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The women of NASCAR: Racing against a stereotype

Twenty-three-year old Kenzie Ruston is one of just 40 female drivers in NASCAR’s 66-year history.

“The car does not know if you’re a female or a male,” Ruston said. “You gain the guys’ respect. If you race them clean and you race them competitively, they’ll race you just like they’ll race anybody else.”

In that regard, NASCAR is ahead of other sports, as it’s one of the few sports where men and women race equally.

NASCAR has made continual efforts to make sure they get more female drivers with programs like “NASCAR Drive for Diversity,” which recruits and retains female and diverse drivers. Ruston is also part of NASCAR’s Next program, a platform for the next generation of drivers.

But that hasn’t yet translated to the top of the sport, where Danica Patrick is the only woman currently racing in the Sprint Cup Series.

Ruston met Patrick in Talladega and immediately asked for advice.

“It was really cool to sit down with her for 30 or 45 minutes and just talk about the struggles of being a female in this sport and about how women handle certain situations different,” Ruston said.

That difference in strategy is a competitive advantage for 24-year-old Macena Bell, the only other woman who regularly races in the K&N Pro Series East, alongside Kenzie.

“I have a motherly instinct, I’m sure,” she confessed. “I usually try and watch these guys and I’m like ‘Oh no, I wouldn’t do that!’ kinda thing, and I think that’s what makes me a little bit different.”

Diversity in the sport is welcomed by fans. A quick glance at the stands reveals there are more and more women interested in the sport. According to Nielsen Scarborough, the NASCAR audience is almost 40 percent female.

NASCAR is very much a family sport. and while most male drivers have been groomed by their fathers since they were toddlers, Ruston says she stumbled onto the sport almost by accident.

“I didn’t start racing until I was 14, and a lot of kids start out when they’re 5 or 6 years old,” Ruston said. “One of the guys came up to my dad and was like ‘Hey, you’re son’s really good, if he had a set up and cut tires I feel like he could do pretty good,’ and my dad was like ‘That’s not my son, that’s my daughter.'”

She doesn’t shy away from a challenge, because the biggest satisfaction is inspiring young girls to get into racing.

“I’ve always told little girls ‘You can do anything you set your mind to,’ especially if someone tells you not to do it or can’t do it,” Ruston told Fusion. “I feel like that should be fire, gas in the fire to make you fight harder to do it.”

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