Sunday evening, NASCAR driver and Capitals fan Ryan Ellis looked on from pit lane as his best friend Matt DiBenedetto crossed the finish line, placing ninth at the Daytona 500. The finish was the talented 25-year-old’s second top-ten ever during three seasons of racing in the Monster Energy Cup. Ellis high-fived and hugged everyone in the pit stall of the number-32 Go Fas Racing team. It was almost as if the team had won.
“At that moment, I felt so much joy. I really felt like I became part of Matt’s team,” Ellis said in a phone interview from the track. “But when I calmed down, I admittedly was super jealous and wished it was me out there.”
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On November 16, 2015, Ellis achieved a life-long dream when he made his Monster Energy Cup debut in the number-33 ScienceLogic/RMNB Chevy SS. Ellis finished in 40th place at Phoenix International Speedway. The highlight of his weekend was racing his idol, Jeff Gordon, during practice.
The next year, the Ashburn native and former George Mason University hockey player had a career-best season. Ellis started in four Cup races (Richmond, New Hampshire, The Brickyard, and Texas) with BK Racing and participated in 19 XFINITY races with Rick Ware Racing. Ellis even helped raise nearly $10,000 with this very blog to have RMNB primarily sponsor his XFINITY race car at Dover Downs in October.
Ellis’s primary sponsor at the Cup level was ScienceLogic, a deal he negotiated with the rapidly-expanding Reston-based software company himself. As part of the agreement, Ellis spoke at ScienceLogic’s sales kickoff event and met with potential clients who they invited out to the race track. Ellis supplied the company’s guests with VIP pit passes, gave pit tours, and held meet-and-greets with himself and various other drivers. During the race, the visitors would sit in the pit box and receive free food. According to The Washington Post’s Dillon Mullan, the company paid less than $50,000 per race to sponsor the race car. Their return on investment was high.
The company began negotiating a full-time ride with Ellis for the 2017 season, but in October, the momentum the talented 27-year-old driver had built over a year-and-a-half ended without warning.
During the middle of those negotiations, ScienceLogic’s Chief Marketing Officer was hired by a rival company. Upon the hiring of a new CMO, ScienceLogic severed their ties as a sponsor in NASCAR, stranding Ellis from the full-time ride he craved.
Ellis speaks to CSN Mid-Atlantic about his love for the Capitals.
At a crossroads, Ellis considered all his options. In NASCAR, many drivers in the three major series (Monster Energy Cup, XFINITY, and Truck) are forced to pay to race, using either family money or large-scale sponsorships to lock in their rides. In Cup, drivers are almost always required to bring money upfront to subsidize the massive costs of the team, from building the cars to paying the staff. Without the backing of a passionate sponsor, a guaranteed job was nearly impossible to get.
“I was definitely in talks with two or three Cup teams about driving for them,” Ellis said. “But ultimately some drivers bought the rides and I didn’t think that it would be a good way to make a living for a year. So I decided to build up my resume instead.”
At George Mason University, Ellis studied marketing and, through his own negotiations with sponsors, has become an expert at public relations and building buzz online.
“Matt Dibenedetto, one of my best friends, signed with a new team this year, Go Fas Racing, and they were in need of a PR person,” Ellis said. “Matt has always told me I’d be a good PR guy and we’ve joked back and forth about it. I love driving, but when I was constantly going back and forth to teams to get rides, it’s hard to make a living.”
Weeks after proposing to his longtime girlfriend Allison (she said yes), Ellis accepted DiBenedetto’s offer, which would pay him a stable salary for the first time in his life.
Ellis’s new cubicle.
“This was definitely a hard decision,” Ellis said. “I wrestled with the idea for what seemed like forever, but it felt like the right thing to do this year. I definitely by no means have given up on racing – it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do and what I’ve trained to do for the last 24 years of my life nearly every weekend. It’s been my family’s dream for three generations.”
Fast forward to Sunday, Ellis found himself in a role reversal of sorts. Standing in DiBenedetto’s pit box, Ellis ran errands for the team to the Daytona International Speedway media center, while also picking up the team food. Ellis also took pre-race pictures for the team’s social media accounts and gave DiBenedetto’s sponsors tours of the track.
“I had a lot more responsibility than as a driver,” Ellis joked. “As a driver, you just do what people tell you to do, but today I was in charge of Matt’s schedule and interviews. It’s weird to be one step removed from everything, but I still got recognized a lot and signed a lot of autographs – even in my khakis.”
At the end of the race, Ryan was inundated with media requests to speak to his driver, whose ninth place finish even inspired kind words from Fox’s All-Star commentary team of Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip, and Jeff Gordon.
Beyond this season, how long Ellis remains at a desk job is anyone’s best guess. But for one night, his best friend’s surprising and shocking finish erased the bittersweet feelings of the last three months.
“I like the job a lot, but it will never compare to being behind the wheel,” Ellis said. “I have full faith that things will work out eventually. I’ll continue working as hard as I possibly can to put myself in a position to make a full-time ride happen.”
If you’re a company that’s interested in sponsoring Ryan, you can email him directly here.
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