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Even when they make history because of it, both Kenzie Ruston and Mackena Bell are hesitant to play what they both refer to as “the girl card.”
Ruston became the first woman to finish in the top-five of a NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race in the 27-year history of the series when she finished third at Greenville (S.C.) Pickens Speedway in early April. The very next week, Ruston finished fifth in the series' inaugural visit to Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla.
Not to be outdone, Bell – in her second go-round with Rev Racing – finished fifth at Richmond International Raceway three weeks ago.
In 26 previous K&N Pro Series seasons, no woman had finished in the top-five of a race. In the last three consecutive races, no top-five has failed to have a female driver show up by race's end.
|GET TO KNOW:|
|Mackena Bell||NASCAR BIO | TWITTER | FACEBOOK | WEBSITE|
|Kenzie Ruston||NASCAR BIO | TWITTER | FACEBOOK | WEBSITE|
“To finish third in my second race was unbelievable,” said Ruston, a rookie from El Reno, Okla., driving for Turner Scott Motorsports. “I never thought that would even be possible. Honestly, I was hoping for some top-10s in the first few races. It's crazy.
“It's an honor to be the first woman to finish in the top-five in one of these races. That's awesome, but I'm really here to be just another racer. I try not to hold the girl thing up too much.”
Bell made her first K&N Pro Series appearance with Rev Racing back in 2010, but returned to Late Model competition after only a handful of races. That time back in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series at Hickory Motor Speedway paid dividends in terms of on-track results this time around at the touring series level.
“It's hard to pull the female card – but this is a good ol' boy sport,” said Bell, a native of Carson City, Nev. “On top of that, I'm down here and everybody is from here and we're going to all these Southern places. I'm not from anything like that. I think you have prove you can do it. I don't think I was taken very seriously at first.
“This program [at Rev Racing] has developed with people that care about this place and developing the sport. I'm not sure that's how it was before. Now, it's completely different. It's an organization that cares about us as people and wants us to succeed, and I think it's obviously showing.”
At NASCAR's national levels, it is virtually impossible to ignore the phenomena that is Danica Patrick. She commands media attention both on and off the track, and her GoDaddy ads rotate through NASCAR television broadcasts at a pace nearly as rapid as her history-making pole-winning run for this year's Daytona 500.
Patrick has long been the nation's most high-profile female racer, both during her time in IndyCar and in NASCAR.
But despite the tall shadow cast by the petite Patrick, up-and-coming women don't try and avoid the topic of Danica. In fact, they embrace it.
|FEMALE SERIES RECORDS||DRIVER|
|First Race Starter||Karen Schulz - July 9, 1989 - Oxford|
|Best Qualifier||Mackena Bell - 7th - April 6, 2013 - Greenville|
|First Lap Leader||Danica Patrick - Sept. 24, 2010 - Dover|
|Best Race Finisher||Kenzie Ruston - 3rd - April 6, 2013 - Greenville|
|Best Points Finisher||Michelle Theriault - 13th - 2007|
“You're always going to be compared to Danica. Everybody thinks she's the best female racer out there and that's OK,” Ruston said. “I just want to be better than Danica, really.
“You're going to get compared to her. I just want to show she's not the best out there – there are plenty of women who are as good as her or better. I want to be the best I can be, but I want to be one who can win races and have top-fives.”
Similarly, Bell has fought to make her way to where she is now, and she's happy to help encourage other young women to do the same.
“I think it's important with our whole program here [at Rev Racing],” Bell said. “We have other drivers in the series, even an 11-year-old running Bandeleros this year. It's important to show her that if she runs well, does well in school, all those other things you have to do, she could be the next Danica Patrick.”
Though Patrick's ascension to the sport's highest levels and the Drive For Diversity program have played roles in creating better opportunities for women in stock car racing, the road to the top is by no means a straight line yet.
Ruston believes that while it might be easier to succeed as a woman in today's NASCAR, barriers still exist.
“I don't think they will ever disappear,” said Ruston, who sits seventh in the K&N Pro Series East standings through four races. “This sport that we're in has always been male-dominated. When you get girls that come in and set goals for themselves, you're always going to have to battle that. Hopefully, what I do on the track can start to change that.”
Mike Greci, the competition director at Turner Scott Motorsports, has had a hand in developing up-and-coming talent like Martin Truex Jr., Trevor Bayne, Travis Pastrana and Danica. He believes Ruston is the real deal.
“The first day I met Kenzie, I said, 'That girl is going to be pretty good,'” Greci said. “She did really well the first time out at Bristol (finishing 11th), and she's confident. She presents herself the right way and approaches things the right way.”
Confidence is key for any aspiring race car driver. Letting self-doubt or insecurity behind the wheel creep in can be a career-killer.
Bell said it was incredibly difficult to walk away from the K&N Pro Series in 2010, but she held firm to the belief that it was the move that would best benefit her career.
“This is a very tough sport,” Bell said. “If you let people walk all over you, they will. Three years of taking a step back, that was hard to do. I really felt like I had failed. My confidence wasn't back to normal until I started putting things together in the Late Model.
“My confidence is the best it's ever been now – and that shows on and off the race track. There's so much talent in this series nowadays. There's people and kids doing the same thing that we're doing. With Kenzie and I and the whole female situation, the biggest thing to remember is that these are dreams – not just hobbies – for people in our shoes. We're working hard to make it happen.”
And the history books are there to back that up.
Drive For Diversity's Mackena Bell recorded a career-best fifth-place finish on one of the biggest stages the K&N Pro Series East races at - Richmond International Raceway. Getty Images for NASCAR