Ashburn, VA (Feb. 29, 2016) – Just picture a four-year-old child grasping the wheel with two hands, bearing down toward the finish line. This was the case for Ashburn native Ryan Ellis, who began racing practically as a toddler.
At that time he was driving go-karts, which run on pavement, or quarter midgets, which run on dirt. As a third generation racer, Ellis was born to drive.
“My dad raced pretty much his whole life and my grandfather raced as well, so it was a pretty natural step for me to get into it,” Ellis said, “and as long as I can remember I was at the race track watching my dad, cheering him on, so it’s something I’ve been involved in my whole life.”
The 2008 Stone Bridge alum went on to drive quarter midgets for seven years, winning several championships regionally and nationally, before officially becoming a professional driver at the youthful age of 12, when he began driving cars about 5/8 the size of NASCAR vehicles, known as legends cars.
“I started getting pay checks to drive so that was really cool, I was racing against adults as a young kid,” Ellis said. “Then I pretty much moved up the ladder every couple of years.”
He would later take home the 2005 Virginia State Pro Championship before going into full-sized car racing the next year at age 16. It was at that spritely age that he achieved his first exposure to NASCAR, as he competed in the Weekly Racing Series division out of the Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, a complex that was shut down in 2012.
At 18, Ellis was selected to join the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup road-racing series, padding to his already extensive driving resume.
Ellis’ career really accelerated in 2011, while attending George Mason University, when he signed with APR Motorsport and won the first two road-racing events of the Grand-Am season as a rookie in his gray four-door 2011 Volkswagen GTI.
“I don’t know if that’s ever been done, with a rookie winning the first two races of the year, but it really propelled me forward,” Ellis said.
The first win came at the historic Daytona International Speedway, an event in which he set the track record by two seconds in qualifying, followed by another win at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. The road races make use of the standard oval track, but extend beyond as well in a two-and-half hour race. He would go on to finish third in the overall points standings that season and win ST Rookie of the Year.
In 2012, the same year he graduated from GMU, his road to becoming a regular on the NASCAR circuits was sparked by a phone call from a team that simply needed a driver for an event in Wisconsin on the XFINITY series, which was known as the Nationwide series at the time.
“It was weird how it all came together, it was very much a networking gig,” Ellis said. “For me it was kind of far-fetched because I had been running in the road-racing series and was making a career out of that and really hadn’t thought about running any NASCAR stuff, so it was really cool to get that phone call and really a no-brainer.”
Thanks to that inaugural experience on the big stage, Ellis is now a mainstay on both the NASCAR XFINITY and NASCAR Truck Series, giving him the opportunity to race at famed tracks like Bristol, Daytona and Talladega nearly every weekend.
“I always wanted to be in NASCAR,” Ellis said, “I just never knew how or when I was going to get there, one day I just kind of realized I had a job in the sport. I thought it was going to be a one-off weekend here or there, I didn’t know it was going to turn into a weekly thing, but it’s turned out to be that way.”
The top-tier NASCAR circuit is the Sprint Cup series, with legendary drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. blazing around the pavement each week.
Ellis made his Sprint Cup debut in the 2015 Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway, which is one of the top races of the year as it falls in November during the playoffs.
“My Sprint Cup debut was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said, “that’s every kid’s dream when they’re dreaming of becoming a NASCAR driver, racing against people like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, which are two of my heroes, and I got to do it for at least one weekend last year.”
This is the one and only Sprint Cup event of his journey so far, but he expects multiple starts in 2016. NASCAR recently cut the field sizes down from 43 to 40, making it even more difficult to land a consistent gig on the sport’s top tour.
“At least for one weekend, I was one of the top 40 drivers in the United States,” Ellis said. “Even if my career ended tomorrow, I can always be happy with that moment.”
Although he has his sights set on becoming a regular on the top circuit within the next couple of years, he is content with the progress he has made and where is career is heading.
“Things are still going the right direction,” Ellis said. “We’re getting a lot of sponsorship and my name is growing a little bit inside the sport and out, and I think once things start snowballing that way, I can build a little more consistent ride or team. But just having a ride week-to-week whether in XFINITY or Trucks has been huge.”
To continue moving forward in the sport, he will have to rely on networking and sponsorship as expenses in professional racing persistently climb. Racing teams can spend about $200,000 per week on the XFINITY level and $750,000 per week on the top level, relying on sponsors to pay the bills.
“Just making it to this level and even having a job for this long without family money or having a big sponsor backing me to this point,” Ellis said, “it’s definitely been a rough ride, but it’s still awesome to wake up everyday as a racecar driver and do that for a living. It’s just a really good feeling to know that I’ve made it to this level.”
Like many drivers, Ellis is currently living in the Charlotte, North Carolina area to be closer to the racing teams for meetings and various PR appearances.
He will also be working the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the Charlotte Motor Speedway this year, which allows everyday people to ride in a NASCAR vehicle with a professional driver for $150. The more intense fans can even drive the cars themselves for a fee of $1,000.
Unbeknownst to most casual observers of the sport, racing can be both physically and mentally draining on the drivers. According to Ellis, he typically loses about 15 to 20 pounds in water-weight each time he races due to the high heat he endures behind the wheel.
“I think people just see us in the car and it looks very easy but it’s mentally very testing, and as soon as your mind tires out, your body tires out so much quicker,” he said. “By the end of the race you have such a bad headache from being dehydrated that you feel hungover.”
To stay in shape, Ellis enjoys hockey, boxing and going to the gym. He played ice hockey for Stone Bridge, ice and roller hockey for George Mason, and has even played professional inline hockey.
“At the end of the day, I’ll be happy if I have to go back and get an office job just knowing that I made it to this level and lasted this long because it’s a really tough business,” Ellis said.
Viva Loudoun: We Live For Loudoun™
Written by Josh Apple
Special to Viva Loudoun