By Craig Murto
Ryan Ellis grinds out a workout at his local gym at least five times each week and plays hockey in an adult league in Winston-Salem, NC.
He expects that when he moves back to Mooresville, NC—known as Race City USA—the 26-year-old will again take up boxing. But these activities simply keep the 2008 graduate of Ashburn’s Stone Bridge High School in shape for his passion: driving race cars. And in the second-to-last race of NASCAR’s 2015 Sprint Cup season, Ellis made his debut at the top of his sport.
“The weekend was a blast,” Ellis said of his Sprint Cup debut at Phoenix, AZ., in the Circle Sport Racing Team’s No. 33. “I tried to soak in every moment. I had a ton of friends, sponsors, and other guests at the track that weekend so I knew Sunday, especially, was going to be crazy. You never know when the last time you’re going to strap into a race is, so you have to enjoy every minute, especially in a moment like that. It’s tough to balance ‘just enjoying the moment’ with ‘working your butt off’ to make sure it’s not the last time you strap into a Cup car, but I think I did a good job of it.”
Ellis did a good job indeed and brought the car home in one piece without getting in the way of the championship contenders. A third-generation racer, he nearly won his first championship race at the age of 4 in a car known as a Quarter Midget. He became one of the most successful Quarter Midget racers in Virginia before moving up into Legends Cars, where he also won titles. Following a brief stint as the top rookie at a local track in a NASCAR Late Model, he followed a career in sports car racing and won in the Grand-Am Continental Tire Series event at Daytona International Speedway.
“It was weird,” Ellis said “It was my first race in Grand-Am of my rookie season; I didn’t know where to set expectations. It was all kind of a whirlwind and before I knew it I was leading the points championship as a rookie. I wasn’t sure what the future held, but I just knew I had to keep moving forward. I certainly wasn’t thinking I was going to be moving back to the oval racing world at that point.”
But since he made his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut in 2012, he’s been focused on NASCAR, which is primarily oval racing. And being focused for Ellis means putting the marketing degree he received from George Mason University to use. Unlike ball-and-stick sports, where athletes make the team and get the lucrative commercial endorsements later, race drivers usually have to bring money to the table to get a ride.
“Typically, I work and find the sponsorship money and then shop around to find the best deal,” Ellis said. “If I’ve been working with a certain team beforehand, I try and stay loyal to that team, but ultimately it comes down to where the money goes the furthest and is best for the sponsor. There are probably six months of talks before a deal ever comes together and a lot of planning before the car ever hits the track.”
The life of a journeyman racer is never certain. Ellis is constantly networking to secure sponsorship. Across the three top NASCAR divisions, Ellis ran 22 races in 2015 for six Xfinity teams, two Camping World Truck teams, and the Cup debut with Circle Sport.
ScienceLogic, an information technology management company based in Reston, sponsored Ellis’s Cup debut at Phoenix and may be interested in doing more in 2016. Ellis is negotiating with a couple of Sprint Cup teams in hopes of making more starts this upcoming season.
“But I have to see what happens with this franchise deal,” Ellis said, referring to a proposed “charter” system negotiated with full-time Cup teams that may reduce the size of the starting field and limit the available opportunities for part-time teams and journeyman drivers.
And he continues to work for rides in the Xfinity and Truck Series, hoping to run at least 30-40 races in 2016.
“The possibilities are endless as always,” Ellis said. “If I’m able to network and find the sponsorship, we could run anything. We could run for a championship in Truck or Xfinity, but it’s all about finding the money. If I’m able to run a full season and be with the same team every week, I would be happy. As much fun as Cup was, I want to make sure I’m doing what’s best for my sponsor and my career. What that means, I’m not sure. Hindsight is always 20/20, but if I’m able to run a full season, whether it’s in Trucks, Xfinity or Cup, I’ll be more than happy.”
Ellis seems happy now. He gets to make his living doing what he loves, and he doesn’t mind putting in the work it takes to make that happen. He genuinely seems to love interacting with his sponsors and fans, and stresses that people can stay informed at ryanellismotorsports.com or following him on Twitter @ryanellisracing.
And he has advice for any young racers who dream of a career as a professional race car driver.
“Grind it out,” he said. “If you love it, you’ll work hard. If you work hard, people will notice and want to help you, too. There are going to be nine tough days for every one day that was good if you’re trying to make it in this sport without money, but that 10th day is more than worth it.”