The Bandolero came to a clean stop. Darren Ruston peered into the driver’s window at his daughter, Kenzie, with a pointed look. Kenzie had just completed a test run around what’s known as Lil’ Texas Motor Speedway, a 1/5-mile asphalt circuit located on the NASCAR track’s grounds. She did fine; there were absolutely no issues. And that alone was an issue.
Ruston knew his youngest of two held back. She’s the daredevil of the family. He’d seen her pop wheelies multiple times on the four-wheeler he bought her.
“Fine” didn’t – wouldn’t – suffice.
“Kenzie,” Ruston said, “drive the race car.”
“Well,” Kenzie said, “they told me not to wreck it. I’d have to buy it.”
Her father said: “Don’t worry about that, Kenzie. Let’s see what you got.”
Ruston paid another $50 for an additional 10 laps or so.
Kenzie didn’t hold back.
“Oh boy, everybody comes running up,” Ruston told NASCAR.com. ” ‘Who’s your son? What’s your son been driving?’ I was like nah, that ain’t my son. That’s my daughter.”
Kenzie, whose last name is now Hemric, was 13 years old at the time. This was her first experience in a race car of any type; Bandoleros are considered entry level. Darren Ruston used to compete on dirt bikes but refused to allow Kenzie to even get on one, personally knowing how rough it is on the body. She still wanted to try racing – tacking it onto her volleyball and cheerleading experience – so this was the compromise, one that ultimately set the course of Kenzie’s life.
Because when she finally exited that Bandolero after the second go, determination filled her voice.
“This,” Kenzie said, “is what I want to do.”
RELATED: Kenzie Hemric’s racing career stats
As the leader lost power exiting Turn 2 at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Raceway, Kenzie moved her No. 39 Ford into the outside lane on the backstretch to make the final pass for first with less than four laps to go. Her late model then cruised to victory in the 2011 Fall Brawl 100.
That year’s 37-car field included multiple current NASCAR champions and winners. Daniel Hemric, the 2021 Xfinity Series champ who was then her boyfriend and now her husband, finished third. Chase Elliott, the 2020 Cup Series champ, crossed fifth. And Ryan Blaney, a seven-time Cup Series winner, was eighth.
“That’s my claim to fame,” Kenzie said. “I beat all their butts.”
Therein lies her focus. More so than the gender-focused label that came with the trophy.
“I just felt like I was another competitor,” Kenzie said. “I never thought to myself like oh, I want to be the best female. I just wanted to be respected.”
Kenzie moved to Mooresville, North Carolina, from El Reno, Oklahoma, when she was 17 years old to pursue her dream. She was 20 when she won that race. Her resumé was stacked even before then.
In 2009 alone, her introductory year in the new state, Kenzie tallied 39 feature wins and seven Legends car championships, including the U.S. Legends Asphalt National Championship. She continued making upward moves in the grassroots world from 2010-11 with more late-model accolades. And she made four starts in the ARCA Menards Series with three tops 12s and 15 laps led.
“The only way to get respect is simply to prove yourself, and she did that quick enough and fast enough where there wasn’t people picking on her at the race track,” Daniel Hemric said. “None of that was going on. It was just really intriguing to me, like here’s this person I want to spend my life with and also she’s probably – I mean, I’m biased – the best female racer that’s done it.”’
That’s my claim to fame. I beat all their butts.
In order to be the best, one has to beat the best. Kenzie did that. Daniel Hemric, Elliott and Blaney are all talented, proven by their NASCAR portfolio.
The Fall Brawl 100 wasn’t easy for Kenzie either. Her competitors, surely realizing by now she’s a true on-track threat, didn’t cut her any slack.
“She was running like fifth,” Ruston said. “Somebody, they had pointed Daniel by, waved Daniel by, and then when she got to him, he raced her really hard. So, I went and found the pit crew and we had a pretty good conversation. She’s screaming at me over the radio, ‘Dad, don’t say nothing. I’ll take care of it.’
“About five laps later, she just spun the guy that was holding her up.”
Kenzie admits she misses racing; mainly the competitiveness of it. What she loved most, it was a team sport but also individual. A lot of the responsibility fell on the driver, and Kenzie thrived under that pressure.
“Anybody who knows Kenzie,” Hemric said, “knows she can handle herself.”
Thanks to an unexpected flat left-rear tire on her No. 96 Chevrolet, Kenzie found herself a lap down at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, after running among the top five. With 106 laps still remaining, she scored a free pass to get back on the lead lap. From there, she picked off members of the 21-car field to return near the front, finishing fourth.
Team owner Ben Kennedy, who is now NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing development and strategy, called Kenzie’s comeback performance remarkable.
“It’s an important quality as a race-car driver that you have to stay level-headed and you have to stay calm in a lot of those moments,” Kennedy said. “Because when you get excited or you get frustrated, for some drivers, it might be good, but for others, it may not be good. I think she was always very calm on the radio, always very calm behind the wheel, and I think that’s what made her such a good driver.”
Kenzie spent her second full-time K&N Pro Series East season (now the ARCA Menards Series East) in 2014 with Ben Kennedy Racing. The fourth-place result was one of three top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 16 starts. Her career-best result came that year at Iowa Speedway, where she fell second to Brandon Jones by .338 seconds.
Runner-up meant Kenzie accomplished the then-highest result by a woman in series history.
“At the time, it was a little disappointing because I so wanted to win,” Kenzie said. “Looking back now, I feel like it was very rewarding. Like yeah, it was a big deal, especially when I was coming up. I think there was like two of us at the K&N level, maybe. So I feel like it was just…
“I wish I could go back all over.”
Anybody who knows Kenzie knows she can handle herself.
That was the closest Kenzie ever came to a checkered flag.
In 44 overall starts at the K&N East level, Kenzie had seven top fives and 17 top 10s overall. She averaged a 12.5 finish over the course of three complete seasons from 2013-15, having spent one apiece with Turner Scott Motorsports, Ben Kennedy Racing and Rev Racing.
And then that was the end of that road. Kenzie made her last stock-car appearance on Oct. 3, 2015.
“I think it does kind of put into perspective how important winning is,” Kennedy said. “Because finishing second or third is always good. And as a driver, you’re happy about it. But at the same time, it’s really all about getting to Victory Lane. That really gets you the recognition to kind of be realized and have opportunities to continue to move up. She got really close, and I think if we had a little bit of more luck on our side, we definitely could have gotten her in Victory Lane.”
After a few spontaneous late-model races, Kenzie officially hung up her fire suit at the end of 2015. There wasn’t enough funding to continue. Timing wasn’t right.
Not for her at least.
Kenzie’s last season doubled as Hemric’s first in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, though the two career paths had no impact on each other. Heck, Hemric built Kenzie a late model so she could enter events if she wanted. Luckily for the couple – engaged in 2015, married in 2017 – it just worked out that way.
“Thousands of racers around the country, I mean, like the odds that both of us would have made it are like slim to none,” Kenzie said. “I’m just very thankful. In all that, he gets to do it for a living, too. It could have easily been none of us.”
Before the roar of engines could make it difficult to hear at Phoenix Raceway, Hemric and Kenzie FaceTimed their daughter, Rhen, outside Kaulig Racing’s hauler. Kenzie’s sister and Rhen’s aunt, Karli, was babysitting the 1-year-old back in North Carolina. The parents wanted to check in before on-track work – practice, qualifying and race – consumed Hemric.
As Rhen’s face filled the screen, all she squeaked out was a hi before her eyes went wide toward the car being pushed through the Xfinity Series garage after inspection in the background.
“Then that’s all she talked about, was the go-go,” Hemric said. “Everything is a go-go. Had to see the go-go.”
Said Kenzie: “She loves them. She loves watching. We’re not naïve, like she gets it from both ends. I feel like she’s gonna be a very competitive little girl.”
Like mother, like daughter.
If Rhen does express an interest in racing, Kenzie and Hemric will both support her. They’ll support whatever she wants to do, without any pressure. The idea of their daughter racing, though, terrifies Hemric, who’s admittedly the helicopter parent in their everyday life.
“I’m like let her go, she’ll figure it out,” Kenzie said. “She’s got to be tough. That’s how I grew up.”
Hemric hopes she chooses golf.
“Apparently, women’s golf is the most un-utilized scholarship in the United States,” he said. “I took up the love for golf about four or five years ago, so I’m all about the golf stuff.”
To a point where it seems to always be on the TV in the Hemric home.
Even if that happened to be a sneaky plan for exposure theory, it’s counteracted by NASCAR travel weekends, various racing trophies and also the casual late model at the house. It’s the same one Kenzie drove to a fourth-place finish in what currently stands as her most recent race – the 2015 Snowflake 100 at Five Flags Speedway (John Hunter Nemechek won).
The late model is still operational.
“At some point, we can test somewhere just for fun,” Hemric said. “More or less, I think it would be really cool – we’ve never even talked about this, by the way – when Rhen is like 4 or 5 years old to see (Kenzie) like strap into a car and run laps around Hickory or one of these race tracks – like hey, mom can do it, she did do it – and kind of put that last piece of puzzle that she never got to experience with us.”
The idea made Kenzie smile.
Any advice she would give her daughter is simple, especially when it comes to racing: Rhen, it’s hard work. Nothing’s easy, and nothing’s given. Respect has to be earned.
“She’s going to be the best mother,” Ruston said, “just like she wanted to be the best race-car driver.”