Ryan Ellis is a 25-year-old driver who is looking for his big break in NASCAR. Some drivers often drive for the smaller teams, and once they prove themselves there in underfunded equipment, the big-name teams will look their way.
Ellis is a four-year veteran in NASCAR, though he hasn't been behind the wheel of an Xfinity Series car very often. In 2014, he ran 12 out of the 33 races due to funding. In those 12 races, he put up a best of 24th at Richmond for JGL Racing. Since then, he has beaten that record with a 22nd-place finish in August at Watkins Glen. Just a couple of weeks ago, at Richmond he led his first two laps behind the wheel of an Xfinity car.
The Virginia native feels that he has a lot to prove and is willing to do whatever it takes to get seat team. This includes a recent fan vote that placed him behind the wheel of the No. 97 for Okaika Racing at Dover.
Dustin Albino, Speedway Digest: How did his deal come together?
Ryan Ellis: It’s actually a really interesting story. I don’t think that this has ever been done, especially in the top three series. I actually found out about it on social media. I can’t remember who messaged it to me, but someone was like ‘hey have you applied for this’ and I had no idea what they were talking about. I read about it and a bunch of people voted for me. I got nominated. It went from 68 people to 43 people who actually have Xfinity licenses. Somehow, I ended up getting the ride. I got 55% of the vote, so I’m excited to run this weekend.
DA: Do you think this could be a new way for younger guys to get into the sport?
RE: I think so. There’s not really a cut and dry way on how to get in. You need to have money. You need to be marketed, and obviously you need to be a good driver. There’s a million different ways to get a ride and it’s cool to see this be one of them. I’m just hoping that I can make this a multi-race deal, but it would be cool to see some other people get in there with the same experience that I had.
DA: What does it mean to you personally to get this ride through social media?
RE: I think it just means a lot to win a fan vote. If someone had ever told me that I’d ever win a fan vote in NASCAR and it wasn’t a huge one, it’s a huge honor. It’s a huge honor not only to race for the team, but to win a fan vote is really cool and it’s a big opportunity for sure.
DA: Do you know if they have any fan votes for any other races this year?
RE: I hope not. I hope they keep me in the car. I don’t know what their plans are. I know it kind of changes week-to-week so we’ll find out.
DA: Could this lead to more races for you?
RE: I hope so. It’s definitely something that I’ve thought of obviously, and I talked to them about. But, I don’t think they know as much as a lot of people think they do. I think a lot of it is done out of Africa. They’ve kind of keep it up to date, week-to-week just like a lot of other smaller teams. I’m hoping the race gets delayed until like Tuesday or Wednesday because they won’t have enough time to take my seat out and I can just run next week to.
DA: What are your expectations for tomorrow?
RE: Hopefully to race. It would be good to qualify in the top-30. Qualifying in the top-30 is good for this team. A top-20 finish would be huge. They haven’t run this car since Bristol. They’ve been running the same car for quite a while now and this one they’ve had a little bit of trouble dialing in earlier in the season, but they think they got it straightened out. A top-20 would go a long way for me and the team for sure.
DA: What do you think it would mean for your career if you got a top-20 with this underfunded team?
RE: I don’t think it would mean anything long-term, but short-term hopefully it would mean more races with them. It’s tough. There are so many young guys out there that are fighting. Look at guys like Ross Chastain, Harrison Rhodes, Joey Gase, there’s a ton of them. You could throw a million names out there and a top-20 is tough. I don’t get many opportunities. Those guys are in there every week, and a top-20 would mean a lot more for me than it would for them just because I’m not out there as much. It would be my best finish ever in Xfinity, so that’s pretty cool.
Ryan Ellis is doing a monthly driver diary for Speedway Digest. He currently races the No. 1 and No. 50 trucks for MAKE Motorsports, splitting the rides with former champion Travis Kvapil, along with racing in the Xfinity Series for Rick Ware Racing on a part-time basis.
As the third part of this series, Ellis answered questions from some fans on Twitter about life as a racer. Take a look at what life is like for the 25-year-old Chipotle lover, racer and hockey addict.
If you could pick the number you race, any number, what would it be and why?
Probably either No. 71 or No. 51. I’ve been No. 71 nearly my whole life, racing it from when I was about four years old until I could no longer choose my number. I played hockey from about the same age until I was in college hockey. I wore No. 71 during my inline hockey days and had to choose No. 25 for my ice hockey days in college. Other than that, I’ve worn No. 71 my whole life.
What is your favorite meal at Chipotle?
Steak quesadilla or steak burrito … gotta have that guacamole, though.
What team, if you had to pick, would you drive for in the Sprint Cup Series?
That’s a tough one. I think Hendrick Motorsports or Stewart-Haas Racing. Growing up, I was a huge Jeff Gordon fan and it was always a dream to race for that team. As I grew older, Tony Stewart was definitely someone I tried to model my driving after, so it would be pretty cool to call him a boss at Stewart-Haas.
What’s the weirdest animal to run across a racetrack in front of you?
In front of me? Uh … none as far as I know. My road racing days brought a lot of deer and other animals on the track, but I don’t think I’ve ever hit one.
If Chip Ganassi ever mistook you for Kyle Larson and told you to get in the No. 42 car, would you correct him?
Wouldn’t even think about saying anything.
If given the chance, would you switch lives with Ryan Ellis from the NHL?
Yes. I love hockey, not as much as racing of course, but I absolutely love hockey. I played it my whole life. I wish racing were more like hockey sometimes. Hockey is like most other normal sports, where if you have talent and work hard, you’ll make it. I do love the business side of motorsports, but it’s tough. I wish we did a racing draft much like the NHL or any other sport. Plus, I think there are less politics in hockey. You can say what you mean a bit more without worrying about politics or hurting everyone’s feelings. They’re thicker skinned.
What driver from the past would you want to race against?
Ayrton Senna. He’s a guy you would hate to race against because you knew he was going to go for every gap. Very aggressive, but a guy you look up to for his race craft and lack of fear.
What crew chief from the past would you want to have?
That’s a tough one. I think it would have been cool to work with Steve Letarte honestly. Just from watching what he was able to do last year was pretty amazing. He seems like a great guy and an awesome crew chief.
The craziest wrecks that I’ve been involved in haven’t ended up too badly for me. I’ve been lucky to avoid the big ones at Daytona and Talladega for the most part. The wrecks in the Truck Series the past two years at Daytona have been really close calls for our FDNY Racing No. 28, but we got out of them cleanly.
The worst hits I’ve had have been in road racing. I hit a wall head on at Road Atlanta when I got turned in their very fast ‘esses’ section. That hurt a lot. I caught fire afterward, too. I honestly haven’t had any huge wrecks though, and in NASCAR, I’ve really only had the one incident with Jake Crum at Charlotte. That hit hurt, too, since there was no SAFER Barrier there, but wasn’t too bad visually.
What has been your favorite race in NASCAR thus far?
To watch? That’s a good question. I’m not sure if one sticks out for sure. But I think Darlington, which was very recent of course, was one of the best we’ve seen all year. That rules package is very ‘racey’ and so is Darlington in general. The amount of quality passes and great side-by-side racing we saw was amazing. I wish we could come up with a package that allowed us to race like that in Xfinity and Trucks.
How difficult is it to race on a week-to-week basis?
Hardest thing I’ve ever done. I am just a young kid trying to make it in this sport without the business connections or connections of being in the industry for 20-plus years like some people. If I had the money to go out and buy a NASCAR truck, hauler and do payroll, I would do what Jordan Anderson does. He works his butt off to get to the track every week and people notice it. I just don’t even have the money to start that. I am working a different angle of trying to find the money to race occasionally.
It’s hard to cold-call someone and convince them to give you $20,000 to $25,000 or more, but I have very good testimonials from past sponsors and most of them, if not all, are going to do it again in the future. I think it’s a matter of surviving long enough to develop a reputation as a driver, and a network for sponsorships. I’ve already begun to see my network grow, and with that, it gets a little bit easier. People don’t realize that just getting your foot in the door is the hardest part. Cold calls and random e-mails often don’t work, but if you have a friend of a friend that might know someone in a position of power that you can go and speak with face to face, that can go a long way.
What does it cost to fully fund a race in the Xfinity Series or Camping World Truck Series?
I think you could ask every team in both series and get different answers. In the Truck Series, there are probably less than six drivers that have ran the majority of the season that are not paying to race or bringing a sponsor that has close family ties to the deal. Xfinity has more hired drivers. To run in a lower-funded Xfinity Series car or a truck, the ‘general’ asking price can range from $10,000 to $25,000 depending on the race. If you’re higher experienced, sometimes it’s a matter of finding tire money.
Highly funded teams like JR Motorsports can ask for as much as $6 million for a season, even from a highly experienced guy. Of course, the Cup guys that are driving in Xfinity are a different deal. But when you are an up and coming guy, that’s about what you are expected to bring ($120,000 to 200,000 or more a race). Some people just write a check with their own (or family) money, some own family businesses which they get the money from, but there certainly aren’t many young guys in the top rides who aren’t bringing money in some way shape or form. For mid-level truck or Xfinity rides, some drivers are bringing about $250,000 to $350,000 for a full season, and some are bringing over a million. It depends on the equipment, engine contract, pit crew, and so much more. Sometimes, the team will subsidize the cost using its own money or a sponsor that helps them out.
Ryan Ellis will be doing a driver diary for Speedway Digest on a monthly basis. He currently races the No. 1 Chevrolet for MAKE Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
As the second part of this series, the 25-year-old breaks down what it is like to break into the world of NASCAR, and just how perfect a driver has to be in everything they have to do. Take a look at his perspective of what life is like when the odds are against an up and coming driver.
"Not going to lie, I struggled a bit on the topic of this blog. In fact, as I’m typing this right now, I still don’t know where it’s going to go. I had a blog written on why certain drivers take certain opportunities and how those opportunities come about. But I’ve learned a lesson on shutting my mouth sometimes in this industry, and I’m going to do my best to do that.
That blog would probably be very interesting to everyone and would make everyone understand why certain drivers are where they are. For some reason, every fan wants to know the inside of the industry, but when I talk about it, there are always 10 percent of the people who think I am complaining. I’m not, I promise.
The industry is the way it is, and it’s up to us drivers to adapt. In fact, the business side of this sport interests me very much, and that’s why I like sharing it so much. Maybe one day, I’ll publish that, and it’s not even condescending to anyone, but I don’t want anyone to take it the wrong way. If I’ve learned anything about being a “public figure,” it’s that, if there is an opportunity to take something wrong, somebody will find it. I digress.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND BEING IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Social media. I think the best way to put it is:
- It can boost your career 5 percent -10 percent, but it can kill your career 100 percent.
- You can send 500,000 tweets that help your career. One bad tweet misconceived can cost you your career.
There is a high risk, with a low reward. But it is a necessity as an up-and-coming driver? Absolutely.
I just finished watching Tony Stewart’s periscope. I only caught the last part. For as scary as Twitter is for a driver, Periscope should scare influential figures a million times more. Not that many people say borderline things, but you have to be on guard every minute of every day. It’s not uncommon for people to just walk up Periscoping without any notice. I guess the lesson is … always pretend you’re on camera.
I love social media. If you don’t know that, you obviously don’t follow me on Twitter. The cool thing about Twitter is you can communicate with anyone and everyone. I’ve met a ton of cool celebrities through Twitter, and I don’t know if that was ever possible before it came about. I guess that’s about all I have to say on that.
Editor’s note: Ellis has over 16,000 followers on Twitter, and over 1,700 likes on Facebook.
TIPS FOR UP AND COMING DRIVERS
This is a question I get quite a lot. What advice do you have for other drivers? I can only speak for the reasons that I made it to this level. Everyone has a different story, but these are the things I have learned:
- If you’re not doing something to better your career every day, you’re doing it wrong. It doesn’t matter if you send one text message inquiring about a sponsor or 15 proposals to potential sponsors. You should do at least one thing every day to further yourself.
- Leave your house in real life or virtually. Go to your local go-kart track. Go on Twitter and communicate with fans or drivers you look up to. The more people that know your name and respect you, the more likely you’ll come across someone who can help your career.
- This goes with the last point, but put yourself out there every single way. I cannot reiterate this enough, put yourself out there in any way possible. I’ve met people coaching at local go-kart tracks, at charity functions or being friends of friends. The bigger your network is, the more likely you’ll have success. If you’re not personally wealthy, this is your biggest asset – networking.
- Be thankful for every opportunity you get. Shake hands with every single person who helps you. Make sure people know you are thankful. People like helping people who appreciate their opportunities. Plus, it’s the right thing to do no matter what field you are in.
- Study hard. No, my parents or your parents aren’t telling me to say this. Put school first. I’m one of the few guys in NASCAR that went to college that I know of. The sport has changed. Understand the business side of the sport and not only will you be a bigger asset to yourself, but you’ll be a bigger asset to teams who need help finding sponsorship and the sponsors themselves. If racing doesn’t work out, you’ll have an education and can work within the industry doing a million other fun jobs.
- Help yourself.
Chris Rock once said, “I’d always end up broken down on the highway. When I stood there trying to flag someone down, nobody stopped. But when I pushed my own car, other drivers would get out and push with me. If you want help, help yourself—people like to see that.”
If you’re not putting in hard work, how can you expect someone else to help you?
Whatever you do, do well, and may success attend your efforts.
Don’t do anything without your full effort in this industry. Commit. Show how much it means to you. Make it happen.
- Have fun. Smile. A lot of people within this industry could be making more money doing something else. We love what we do. If people aren’t having fun working with you or if they don’t like you, they won’t work with you. Have fun, be easy to work with. If people like you, you’ll make it one way or another."
Ryan Ellis will be doing a driver diary for Speedway Digest on a monthly basis. This year, he is running for FDNY Racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, and is in the process of signing with other teams to run more events.
As the first part of this series, the 25-year-old breaks down his path to NASCAR’s top divisions. Take a look at his perspective of what life is like when the odds are against an up and coming driver:
First off, thanks for reading this blog. A lot of you may know me from Twitter conversations, seeing my name go across the top of the screen during a NASCAR race or maybe we’ve met at the track sometime. For our first blog, I figured I’d do something simple … who is Ryan Ellis?
I’m a third generation racecar driver from Northern Virginia. I went to college at George Mason University, a member of the Kappa Sigma Fraternity and played college hockey. To say the least, I’m not your normal NASCAR driver.
My family has been involved in racing since the 1950s. My grandfather raced Sprint Cars his whole life, and lost his life in a horrible crash while racing in 1958 – the same year my father was born. Even with this loss, my father still found his way into racing as soon as he could. He raced motorcycles until his body was too worn out and eventually moved on to cars.
As far back as I can remember, I was spending my weeks at race tracks. No, I wasn’t like the Dillon brothers, waking up and spending time with Dale Earnhardt Sr. or anything of that nature. I was spending time at local tracks, watching my father at his local races.
I was born in California and spent most of my days as a child – either at a race track, or dreaming of being at a racetrack. While most little kids would sleep with stuffed animals, I would sleep with toy motorcycles. I used to wake up with imprints of toy motorcycles on my face every morning from it. Before I could walk, I would crawl to my little Power Wheels Jeep and drive it around the kitchen. Where I grew up in Southern California, speedway motorcycle racing was huge, and I was a big fan of many local racers.
When I was four years old, my father saved up enough money to get me my first quarter midget. I ran my first race that year, and nearly won it against many kids that were two or three times my age. I ran quarter midgets for seven or eight years, accumulating national championships and track records before moving onto Legends cars when I was 11 years old.
Racing Legends cars across the east coast, I competed against some really big up and coming drivers. At that point in time, they were just other drivers I was racing against, even as a 12-year-old. You learn a lot about maturity racing against adults three or four times your age. You have to earn respect.
As a kid, you don’t have a lot of fear, and you have to learn to carry yourself as an adult. If an adult pushes you around on track, you have to learn to drive them the same way. It was weird for me as a soft-spoken kid, but I learned how to do it over time. I got to race against some big names and little did I know we would all end up in the same place years later, including the Busch brothers, the Dillon brothers, my buddy Matt DiBenedetto, Jake Crum, the Buescher cousins, Jordan Anderson and many more that don’t come to mind right now. I did that until I was around 16 years old, when I got a shot with a local Late Model team that wanted to take me to what was then known as the Hooter’s Pro Cup Series.
Long story short, the team promised big things and nothing came through. The team stole a lot of resources and sponsorship money from our family, and we ended up taking them to court. I was leading Rookie of the Year standings at my local track and was progressing quickly.
We were out of sponsorship money and honestly, out of hope to keep moving my career forward, so we moved to the road-racing world. I got a shot with a local Spec Miata team and learned the ropes of road racing while we fought to get our resources back from the Late Model team.
Somehow, through all of this with some great family friends and personal investors, I tried out for a series you guys have probably never heard of –the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup. It was a reality TV show with all cars “evenly” built and provided by VW. Thousands of people applied to be in the series and 100 or so got invited to their tryouts, and 25 made it.
With my long resume and driving experience, I made it in 2010. In my second year, I had a great season. I won the most races, was one of the leaders in laps led, tied for most poles and had the fastest race lap multiple times. This caught the attention of Volkswagen and a Grand-Am team, APR Motorsport.
2011 was a huge year for me. Volkswagen and APR signed me to a rookie Grand-Am deal. In my first race of my rookie season, I qualified on pole, led every lap and won my first Grand-Am race with teammate Ian Baas. We also won the second race of the season and nearly won the championship. I finished third in the standings and won ST Rookie of the Year.
During the first race of the year in this series, a prospective team owner named Fran Hall was looking for a development driver to set up his prototype-like car, the Superlite Coupe. With my effort as a rookie, I caught his eye and signed a deal to be his number one driver. I still think to this day, without the track time I got in this car, I never would have gotten approved to get my NASCAR license.
In 2012, I got an amazing phone call while I was still racing in Grand-Am full-time. I had been happy in the road racing world, but was still struggling to find a funded ride. It’s hard when you’re young to convince someone to invest with you, especially in road racing where they value experience and age.
I got a phone call from a mutual friend who knew Jimmy Means, owner of the No. 52 NASCAR Xfinity Series team. He needed a driver to race his car at Road America. His young driver, Joey Gase, couldn’t do it and I was one of the first people he called. I was already going to the track, so I of course said yes. I was completely blown away that I was making my NASCAR debut.
Fast forward again to 2013, I got some sponsorship money together after a few more start and parks. I did my first race with SR2 Motorsports and it went awesome. They needed someone to finish their season and I was their guy. It was an amazing feeling. That’s where I met my racing mentor and one of my best friends, Blake Koch, who was my teammate there.
In January of 2014, I had a big decision to make. I was either going to finish school at GMU, or move to North Carolina to continue pursuing a NASCAR career. My school wasn’t allowing me to miss exams for racing, and I kept failing the same classes because I couldn’t make up exams. I flipped a coin, it landed on North Carolina. I left Northern Virginia and moved to Mooresville, N.C., where I knew absolutely no one.
In 2014, I got a call from Blake Koch that he couldn’t stick around for preseason Daytona testing, and he needed someone to test the No. 28 FDNY truck he was supposed to race in a month. Of course I said yes.
Somehow, we ended up at the top of the charts. The FDNY Racing guys had never been the fastest truck before, so it was huge for them and earned me the job I still currently hold with them.
Fun fact: I told them we were fastest during the session, we took a lunch break and went to Outback Steakhouse in the middle of the session. I showed them the times while at lunch, and they were blown away. They thought I was joking when I told them we were fastest, a little “lol” moment.
Throughout the first few weeks of the 2014 season, I met many great friends. I met Tanner Berryhill because I was talking to his dad about racing for their Vision Racing team at Daytona. I met Matt DiBenedetto, who was racing for The Motorsports Group at the time, because I was asking him about a few jobs. In both encounters, I shook hands and acted very professionally.
I don’t think either of them remembers us meeting as well as I do. It was awkward. I’m glad we are all friends because I thought they were all weird then.
Now I appreciate how weird we all are mutually together. We all go to lunch together at least once a week, and when we travel, we typically go together. They’re all great friends of mine and we all try to help each other out. Since then, we’ve had some more guys hang out with us, namely Alex Bowman and Jeffrey Earnhardt among others. It’s a fun group.
As for racing, well …
The rest is history. Here I am. I have raced for a ton of teams. I know a lot more people in NASCAR than I did last year, and I’m hoping this year will be the best yet.
It’s crazy. I took the most zig-zagged route ever to get here. I don’t have family money, and I don’t have friends who own big businesses. I’m working my tail off to get to the top. I want to make my grandfather and family proud, and I want to earn it. I’m here to stay kids.