Ryan Ellis made 24 starts across NASCAR’s three national series last year, another young driver trying to stay alive in the sport by jumping into whatever ride he could.
But Ellis, tired of waiting for his big break and facing another exhausting season of trying to chase sponsorship, realized it might be best to take a year off from driving, then reset and try again in 2018.
His job for this season, though, is perhaps unprecedented for a driver who raced in the NASCAR Cup Series as recently as November.
Ellis is now the public relations representative for Matt DiBenedetto, who joins GoFas Racing’s No. 32 car this season.
“I’ve always said, ‘Hey, PR person Ryan,’ because he would always just do everything for me and he’s so good at working with people and just kind of winging everything,” said DiBenedetto, who is close friends with Ellis. “That joke actually turned into a reality for this year.”
It was actually such a running gag between the two that when DiBenedetto sat down and sincerely offered the position, he kept trying not to laugh. All joking aside, he said, there was a lot Ellis could do to help the team.
And Ellis, 27, didn’t have to think very hard about it before accepting. Despite having what he called “the best racing year of my life” in 2016, every potential opportunity closed up.
“It’s just so hard to claw and scratch and still be able to pay the bills halfway through a season,” Ellis said this week in between shuttling DiBenedetto to various stops on the NASCAR Media Tour. “I’ve been able to do it the last couple years, but it just takes such a burden on you.”
That’s no exaggeration; Ellis has taken side jobs like working at the Richard Petty Driving Experience and even mopping floors at a BMW dealership to make ends meet.
So the opportunity to try his hand at PR — which comes with a steady salary — was too good to pass up, especially while working with a good friend.
“(Finding a ride) is only getting harder,” Ellis said. “With the self-funded drivers or the drivers who know the right people, you’re just not going to get one of these opportunities without money. I need to pay the bills, so I’ve just got to accept it and do all I can.
“Outside of it being weird, it’s not going to be hard.”
But it is definitely going to be weird. Ellis joked he already wanted to quit while hearing DiBenedetto, a feel-good story last season for BK Racing, tell reporters over and over again how the key to surviving in NASCAR is sticking around long enough to get one great opportunity.
Ellis said the biggest challenge will come when he’s at the track every week but can’t get in a car despite still wanting to race.
“Being emotionally stable (will be the hard part),” he said with a smile. “It’s great to be working with a friend and hopefully bettering his career, but it’ll be hard not making those comparisons to the drivers you think you’re better than who are on the track every week. That will never go away.”
DiBenedetto said Ellis will be “one of the best in the industry” despite a lack of experience because “he’s pretty much done his own PR and self-promoted himself for so many years.”
Of course, if Ellis gets really desperate to get back into a car before 2018, there’s always one sinister option.
“The good news is I control Matt’s food for the most part, so I can poison him at certain tracks,” he said.
Hat-tip to Chris Knight for first tweeting about this development.