Ryan Ellis doesn’t get the chance to race much these days, so when he does, he makes sure to get the most out of every opportunity.
Such was the case two weeks ago at Darlington Raceway in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race with BJ McLeod Motorsports.
Making his first Xfinity start in nearly two years, Ellis began the race in 33rd. Come the checkered flag, the No. 99 car avoided the chaos en route to a 16th-place finish, which is his best ever result on a non-superspeedway.
“I kind of screwed my goals up [at Darlington],” Ellis recently told Jayski.com. “I think every time I get into a racecar, especially with a small team like this, a top 20 is good. I went into [Darlington] with a top 20 goal and we blew it out of the water — it was four spots, but that‘s a big deal for a small team like this and myself.”
But less than 48 hours following the adrenaline rush of slinging an Xfinity car around a worn out Darlington track surface, Ellis was back to his full-time job.
Away from the racetrack, Ellis serves as the marketplace coordinator for dropshipping with CBD Manufactured Domestically. Within the last six weeks, Ellis began working at cbdMD after leaving Klik Marketing earlier this year.
Returning to his cubicle two days after running 16th was eye opening, despite admitting he’s become accustomed to it.
“It‘s humbling and I‘m a big proponent of having your best and worst days on social media,” Ellis said. “I was up there, having a great day at Darlington and on Monday I had an 8:30 meeting and worked until 5:30.
“It sucks because I‘m not doing what I want to be doing. It‘s tough, but I don‘t think it‘s any tougher than what anybody else is going through in this world.”
What Ellis wants to be doing is racing full time at some level. Since entering the NASCAR scene in 2012, that’s something the Virginia native hasn’t been able to do, with 16 races in one series being the most he’s done in one year (2016, Xfinity).
But prior to the 2021 Xfinity season kicking off, Ellis announced six races, with a seventh likely being added to his calendar. The unfortunate part is, by recently being transferred to the sales department at cbdMD, it’s mandatory he be in the office 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with no flexibility. Whereas before in the marketing department, he was allowed to work remotely or even on the road.
Though knowing he’s not the only person in the world to be affected by paid time off, it’s led to some additional stress.
“It pissed me off,” Ellis stated. “All of a sudden, I have to ask for PTO, which is normal and I‘m not trying to say it negatively, but very different from what I thought it would be. I have a baby on the way, I don‘t know how many days off I‘m going to get with all of that, so I don‘t want to burn all my time off on racecars and not spend time with my daughter. That‘s a really tough decision for me.
“I‘ve only been in this department for [two] weeks and in the company for [just over] 30 days. [Two weeks ago] was really stressful. I cried.”
Ellis admitted he won’t let his job affect his racing obligations because he had prior commitments to BJ McLeod Motorsports.
B.J. McLeod, owner of BJMM, respects Ellis’ worth ethic.
“He‘s got the passion to work hard and achieve something that he‘s dreamed about for a long time,” McLeod said. “I don‘t think that‘s over until you decide it‘s over. Obviously, different ages limit what you can accomplish in this sport — that is a fact — but it‘s not limiting the fact that you can get there and do a pretty good amount of good stuff no matter what age you get into it at or how long it takes you if you just keep trying.”
Ellis also doesn’t want to let down the Keen family, who met him while he worked for Go Fas Racing in the marketing department. Keen Parts, based out of Ohio, is the driver’s primary sponsor.
The Keens fully support Ellis.
“Ryan‘s a good guy. It‘s one of those things, why not?” Tom Keen, co-owner of Keen Parts, said about sponsoring Ellis part time. “We have the capability, [we] enjoy helping people like Ryan, we have the means and are capable of doing what needs to be done. So why not do it with someone that appreciates it?
“A lot of these drivers have no interest in what the sponsor is. They‘re just racers and it happens to say Keen Parts, ABC or XYZ on the car and that‘s where it stops.”
Ellis and the Keens began their relationship in 2017, who was fresh to Go Fas. While working with drivers Matt DiBenedetto and Corey LaJoie over the last four years, Ellis struggled to compartmentalize his position, though was happy to have a full-time job in the sport.
“2017 and 2018 were probably the hardest years of my life,” Ellis added. “Not at the same time, but day-to-day there were some dark days in there where you‘re really questioning what you‘re doing, because I‘m literally standing two feet from the person that‘s doing what I want to be doing for a living. Back then, I watched all the Xfinity and Truck races and gauged where I thought I would be in every race and that killed me. In the past, I could use that as motivation, but I was locked out of driving because of my job.”
Ellis confirmed he had to turn down a full-time Cup opportunity with Obaika Racing ahead of the 2019 season, though the team evidently never hit the racetrack. Not accepting a Cup job was tough.
“Even though I thought it was going to fall apart, it kept me up for months,” he said of Obaika. “I was very unhappy having to turn down a full time Cup opportunity.”
But last year, when Go Fas announced it would stop running full time in NASCAR, Ellis had a decision to make: To stay in the sport or not. Ultimately, being close to the action but watching from afar was too difficult.
By getting a job outside the sport, it freed him up to race.
“Not being able to race killed me more than being at the track standing there every single day,” Ellis mentioned. “I wanted to be able to use time off [from work] to go drive racecars and be able to pay the bills with a normal job.”
Now being able to race, Ellis is conflicted on what he’s looking for. Admitting he used to worry about where his next opportunity was coming, that stress is long gone.
In the end, he wants to have fun.
“I go into it saying, ‘I‘m probably not going to get a job after this — Joe Gibbs probably isn‘t going to call me after this race,’” Ellis added. “So I‘m going to go out there and treat it like anybody that would pull up to their local ride and drive go kart track and I‘m going to beat everybody, just have fun. If something comes of it, great. But you never know when the last time you‘re going to buckle into one of these things.
“I would love to be a full-time driver, but I don‘t know if that‘s in my cards with my age and lack of sponsorship right now.”
So when all looks bleak, why continue to chase his childhood dream?
Ellis said, “At a very deep level, I want to show my daughter and whatever future kids I have on the way that you should live and pursue your dream. I just don‘t think when I‘m on my deathbed, whether that‘s in five minutes or 50 years, I don‘t want to know that I gave up. I don‘t know if that means giving up on racing as a whole or giving up as a career, but I‘m always going to be stupid enough to think a full-time Cup deal is not out of reach.
“You could meet the right partner and you could still get that opportunity. I still believe I have the opportunity to do it.”
Ellis will make his second Xfinity start of the season this weekend in the inaugural race at Circuit of the Americas, a track he had circled on his calendar as soon as NASCAR announced it would be running at the famed road course.