As the calendar flips to the start of a new year, journeyman driver Ryan Ellis hopes that 2015 will be remembered as the season he put everything together and cemented himself as a perennial part of the NASCAR community.
The popular 26-year-old doesn’t shy away from his current lot in life, and even takes pride in his ability to make ends meet. And while he doesn’t like the term ride-buyer and the connotations that come with it, Ellis has accepted his current role in the sport and has certainly made the most of it since making his XFINITY Series debut back in 2012.
Ellis has a familiar story.
He’s a driven youngster with enough talent to participate in the highest levels of NASCAR but just doesn’t have the funding needed to get there. He races on a week-to-week basis with a variety of teams across Trucks and XFINITY with no guarantee that he will ever get asked back.
He does what’s asked of him, and more importantly, does it with a smile. That combined with his candid personality and social media transparency has made him a hit with fans and an attractive option for sponsors looking to enter NASCAR but on a strict budget.
Paired with one such partner in ScienceLogic, Ellis was finally able to cross the Sprint Cup Series off his personal bucket list, making his debut for Circle Sport Racing in November at Phoenix International Raceway. Ellis called the moment a “dream come true,” and he’s spent a majority of his off-season working tirelessly to make additional starts come 2016.
READ MORE: How Ellis Made his Cup debut
“It meant everything to me,” Ellis told Popular Speed on Friday. “People say that all the time, but I mean it. I felt like I had made it, and when you make it, you think of everyone that helped you get there.
“It was spectacular. Special. And many of those people who have been so supportive were there, and even if the weather didn’t cooperate, I’m happy they got to be there.”
Ellis would like to make anywhere from two-to-five Cup starts this coming season, and is hopeful it could lead to additional opportunities down the road. Pairing that with about 35-40 combined starts in Trucks and XFINITY and Ellis says he would feel satisfied.
“We’re working on a little bit of everything,” Ellis said. “It all comes down to sponsors. I’m trying to keep my sponsors from last year on board and they’re very interested in Cup. Of course, a lot of this is dependent on franchising because a lot of that is still to be decided. The new rules may make a lot of the smaller teams and ride buying seats go away.
“The other stuff comes together as the season goes on, almost on a week-to-week basis.”
Like many of his peers, Ellis struggles to balance the need for seat time with the equal need to be competitive. Dating back to his days in Legends and Sport Cars, Ellis grew accustomed to racing near the front of the field. His ambitions to do the same in NASCAR hasn’t diminished but he knows it’s a little bit more difficult due to the economics at this stage.
“It’s a tough thing to balance,” Ellis said. “Fans hate crowdfunding and I may even hate it sometimes but you have to look at it like this: There are more underfunded drivers than the funded ones, just like there are more blue-collar people than wealthy ones.
“So many of the drivers fans often criticize are the same ones they say they want because they have the credentials but not the funding. Anyway, to answer your question, $200,000 could buy you one race with a really good team but what if something happens? You basically wasted it, so at least you get multiple opportunities with a smaller team even if they’re not as fast.”
So for now, Ellis is biding his time and hoping to impress top-tier teams and sponsors enough to take a flyer.
Much of the value Ellis provides his sponsors actually comes from his online popularity, where he’s garnered a reputation for accessibility and honesty. While he doesn’t consider it a strategy, Ellis does admit that his online interactions have aided in his efforts to connect with potential partners.
“It’s more of who I am than anything else,” Ellis said. “Growing up in modern times, this generation texts more than calls so I’ve always tried to reply to everyone. Fans appreciate drivers that interact with them and it’s something that I take seriously even if they don’t always have the most positive things to say.
“I’d say about 80 percent of Twitter are cool and supportive, and that’s the real world too. All in all, I really enjoy talking with fans though.”
So while Ellis isn’t yet a superstar, he’s remained humble in an era where numerous rides are about to open up across all three national divisions. With turnover comes opportunity, and Ellis is well-positioned to at least continue to earn a living in Stock Car racing.
And for now, that’s good enough.
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