Nascar’s Blue Collar Connection: A Part Time Racer Lives His Dream

In the early days of NASCAR many drivers couldn’t depend solely on racing to make a living, instead working fulltime jobs away from the track during the week and racing on the weekends. Most famously perhaps was NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson who still ran moonshine after he started racing and even spent time in prison when he was caught with a still.

Men like Johnson, Cale Yarbrough, and Dale Earnhardt Sr. gave fans a connection to the drivers; most, after all, were blue collar men who worked in cotton fields, factories, or in Johnson’s case ran moonshine, before eventually working their way into NASCAR fulltime.

Today most NASCAR drivers enjoy multi-million-dollar salaries, spend their weekends at the track in huge, expensive, motorhomes and live in mansions during the week. NASCAR is a massive industry all its own and that blue collar connection has seemingly disappeared.

There is one driver however who still clings to the early days of the sport, racing on the weekends and working a fulltime job away from racing during the week. Though, admittedly, it’s not by choice.

All Ryan Ellis ever wanted to do was race. It seemed natural for a third-generation racer to carry on the racing legacy his paternal and maternal grandfathers started and that was carried on by his father Jim.

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Ellis began racing when he was just four years old starting in quarter midgets working his way up the ladder eventually catching the attention of Volkswagen who selected him as one of 15 drivers to race in the Jetta TDI Cup series starting in 2009. When not racing in that series, Ellis competed in races in the National Auto Sport Association, Sports Car Club of America, and Grand Am.

He was living the dream he had growing up; racing and winning.

“I wanted to win the Indy 500, I wanted to win the Daytona 500,” Ellis said. “I wanted to be an Indy car driver. I wanted to be a World of Outlaws driver. I just wanted to drive race cars. I wanted to win the Dakar rally. I just want to go race everything.”

Like any competitive person, Ellis wanted to race and win at the highest levels. NASCAR however wasn’t exactly on his radar since it can be a very difficult sport to get into.

“I definitely stumbled into it,” he said. “It’s like nearly impossible honestly. You can do the right things a thousand times in a row and have nothing come out of it.”

His chance however came in 2012 while racing at Road America. He was racing in the Grand Am series when he was introduced to Jimmy Means a NASCAR team owner who had a Xfinity Series car entered in a race there that same weekend.

“Jimmy needed somebody to start and park and try to make the race,” Ellis said. “I was like, sure, driving a NASCAR race car sounds fun and signed up; just walked over to their garage, got fitted and did a couple laps. And ever since then I just been trying to make it in NASCAR. Yeah, it was kind of weird.”

Ellis only completed four laps in that first outing, but the point wasn’t to finish. A start and park entry is a car that enters the race with the full intention of never finishing and taking home the money earned for simply starting. It’s a once common practice for smaller teams that is now frowned on by NASCAR.

That first race however motivated Ellis to try and forge a fulltime career in NASCAR, something that has proven elusive.

“Once I kind of learned how the landscape worked with, you know, needing to have money or find money, I didn’t know how far I was gonna be able to make it,” he said. Adding with a laugh: “I was just stupid enough to keep trying.”

Since that first race, Ellis has made 88 starts across all three of NASCAR’s top touring series. However, he’s never been able to find a fulltime deal. That’s forced him to work at jobs outside the sport when not racing. Ellis earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from George Mason University in 2013 and a bachelor’s in advertising from Appalachian State University this past year. He currently works for Lead Coverage, a marketing and advertising firm while at the same time picking up races when and where he can.

Working more than one job is nothing new to the 32-year-old.

“Pretty much my whole life I’ve had two jobs,” he said. “When I was racing in Grand Am, I was working at Potbelly PBPB (a restaurant chain) making sandwiches during the mornings and early afternoon then I’d go manage a kart track till 10 o’clock at night…I like that.

 “If I could work 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM, I will. That’s worn down on me a little bit but like up until a couple months ago, I was still doing some contract work for CBD MD and doing this job as at Lead Coverage.

“You know, when you work 40, 45, 50 hours some weeks, I guess, closer to 45, to do that and then go race on the weekend and not only just show up and do it but put the work in to actually be able to do it. It’s definitely tough.”

Ellis, however, has learned to find balance with his work life and his racing life.

“It really gives you something to strive for,” he said.” Racing’s always been my sanity and the same reason I’m insane at the same time.”

One thing that he has done to keep racing is getting outside help.

“It’s just so hard to put these deals together,” he said. “I’m just lucky to have a lot of people that are helping me. I set up like an internship program that I kind of manage that helps me find these sponsors and they’ve been very successful. And without them, I don’t think I’d have the time anymore.”

Though he did spend time working as the public relations rep for Go Fas Racing before it closed, Ellis now tries to keep his work life separate from the racing which means that working for a sponsor, or a potential sponsor during the week might not be a good idea.

All of that can make it very challenging when trying to find a team to race for, sponsorship, and an understanding employer.

“I don’t want to go and have a bad workday on Monday and lose my biggest sponsor,” he said laughing. “I like the separation because it’s kind of like working with your girlfriend. You don’t bring your work home. You don’t get in trouble for something on track or at work that hurts you on the other end. But at the same time, I need the flexibility. Obviously if I miss a workday, because we have a rain out and I get fired that that won’t fly either.”

Working in marketing and advertising, however, does have its advantages. Like seizing an opportunity when he sees one. In 2016 NHL player Ryan Ellis was traded in a marquee deal. The hockey player doesn’t have a Twitter account; Ryan Ellis the NASCAR racer however does, and Ellis began tweeting in response to the news. Those tweets went viral and grabbed Ellis (the racer) a lot of positive attention and even led to the two meeting in person at a game later that year. It also got the attention of many inside NASCAR and outside as well and he was able to ink a one race sponsorship deal with an NHL focused media outlet. As a smart marketer, that NHL story is something he still uses to this day.

“As a driver, you’re pretty much a product,” Ellis said. “So you’re trying to think; what makes me unique? What is my story? What differentiates me from any other driver that you go sponsor and obviously price point because we’re working with some and smaller teams, but at the same time, like if I can’t use that to my advantage and say, ‘hey, we can create separation, we can create some more media, some PR a little bit of everything’ then I’m not doing my job. Right?

“I really do use that in pitches for initial outreach and for B2B opportunities, a little bit of everything. Because like a small sponsor, like Keen Parts, you know, for us to go get that much media attention just at a random race, was huge and I think a big reason of why they signed back with me this year.”

At 32 the chances of Ellis getting a fulltime ride are growing dimmer. Add a new daughter born to him and wife Allison just three months ago, and Ryan Ellis says his values are changing. Racing is still important, but so is the chance to work from home.

“If somebody came up and said, ‘hey, I have a million-dollar desk job. Would you take this and not race?’” he said. “I don’t know what my answer would be. Cause I’m still stupid enough to say that I’m gonna race till I’m 60 or 70 and just continue working on the side unless I can make enough money from racing to ever not have that.”

For now at least, Ryan Ellis will continue to chase his racing dreams and give NASCAR the blue collar connection it hasn’t seen since the early days of the sport.

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