Caps players Peter Bondra and Michal Pivoňka pose with Ellis and his Ashburn Ice House-sponsored car.
There’s a reason why race car drivers thank companies before family members in post-race interviews: they are the main reason they have a seat. This Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, Ryan Ellis, a die-hard Caps fan and RMNB reader from Ashburn, will get a shot in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the sport’s top level. The 25-year-old will drive the Circle Sport #33 Chevy SS, sponsored by the Reston-based IT firm Science Logic, in the penultimate race of the season.
“I’m really, really freaking excited,” Ellis told me last month.
NASCAR is a sport that originated in the deep south. Increasingly, though, it’s becoming a national phenomenon and a destination for the world’s top race drivers. NHL hockey, too, has expanded, as it tries to transition from Canada’s game to a sport that can succeed in the sunbelt and other environs below the Mason-Dixon line. Ellis is a product of both trends. Born in California, he moved to the DC exburbs as a toddler. His grandfather, Vic, was a champion midget car racer in the Midwest in the post-War era, perhaps racing’s most dangerous time, before he was killed in 1958. Undeterred, Vic’s son Jim began racing motorcycles after his father’s death. A collarbone fracture put Jim behind the wheel instead, where he raced as an amateur until he retired to help Ryan’s budding career. Now, 57 years after Vic Ellis’s death, his grandson is about the take the family passion to its biggest stage yet, one that averages around 100,000 spectators every week.
“My family’s got a pretty deep-rooted history in racing, just not necessary a big name,” Ellis said.
Because of that family history, Ellis got started racing young, winning his first event when he was just five-years-old. He raced his way up on a oval tracks, the natural path for a future-NASCAR driver. In 2006, however, Ellis began the switch to road racing, where he had to pay for the opportunity to drive, which is common in motorsports. After a couple of previous starts in NASCAR, both regionally and nationally, Ellis moved to North Carolina in January 2014 to switch to the sport full-time, racing nationally in the third-tier Camping World Truck Series and the second-tier Xfinity series.
But that’s not why we’re writing about him. Instead, it’s his connection to hockey. Ellis may be a bigger hockey fan than speed junkie.
“If I ever lived my life over I’d totally be a hockey player,” he said. “I’ve dreamt of doing that my whole life,” he said.
Ellis got started playing both inline and ice hockey around the same age he got into a car, four-years-old. Without a rink in Loudoun County, Ellis played for the Reston Raiders. One of Ellis’s first racing sponsors was actually the Ashburn Ice House, when Loudoun’s hockey hotbed finally got its own rink.
“That was like a new concept,” Ellis said. “I don’t know how much money it was. I was so little, I didn’t know what money was really. It was pretty cool. It was a little crossbreed between hockey and racing.”
Ellis, who counts the end of the 1998 Stanley Cup Final as one of the worst moments of his life, went on to win multiple championships as a player for Stone Bridge High School, where he often played at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Even while he had a full-time racing career, Ellis attended George Mason University, still playing both inline and club ice hockey, though he abbreviated his on-ice career so he didn’t risk injuring himself. At Mason wore 25 in honor of Jason Chimera, a fellow player with “hands of stone.”
“Playing college hockey was one of the coolest things in my life,” Ellis added. “I still look at pictures of that like every freakin’ day! Hardly anyone even knows we have a Mason team.”
At Mason, Ellis had an insane schedule, racing every weekend, working two jobs, and playing adult and college hockey all while going to school.
“It was tough,” Ellis said. “It was crazy. Part of the reason why it was nice to get away to North Carolina is because I wasn’t able to put 100 percent into my racing and 100 percent into my college.”
He left Mason after the fall semester of 2013 just two classes short of his degree.
“When you live there you didn’t have the networking and you don’t get to know the drivers and the teams,” Ellis said of Virginia. “I was like, ‘I’m going down to North Carolina and I’m gonna do it and do it right!'”
Ellis, however, hasn’t had to give up his love of hockey. Star Sprint Cup Series driver Joey Logano plays himself and owns ice rinks in North Carolina. Michael Annett, another full-time Sprint Cup driver, used to play junior hockey in the USHL. Kevin Harvick, another top driver, is also a hockey fan. The Charlotte Checkers of the AHL host an annual Race Night, which attracted Harvick, Logano, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Trevor Bayne, and Regan Smith, all well-known drivers in the sport, when it was last held in January. Ellis still manages to play inline hockey two days a week, though ice is hard to come by. He’s even played pick-up hockey with former Capital Steve Oleksy.
“I’ve brought a few drivers out,” Ellis said. “We just do some stick and puck stuff because they usually can’t skate.”
Even without a degree, Ellis’s time at Mason has been invaluable to his racing career. Especially in NASCAR, careers live and die on the ability of drivers to get sponsorships. Lesser drivers will get a gig if they bring financial backing. Racing may be a business of passion, but it’s still a business rather than a charity. Teams can’t afford to lose money.
“In hockey if you have the skill you’re always going to have a job,” Ellis said. “In racing if you have money, you’re always going to have a job. If you have a sponsor, you’re always going to have a job.”
Ellis has lost track of the number of teams he has raced for. Without family money or a full-time sponsor behind him, Ellis searches for a seat week-to-week. Often, his teams have not had the money to run a full race, a common theme in NASCAR known as a “start and park.”
“When you’re a race car driver, you’re so much more than a driver,” Ellis said. “Driving is the easiest part. Finding sponsorship and money to do it every week is the real job and that’s the hard part of it all. My Monday to Friday job is building sponsorship proposals and sending them out.”
With Science Logic, Ellis hopes his luck will change. He got the seat himself, pitching the company to put up the money. He is hoping to represent them well this weekend. It’s his best shot so far at a full-time job in sport.
“I’ve been hoping for an opportunity like this all year,” Ellis said. “Everything just worked out perfectly for once. Usually checks don’t clear or something. It’s a true sponsorship in every sense of the word. It’s a great company. It could lead to some much bigger stuff next year.”
Racing is tumultuous sport. While the big names make millions of dollars, smaller teams struggle to survive. Numerous drivers battle for any empty seats. When asked when he realized racing would be his career, Ellis laughed.
“Uh, it seems like I’m still trying to figure that out every day,” he said.
RMNB is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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