Kappa Sigma brother represents fraternity in Richmond NASCAR race

Senior Ryan Ellis has been interested in racing cars his whole life. Recently, he was sponsored by his fraternity Kappa Sigma to compete in a NASCAR race in Richmond. Ellis hopes to eventually turn his passion for racing into a career (photo courtesy of Paul Eckelman, Sigma Kappa Nationals)
Senior Ryan Ellis has been interested in racing cars his whole life. Recently, he was sponsored by his fraternity Kappa Sigma to compete in a NASCAR race in Richmond. Ellis hopes to eventually turn his passion for racing into a career (photo courtesy of Paul Eckelman, Sigma Kappa Nationals)

For most kids growing up, you learn to crawl before you learn to walk. Mason senior Ryan Ellis, meanwhile, took to four wheels before he took to two feet.

“When most kids were sleeping with teddy bears, I would sleep with toy cars and toy motorcycles,” Ellis said. “I used to crawl up to my Power Wheels and drive that around before I could actually walk. My whole life I have wanted to be a race car driver and nothing else.”

For Ellis and his family, racing is in their blood. Ellis’ love of racing was instilled by his father, who raced professionally before retiring to focus on managing his son’s racing career. Ellis’ grandfather was a race car driver as well until he died in a racing accident in 1958.

“I have been around the track my whole life and fell in love with it myself and have never looked back,” Ellis said.

Ellis started his racing career at age four and won his sixth career race in Quarter Midgets racing at the age of five. Ellis continued his youth racing career on tracks throughout Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

In the process, Ellis earned honors that cumulated into a selection in 2009 by Volkswagen of America as one of 15 North American drivers invited to race in the 2009 Jetta TDI Cup series.

“The TDI Cup was my first real step from the amateur and regional ranks into the professional ranks of racing,” Ellis said.

After winning various races in the TDI Cup and participating in the series for two years, Ellis transitioned into racing in Grand-Am Road Racing.

While TDI Cup and NASCAR races typically take place on the more traditional oval tracks, road-racing tracks are meant to mimic standard, purpose-built paved roads with left and right turns.

Ellis excelled immediately in the Grand-Am series and was named the 2011 Grand-Am Rookie of the Year. Ellis used the reputation he earned in the Grand-Am series as a steppingstone into the world of NASCAR.

“I got pulled into NASCAR through my knowledge of road courses and I was kind of a road course expert. Lately, I have been using [road course knowledge] as a route into NASCAR. Where most people have been racing ovals their whole life, I have been trying to work the back door route into NASCAR,” Ellis said.

Ellis’ first NASCAR race came in 2012 in the Nationwide Series, which is considered the minor leagues of NASCAR to the more prestigious Sprint Cup Series. Ellis raced in the Sargento 200 held at the Road America course -- a road-racing track -- in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Ellis’ participation in the race resulted from a combination of networking, timing and luck.

“A friend of a friend knew a team that needed a driver and it was two days out of a race. I needed to get my drug test done and have my physical done and not many drivers thought they would be able to do it, so I ran out and got that done, pulled out to the race and made [the team] happy and I have just been trying to continue to satisfy them and meet their expectations,” Ellis said.

Ellis has since raced in three more Nationwide Series events, all of which took place on road tracks. Ellis’ fifth Nationwide Series race was the Virginia 529 College Savings 250 at the Richmond International Raceway where he finished 31st out of 40 racers. It was Ellis’ first oval track race in the Nationwide Series.

“I thought my result at Richmond was pretty good for my first oval race in NASCAR. It was a really tough field with a lot of the Sprint Cup regulars in Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Kyle Busch also racing in the Nationwide Series race. My main goal was to finish and stay out of trouble and I achieved both of those,” Ellis said.

Ellis’ participation in the race at Richmond came about through a partnership with his fraternity, Kappa Sigma, to promote the fraternity as a whole and to raise awareness for its Military Heroes Campaign, which honors and donates money to military veterans, their families and non-profit organizations who work on behalf of veterans.

While Ellis was happy to represent his fraternity in this particular race, he also saw it as another opportunity to transition his passion into a full-fledged career.

“It was nice to be able to give back to the fraternity and race for a cause greater than myself. It was also good to give them a spotlight just like they have been able to give me and they have helped network me into NASCAR and hopefully now I can network myself to stay into it,” Ellis said.

Ellis will now focus on getting fully certified to race a full season in the Nationwide Series. Ellis hopes to compete in Nationwide Series races in Kentucky, Kansas and Delaware.

“I am making the phone calls right now to find the sponsors -- because I have gotten a lot of positive feedback from the race at Richmond -- and hopefully create a relationship to get me through these two or three races and then to a bigger [sponsorship deal] next year for a full season,” Ellis said.

Ellis estimates that the cost of a full season in the Nationwide Series would range from $7 million to $10 million dollars, so fostering relationships with sponsors is essential.

Despite his involvement with racing, Ellis is still enrolled at Mason as a marketing major and competed for the Mason inline hockey club until last semester.

Ellis intends to pursue a career in racing even if that means sacrificing and prolonging his time at Mason.

“It is not easy, but I schedule most of my classes so that they are Mondays to Thursdays -- or Mondays to Wednesdays, if I can do that --- because I end up leaving usually Wednesday afternoon or Wednesday night and do not come back until Sunday night or Monday morning,” Ellis said. “There have been times that I have been gone for 40 days straight and obviously that does not make it too easy on school. But it is my dream and if it extends school a year or two, I am more than happy to keep doing it.”

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