HIGH POINT, N.C. — BK Racing is experiencing a breakout season after qualifying four drivers for the Daytona 500 and Matt DiBenedetto’s sixth-place finish at Bristol. This weekend, the team will introduce a new driver to the stable when Ryan Ellis makes his second Sprint Cup start at Richmond.
Before Ellis pilots the No. 93 ScienceLogic ride for the first time, he sat down to speak with Chicken Bone Alley. Between bites of his massive steak quesadilla, Ellis discussed his new ride, being the first Japanese racer to drive for Toyota at the Sprint cup level and the difficulties of breaking into the sport.
Chicken Bone Alley: We know you’ll race at Richmond this weekend, but where else are you racing with BKR?
Ryan Ellis: I’ll be at Richmond, Indianapolis and Texas, which are all big for their own reasons for me. Richmond is my home track. Then there’s Indy, which I don’t even have to sell. That’s one of the coolest races of the year. Then Texas in the middle of the Chase. I’d like to throw a road course in there to prove myself. There’s potential for a full season next year, but it all comes down to money.
CBA: So how big is this opportunity for you?
Ellis: It’s the biggest opportunity of my life, for sure. I’ve been selling myself to [BK Racing owner] Ron [Devine] for the last five years and he’s finally just like, “Shut up and get in the car, kid!” (Laughs) I’ve nagged him and texted him every day because I wanted it so bad.
The spotlight is huge, so it’s a sink-or-swim moment. As a driver, that’s what you wait your entire career for. If I can compete and prove I can keep up, this could be huge. Richmond will be crazy.
CBA: How much did BK Racing having four cars in the Daytona 500 change things financially and open the door for a third part-time ride?
Ellis: Oh, that was crazy! I couldn’t believe all four guys made it. They were competing against proven teams and it helped relieve BK for the rest of the season. It was amazing to see a team like BK have four cars in the biggest race of the year. I know they were probably already going to pull a third car out every once in a while, but just to know they have the capability of doing that is really cool and exciting for me.
CBA: Does it seem fitting for you to be the first Japanese driver to drive for Toyota at the highest level?
Ellis: I like to think it does. I think it’s fitting, but I’m really just happy for the opportunity. There’s so much stuff that makes sense to me in this deal. I’m driving for a guy from Northern Virginia [Ron Devine] that grew up 15 minutes from where I live. The sponsor [ScienceLogic] is located just down the road from the shop.
So it’s a hometown kid, hometown owner and hometown sponsor driving for a Japanese manufacturer. It couldn’t be more perfect.
CBA: I know you’ve applied for the Drive for Diversity program, but haven’t been accepted. What has that process been like?
Ellis: I’ve been fighting to get into the program it feels like my whole life and get denied every freaking year. (Laughs) To see guys that are racing go-karts and stuff like that get in really sucks. So I’ve had to find a different angle to break into the sport. We’re in a very saturated market where I have to show what makes me stand out.
I hate to use things like race or an asthmatic condition, but if I don’t, someone else will. I wish I had the money to just go out and buy a ride, but I don’t have that luxury.
CBA: What types of things have you done to get opportunities?
Ellis: Oh, just about everything. I’ve emailed countless proposals and never heard anything back. Or I’ve talked to owners and given them an answer on something they didn’t want to hear and they just won’t call you. You kind of get used to that. It’s like being a really socially awkward kid in middle school.
CBA: How much does having a sponsor like ScienceLogic change that?
Ellis: It’s amazing how many texts and phone calls I’ve received from people who previously didn’t give you the time of day. Basically you have to give them a reason to answer. Whether it’s money, a sponsor or whatever, they don’t care. At the end of the day, if it helps the team, it usually means an opportunity will come.
CBA: You’ve made 31 starts at the Xfinity level and one in Sprint Cup. What’s the biggest difference between the two series?
Ellis: The competition. It’s so much tougher at the Sprint Cup level. Even in last place, the guys are only a second off and managing lap traffic is very, very different. That’s what I sucked at in my Cup debut and I know I sucked at it. (Laughs) When you have Jeff Gordon on your bumper at Phoenix in his second-to-last race, you just want to get the heck out of the way, but you have to run him hard. If you don’t, everyone else will.
CBA: What’s the toughest part about being a part-time driver in NASCAR?
Ellis: Getting paid, man. You don’t know when you’re going to get paid and when the next chance will come. I wake up, do proposals and hope I get a call like I did from BK Racing. I could easily wake up and do nothing, but I just keep pushing forward. It’s not the easiest path, but it’s one that I chose and love.
CBA: There will be 41 cars at Richmond, meaning someone will get left out …
Ellis: I can answer that quickly. If I don’t make the race, it would be horrible. (Laughs) I’m putting so much importance on making this race, so it would really suck to be left out. I know there’s that chance, but I can’t think about that.
CBA: How nice was it to finally get BK to bite on giving you a ride?
Ellis: I’m pumped because I’ve been wanting it for so long. I think he sees the upside with ScienceLogic as a sponsor and hopefully me, as well. You just never know sometimes with racing, so I try to keep a level head. It doesn’t set in for me anymore until I’m physically in the car and the engine doesn’t blow up on a warm-up lap. That’s when I get excited.
— Ryan Ellis (@ryanellisracing) March 29, 2016
CBA: What are your overall expectations moving forward in NASCAR?
Ellis: I think ever having the expectation of being a full-time Sprint Cup driver in a year or two is silly unless you are one. There are only 40 guys every weekend and not all of them are full time. Long term, I’d be happy being in a position like Michael McDowell or Landon Cassill where I’m the underdog each week for a team that believes in me.
I’d just be happy with a full-time ride. Wait, did I seriously just say that? (Laughs) I’d just be happy with a full-time ride. I think anyone would, right? Being able to compete every week is a dream. A.J. Allmendinger has a hell of a gig to me. He almost won at Martinsville and it became a huge story. Everyone wants to drive for Joe Gibbs, Hendrick or Penske, but I’d love to just leave my helmet in the same hauler every week.