One of the true feel-good stories in the NASCAR Xfinity Series garage for the 2023 season is Ryan Ellis. The journeyman racer, who has worked off of a shoestring budget for years, grouping a couple of races together at a time, has finally found enough partners for at least 24 races this season with Alpha Prime Racing in the No. 43 Chevrolet Camaro.
In an exclusive interview with TobyChristie.com, Ellis says he is proof-positive that anything is possible with hard work.
“Yeah, I’m super stoked mainly for the amount of races and to have most of my exact same team back is really, really cool. I swear to God, I’ve never worked as hard, my entire life, as I have over the last four or five months to create job stability to make sure we’re full-time this year because we are really, really close,” Ellis said.
While the immediate goal is piecing together enough partners to fund a full NASCAR Xfinity Series season, Ellis is more focused on the long-term picture of being around for more than just 2023.
“Going from PR, where I had literally like $25k in sponsorship per year it felt like [I was] scraping together and we wouldn’t even get a sticker set of tires, and we might be sharing a pit crew in the one or two races I would do per year. And now we’re like literally three-four races away from full-time. Knowing how hard it was to get here has made me work really, really hard to make sure that not only do I not lose it but also that I can have it next year and the year after that,” Ellis explained.
Interview Table of Contents
- How did Ryan Ellis get to this point?
- The financial and relationship strains of a budding race car driver
- Sponsorship is what brings Ellis to racing today
- Why Alpha Prime Racing?
- Ryan Ellis from underdog racer to star free agent?
- This all feels unreal for Ellis
- Is Alpha Prime’s expansion sustainable?
- Under the radar mindset? And realistic expectations
- Being paired with the young and talented Michael Brandt
- The greatest opportunity of Ellis’ career
- Full Audio Recording of Interview (Substack Premium Subscribers Only)
How did Ryan Ellis get to this point?
Ellis doesn’t come from a family steeped in racing royalty. He isn’t a household name. He knows just how fickle his existence is behind the wheel of a race car. Hell, just a few years ago, it looked like his dreams of competing at the NASCAR National Series level had reached a sad, yet predictable end.
In 2017, a year after running what was a then career-high 16 races in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, Ellis had hit rock bottom as far as his driving career was concerned. His racing helmet, suit, and gloves would collect dust in the closet while he instead served as the public relations representative for his friend and fellow racer Matt DiBenedetto.
Ellis would run a one-off race or two per year while serving in his PR role, but it was obvious any momentum for his driving career had officially slowed to a crawl. While Ellis enjoyed the financial stability that the public relations gig brought, he never let himself come to terms with the fact that his racing career was all but done.
“I don’t think I ever thought about [no longer being a race car driver], because it would hurt to think about in an ultimatum kind of way,” Ellis stated. “Ironically, when I walked in here, five minutes ago, I was talking to Mason St. Hillaire from Go Fas telling him that I miss him. I was so happy there because I had never had a stable job, because racing, as we all know, isn’t a stable way to make a living. So, it was nice to not worry about that. I thought it was weird to have a nice median lifestyle and not the massive ups and downs that I’m having now.”
While Ellis never mentally checked out on his dream of being a race car driver, he now admits that had Go Fas Racing not shut down, that he most likely would have never returned to the driver’s seat for more than a few races.
“I don’t think I ever ruled it out, but I was kind of happy where I was,” Ellis said. “If they hadn’t sold the team, I was not actively pursuing a way to get back into it. I was mentally pursuing it, but I didn’t have the time to work on it.”
Who would have thought that Ellis would be within earshot of being a full-time racer in 2023? Not Ellis. That’s for sure.
“I never would have thought, while I was sitting behind a desk holding sharpies for Corey [LaJoie] and Matt [DiBenedetto], that I would have a better opportunity on the other side of that window. And I definitely don’t want to lose it,” Ellis said. “I just want to kind of grasp it, enjoy it, which is the hard part, and succeed. Because it’s the craziest journey. It’s a real-life Ricky Bobby story, I just wish it got as much press and relatability as I think it could for the average fan.”
The financial and relationship strains of a budding race car driver
Losing the security of his day job, while not ideal at the time, ultimately led to the racer being closer to being a full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series racer than he has ever been throughout his entire driving career.
But it wasn’t as simple as losing your PR job and getting handed a great opportunity. Ellis, and more importantly his family, had to make sacrifices financially to get to where he is now.
“I think it’s a relatable story of anyone chasing a dream of like how our financial struggles have been,” Ellis explained. “I literally pitched a debt relief company the other day. I’m like, ‘man, I am the perfect spokesperson for you,’ We’ve had debt collections companies calling us. Not in a crazy way, but we have college loans. My wife is a nurse, and we’re very deep in loans there too. The [racing] industry definitely doesn’t pay like it used to a long time ago.
“It’s very stressful, and like, we’ve had very honest conversations as recent as three or four weeks ago of her watching me struggle to put some of these things together, and me being like, ‘Do you want me to not do this?’ Like, obviously, I can’t really pull out at this point, but is this not where we want to be for my daughter? And for like trying to build a family and make sure she can live a happy life?’ Because I want her to see I’m pursuing my dreams, but I don’t want to be a burden to my wife and not give her a moment of free time. Because anytime she’s home, she’s just watching the baby and I’m sending emails. And it’s a hard way to live. Not just financially, but just day-to-day. It really is.”
While he is finally beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, Ellis explains a lot of his promises to his wife over the years have come up empty.
“I feel like a car salesman in a lot of ways,” Ellis joked. “Not only with myself, but [also] to my wife. And that’s what I’ve told her. The conversation was, ‘I know every year I tell you next year will be better, and whether that is on track or money or a tax situation, literally anything, I truly believe I have found a year that I can look at next year and think yes, it will be less stressful,’ because of the primary sponsorships.”
At the end of the day, Ellis is thankful for the grace that his family has shown him while he has chased this insanely difficult-to-achieve dream, and he is hell-bent on being a hero to his daughter.
“I want to be a motivation to my daughter like we were saying earlier,” Ellis stated. “Other drivers, I say I want to be a motivation, but at the same time, I would tell them not to do it. Because it takes a very unique drive from yourself as well as your entire family. It’s very draining.”
Sponsorship is what brings Ellis to racing today
Sponsorship is absolutely the most important thing in motorsports. Nobody is immune to the impact that lack of sponsorship brings to any situation. Even Kyle Busch parted ways with Joe Gibbs Racing after 14 seasons together when M&M’s pulled their support for the 2023 season.
Ellis takes pride in where he is partnership-wise. He now has so much sponsorship in place that he has a hard time keeping track of them all.
“I think we have 12 [primary sponsors] already locked in. I don’t know if that’s more than any other driver, and I don’t say that in a cocky way, but in a manic way,” Ellis said. “Because it’s so hard to manage. Like, it’s crazy. I honestly can’t keep track of them. I have a picture on my phone.”
While Ellis pours his heart and soul into procuring sponsorships, he doesn’t fight those battles alone. The racer has a small, yet passionate team, that has truly helped take him from rock bottom to rocking his most expansive schedule to date.
“It’s a very grassroots effort,” Ellis said of his marketing team. “I have two people that I work with very closely, Sarah Handy and Garrett Miller. Literally, I talk to them non-stop all day, every day, in an 18-20 hour a day portion. They do so much for me. And I try to take care of them as much as I can. It’s definitely a lot to have to feel like a business owner and take care of other people and make sure you treat them as well as you can because you can never really pay them back enough. [I’ve also been] Working with Phillip Smalley and Spire Sports, the best management company I’ve ever worked with. He’s helped me close so much. We’re actually going to hop onto a B2B call here in a little bit to make sure the sponsors stay happy. I can’t do it all myself. I can’t figure out finance and accounting, I figured that out yesterday, I need that team for sure.”
When Ellis looks back at how his efforts at approaching sponsorship has changed with people fighting alongside him in his corner, he sees a staggering contrast from the kid who couldn’t afford for his car to have fresh tires. He just hopes that he has properly conveyed how important folks like Handy and Miller have been to his career resurgence.
“Absolutely. I hope they know they’re as big of a piece as they truly are,” Ellis warmly stated. “That’s one thing that’s really hard to put out because when you’re putting out a tweet announcing a sponsor if you put a third or half of it thanking the people who helped you get there, it kind of takes away from the actual announcement itself. So, I’ll never be able to really pay them back whether that’s financially or by saying thank you enough. Because, as we’ve talked about I had nothing sponsor-wise a few years ago and now I have 12 primary sponsors. These people truly care about our success, and I think they like being part of the team because they know that they literally make a difference.”
Why Alpha Prime Racing?
While Ellis and his team found enough sponsorship to expand his schedule to at least 24 races for the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity Series season, what was it that attracted Ellis to the young Alpha Prime Racing team?
“I guess I read an article a few years ago where Tommy said that I was his best friend in Xfinity and I was like, well, I guess I gotta use that up,” Ellis quipped. “This is no slight against Tommy as a driver. I think when you have a team that has one driver and that one driver — an experienced good driver like Tommy — it’s always helpful to see someone else’s point of view. You see opportunity in just trying different things. Me probably having driven for almost more teams than anybody in the last 10 years, and cars, I figured I had pretty unique perspective and saw an opportunity to grow the team and be a part of a very young team as the old guy. It was a cool opportunity.
Ellis says the manufacturer that Alpha Prime is aligned with also meshed very well with one of his pre-existing primary sponsors — CorvetteParts.net.
“Chevy, not Chevy itself, but being a Chevy team helped CorvetteParts and Tom and TJ. Definitely could not go to a Toyota team with that,” Ellis laughed. “They don’t mind the Ford-Vette stuff, but we try to stay away from the Toyota side. It was just the perfect fit. I never tried to go anywhere else, this whole entire offseason I never wanted to go anywhere else. Tommy and I are good friends, and he’s not afraid to yell at me. It’s a fun place here, that’s for sure.”
Ryan Ellis from underdog racer to star free agent?
Motorsports is an interesting game. The also-rans, the have-nots, the undesirables, can become very desirable very quickly if they are able to find droves of sponsorship.
While Ellis had no intentions of racing for anyone but Tommy Joe Martins in 2023, that didn’t stop other teams from making pitches, and Ellis also had to have a backup plan ready to go just in case someone with even more funding than he had came knocking on Alpha Prime’s door.
It was a very different off-season for Ellis.
“It was, I haven’t really been part of an off-season the way I have been this year,” the driver explained. “Having sponsorship income to kind of move things around. There have been points where the market where with the drivers, there are a lot more drivers and a lot more money than I have seen in 10 years in the sport. I think that pushed a lot of guys to go to the truck series as we saw. Guys that would normally be full-time or part-time.
“There are points where, I love Tommy, but I was like, man we might have to go somewhere else because I wasn’t sure if it was going to work out, financially. He was getting some massive stuff coming in. We were looking at, probably not too many different teams, honestly, because my sponsors generally have “x-amount” [set to spend] per race and I have a certain [budget] like, ‘okay, we’re not going lower than we were last year,’ So, there were just a few other teams we were looking at, but I never wanted to go anywhere else, that’s for sure.”
Fortunately, it all worked out.
This all feels unreal for Ellis
From being an afterthought to all of a sudden being picked back up on the radar, it’s been a wild ride for Ellis over the last couple of seasons.
In 2022, Ellis competed in 11 races for the newly rebranded Alpha Prime Racing, which expanded to two full-time cars. Ultimately, Ellis ended up achieving his career-best finish (13th) not once, but twice.
Now, to have a chance to top those efforts in 2023, Ellis has to pinch himself sometimes.
“Yeah, in a way, it felt unreal because I never thought I’d get an opportunity,” Ellis stated. “I know a lot of people are going to see this and say, ‘You only finished 13th,’ but at the same time, it’s the Xfinity Series. We’re a mid-pack team, or just above that, but running for the teams I have in the past, with no tires and stuff, it feels like a massive, massive jump. It feels like I’m 75% of where I want to be.
“I don’t necessarily want to leave Alpha Prime. I want to build this team and win races here. So, it’s unreal — it’s not that I didn’t believe in myself, one of my biggest faults is I think I have too much confidence in on-track stuff, especially when it came to qualifying last year because I was terrible — I need to focus more on the prep side of it. I always knew I had the ability to win, I just never knew how to get that winning opportunity.”
Now that he feels he’s in a situation, where he is set up for success, Ellis is determined to do everything in his power to not fail. That includes focusing less on the marketing side of things with the season ramping up, and more on correcting his shortcomings in qualifying.
“I told Tommy, I said in about a week, I’m turning the sales machine down, and turning on the iRacing rig again,” Ellis explained. “because I was God awful in qualifying last year.”
Is Alpha Prime’s expansion sustainable?
From the one-car Martins Motorsports in 2021, to a two-car effort as Alpha Prime Racing in 2022 to now a three-car team in 2023. That’s a whole lot of growth, which has raised some eyebrows for folks outside of the Alpha Prime Racing team. Is rapid growth and expansion sustainable?
“Obviously, anybody that is concerned from the outside is 100% warranted in the sense that we’ve all seen it with so many teams,” Ellis admitted. “They go from zero-one-two-three or zero-one-three and then boom, they’re out.”
While Ellis agrees there are legit reasons to be concerned from the outside about the team’s growth, Ellis finds solace in the fact that he truly believes in Tommy Joe Martins and his vision of where the team has been and where it’s going next.
“Tommy is kind of like me in the way that he’s kind of manic and obsessive about the sport. Anybody that has spent time with him knows that he always pretty much has a spreadsheet on his phone or on his computer all the time. I think the biggest thing that people do is they hire — they spend money too quickly on the sport. Tommy is budget friendly and I beat him up about it to a fault. Rather than being on the other side, trying to pull the reigns back on the team owner where they’re overspending. Tommy, I’m trying to whip him every day — he’ll kill me — over whether it’s a pit box or some little stuff like crew shirts along the way. So, I think it’s very sustainable,” Ellis surmised.
Under the radar mindset? And realistic expectations
The nice thing about Alpha Prime Racing, prior to the 2023 season, is that the team didn’t have much of a microscope on it. The team and its drivers were able to feel out their equipment, and hone in on things. And on really good days, they were primed to shock the world with a solid top-five or top-10 run. Is the team still flying under the radar?
“Well, we’ve got an Earnhardt in the house now, so we’re kind of screwed,” Ellis chuckled. “I remind them of that all the time. I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, Jeffrey messed that up for us.’ I think there will be a lot more spotlight.”
While Earnhardt will certainly bring more spotlight, as he did following an altercation with Parker Kligerman in the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway, Ellis is content being the driver that he feels has the least cool story of anyone.
“The funny thing is though, and people will hopefully take this the right way, I generally don’t have the spotlight on me specifically on the team, because there are so many good stories with our operation,” Ellis explained. “Whether it’s Rajah Caruth last year, Sage [Karam] finishing top-five at Daytona, you had Julia Landauer making her debut, you had Stefan [Parsons] having those good runs at the end of the year, I’m sure I forgot a lot of people along the way — Josh [Bilicki] running into a sign — I didn’t really have that moment last year. And I’m not the young guy. I don’t really have the cool story that a lot of those guys have, right now, other than being like a real-life Ricky Bobby in a PR sense. I don’t feel any pressure at all, they might just from being younger, but for me, I’m just enjoying the ride as much as I can. I’m just in the shadow of Jeffrey as the two old guys on the team.”
With no pressure on his plate, what are the realistic expectations for Ellis? That may be a loaded question.
“Problem is I don’t have any realistic expectations,” Ellis said. “Well, maybe they are. I don’t know. I’d like two top-fives. And that sounds stupid to anyone that looks at my Racing-Reference page.
“Last year, we only ran one Superspeedway so we didn’t really get a good shot with Ty Gibbs over our hood the second we got to the main pack. I think we can finish top-five at hopefully two or three superspeedways, and have some top-10 runs at the road courses. I want to put Tommy in a position where he has to keep me full-time. I literally have sold the first 13 races hoping that I have two opportunities to win that is Daytona and Talladega. Maybe if it rains at a road course and we have a really good run.
“If I win and we’re in a point where we’re in the Playoffs, I don’t see Tommy pulling us out, and I’ll say that in this interview too to put pressure on him. That’s my goal to run the whole season. Whether we sell it all, which we are close to doing, or make the Playoffs and then probably like any team in our position, get eliminated in Round 1 or 2. But we exceed our expectations by doing that. I want to have fun and enjoy it and make sure my sponsors come back so I don’t lose my voice next season, as well.”
Being paired with the young and talented Michael Brandt
While everyone is talking about the sponsorship that Ellis has added for 2023, and the strength that Alpha Prime showed toward the end of the 2022 season, Ellis is most excited about the unsung hero on his No. 43 team — crew chief Michael Brandt.
“Michael Brandt, he turned 22 last year. He’s super, super talented. Used to be the car chief on our car, and he took over five races into last year. I really like working with him, he’s a great dude. Way more mature than me, and he’s 12 years younger than me,” Ellis praised. “He doesn’t get enough credit for what he has done. He’s obsessive about it, like I am too. I’ll text him at 10 o’clock at night like with a random idea, and he’ll get back to me. He’s put in holidays and weekends, he’s been working and owning it. He’s doing everything he can to make sure it’s successful. It’s cool to work with someone like that.”
Despite his young age, Brandt was thrust into the role of crew chief for Alpha Prime during the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series season. The risky choice of tossing the young kid on top of the box was actually a calculated move for the race team.
“Yeah, when Tommy and I were talking about crew chiefs last year, after they made that change. I can’t remember when it was, it was the West Coast some time. It was like, we’re either going to promote Michael or we’re going to lose Michael,” Ellis said. “Because Michael is either going to go to a bigger team and he’s probably going to build his way up and eventually end up as a car chief or crew chief, or we can do that here.”
In addition to calling Brandt one of the smartest people he has ever met, Ellis also feels that he and his crew chief will fight together when things get tough.
“I want to succeed because he about fought somebody at Indianapolis last year in the garage area. I know he has my back,” Ellis explained. “We’re all very similar in our personalities, which is cool. We have that fiery side to us, but he’s also very calculated as well.”
The greatest opportunity of Ellis’ career
Ellis, 33, truly feels like this season with Alpha Prime Racing is the best chance he’s had at success in his entire racing career.
“I think it was 2016, Tommy had like an ear infection or sinus infection or something like that. He called me to drive his truck and be a backup driver,” Ellis recalled. “At that time, I was like this is a really big opportunity for me. And I was running Cup at that point. At that point, I was like this will be one of the biggest opportunities of my life. And every race I get with this team is the biggest opportunity of my life.”
So, what will happen if Ellis scores that elusive first top-10 finish?
“I think I’d cry if I got a top-10 at this point,” Ellis stated. “Which God, if I’m in the top-10 I’ll lose it. I cried at Darlington and I think we finished 16th, and that was in BJ’s car. And that was just remembering how much fun it is to do this. That’s when I think it was bad — not bad — but the racing itch all of a sudden was, oh crap, I have to do this again. That was ironic, finishing right behind Tommy, I was like, I’m addicted to this. I have to do this. This is like the only thing I want to do in my life.”
What a scene that would be. An Ellis top-10 finish would probably invoke the same level of emotion that Rich Bickle, another long-time NASCAR journeyman, showed when he scored a fourth-place finish in the 1998 fall NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville, his first-career NCS top-10 finish.
Ellis is a true grinder in every sense of the word, and he is a kind and caring individual. The man commonly brings donuts for the entire team, as he did the morning that I interviewed him at the Alpha Prime Racing shop.
To see good things happening to Ellis in 2023 should give hope to anyone that is pondering a career within the NASCAR industry. Good things can happen to good people so long as you work tirelessly and remain steadfast and persistent while pursuing your goals.