston is even racing. As a young girl, she tagged along with her dad when he raced his dirt bike. By age 8, she was begging for a ride. He constantly told her no.
"I will never let you wake up in the morning and feel like I do," said her father Darren Ruston, who ravaged his knees on the two-wheelers.
Instead it was cars that hooked Kenzie. At a NASCAR race at Texas Motor Speedway at age 12, there was a promotion to ride on the smaller circuit at the facility. Her family plunked down $50 for 15 laps.
"That's what started it," Ruston said. "It was kind of a fun family deal so we could get together on the weekends. It turned very serious after that."
Still, Ruston started her career at age 12 -- which is something of a geriatric in the racing world. She's also a female.
That combination produced some frustrating results growing up. Ruston constantly found herself wrecked by males who had up to eight years more experience than her, but weren't all that better.
"When I was younger, I was racing little boys and they were getting beat by a little girl, I'd get wrecked all the time," Ruston said. "Now that I've moved up from late models, they're like, 'Man, she's actually pretty decent. I'm going to race her like I would everyone else.' That's what I've gotten this year.
"When I strap in the car, I don't want everybody to think, 'Oh, I don't want to race with this stupid girl.' I want them to think I'm one of the guys out there."
When Ruston says "this year", she means in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. She's driving in that circuit for the first time, with backing from Turner Scott Motorsports.
It's validation for her decision to stick it out when she was getting spun out, when she was driving home at 2 a.m., when she was searching for sponsorship.
Ruston, who was also named to the 2013 NASCAR Next class, has three top-fives in six races this year.
Her best finish is a third-place effort at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in the second race on the K&N Series schedule. Her best showing, though, was at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C., on June 1. In Ruston's first visit to the quarter-mile track dubbed the Madhouse, she was twice sent spinning into the infield grass. Twice, she somehow made the save in a pair of moments captured on camera and posted to YouTube.
"That was definitely exciting. A lot of people dread racing there, but I actually thought it was fun," Ruston said. "I know it was beating and banging, but I come from Legend cars and that's what we do. I kind of felt right at home, beating and banging and saving it like that."
Right at home. Whether she's in El Reno or Mooresville, N.C., or racing at Iowa or Virginia or South Carolina, Ruston is at home -- and at peace -- on a race track. Any race track.
That's where you'll often find her.
"I got a little bit of a late start, and I didn't want to rush my career," Ruston said. "I've tried to prove myself in every division before I moved up. We're kind of taking our sweet time so people don't say, 'They moved her up too fast, and that's what killed her career.'
"Hopefully, we're at the Cup level someday. I know I have Mr. Turner and Mr. Scott behind me. For next year, hopefully we'll be in a truck or Nationwide Series car. But that's not definite. Maybe we'll even be running for a K&N championship. I'm not really in a rush to move up too fast."
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