Ryan Ellis, for now, chose stability over racing; it wears on him. “I’ve sat up like freaking every night, man, just staring at the wall and freaking out that I ruined my career,” he said. (Dillon Mullan/The Washington Post)

Ryan Ellis has no plans to race this season, and the cockpit withdrawal keeps him up at night. From strapping into a go-kart at age 4 to dropping out of George Mason to move closer to Charlotte, the 27-year-old has geared his entire life toward a career in NASCAR.

But after his best season, Ellis is sitting behind a desk. Another offseason spent searching for sponsors revealed a harsh truth about the next step in his career: The final climb toward a full-time deal in the NASCAR Cup Series is steeper than any other he has made during his rise from Ashburn to the fringe of America’s most popular racing series.

In January, Ellis passed on potential sponsorship deals for a handful of races to take a job in public relations with Go Fas Racing, which supports driver Matt DiBenedetto and the No. 32 car. For the first time in his life, Ellis put stability ahead of racing. It hasn’t been an easy choice.

“I’ve sat up like freaking every night, man, just staring at the wall and freaking out that I ruined my career, wondering why am I not doing everything I can to keep racing,” Ellis said. “It’s nice to have a guaranteed job for the first time in my life, but giving up on a dream is tough.

“But I’m not looking at it that way at all. I’m looking at it as ‘take a year off.’ ”

Ellis now works at Go Fas Racing, supporting driver Matt DiBenedetto. (Dillon Mullan/The Washington Post)
Small team, big dreams

When Ellis and DiBenedetto first met as unknown drivers four years ago, the pair spoke about how to race without deep pockets. In 2016, DiBenedetto started 35 of 36 races in what was then known as the Sprint Cup with BK Racing and finished sixth at Bristol. Ellis made three starts with BK and one with Jay Robinson Racing , finishing a career-best 32nd in Indianapolis.

After DiBenedetto signed with Go Fas in December, Ellis hoped to fill the full-time position vacated at BK, based on his 62 starts in the second-tier Xfinity Series and third-tier truck series over the past three seasons.

“I thought I was about that close from getting a full-time job at BK this year,” Ellis said, with two fingers pinched together. “But then a few guys showed up with some money. It was like, ‘All right, there’s a 75 percent [chance] we need you — ah, their check cleared.’ And the conversation stopped there.”

Before landing full-time deals for the past three seasons, DiBenedetto similarly struggled. Now the 25-year-old is a success story among working-class drivers trying to catch a break. An impressive year in NASCAR Cup racing — the season starts Sunday at Daytona — could lead him to a team with the financial backing to push for top-10 finishes instead of 30th.

“I have people come up to me and tell me that they want to be a race-car driver. You want to encourage them, but that almost feels wrong to do because in most cases you’re giving a very false sense of hope,” DiBenedetto said. “Unless they have a multimillion [dollar] sponsor.” 

In his new job, Ellis is learning to block out the buzzes and clanks that penetrate the wall between him and the garage.

Chip Ganassi racing, outside of Charlotte, was one of two “outsider” teams to break through in last year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup. But even its budget drawfs that of Go Fas. (Dillon Mullan/The Washington Post)

Last year, five teams combined to win 34 of the 36 races in the Cup series . Those five teams have their own road signs and reception lobbies bigger than Go Fas’s three-room garage, where every minute and dollar is stretched thin.

“We’re in the same race as Jimmie Johnson, but we don’t race Jimmie Johnson. We’re in a different league,” said Mason St. Hilaire, the general manager of Go Fas. “Sometimes we get nervous, like, ‘Man, I hope we get everything ready in time,’ but we do.”

In half an hour, St. Hilaire reserves hotel rooms, approves purchases for parts and backreads Ellis’s news releases. He can rattle off the name and job title of each of his 13 grease monkeys, who have been working 11-hour shifts six days a week since the start of the year. “Here it’s different,” St. Hilaire said. “We’re a family. We’re small. We’re together. It’s not, ‘What’s that guy’s name again?’ ”

Waiting on a breakthrough

St. Hilaire estimates that his team will spend $4 million to $6 million this season, and 80 to 90 percent of that budget will come from purses for starting and finishing. The team will bring a starter and a backup car to each race.

Larger teams, often with more than 200 employees, start two to four cars per race and have 15 to 20 backups for each. These kinds of operations pull the majority of their racing budget from sponsorships.

“It really is a tale of the haves and have-nots. Certain teams have the means to buy not only the best drivers but the best engineers, the crew, everything,” said Craig Depken, a sports economist at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. “These smaller teams, they need to start and they need to finish, and the worst thing to do is to wreck the car. They don’t have the resources to be rebuilding every week.”

In NASCAR, money equals opportunity, so no-name drivers double as personal marketing teams in search of sponsors . Last season, Ellis had an intern to help him send email after email.

Previously, Ellis — an avid hockey fan — had turned to the Washington Capitals blog “Russian Machine Never Breaks” and his old George Mason fraternity, Kappa Sigma, for sponsorship. The crown jewel of his marketing effort was another D.C.-area deal, with Reston-based software company ScienceLogic, which put its logo on Ellis’s car for four of his five Cup series starts for less than $50,000 per race.

Now, in the weeks between watching DiBenedetto race from the media center, Ellis will spend his days managing sponsors for the team instead of himself. From giving lessons at a go-kart track in Sterling as a teenager to racing alongside NASCAR’s best, he has leaned on his pure desire to race to overcome financial obstacles. Despite current appearances, he doesn’t plan to stop dreaming now.

“All I’ve ever wanted to do was race against the best, but it’s hard. It’s so hard to make it even to one race at the top level,” Ellis said. “Five years ago, I would have been fine running Xfinity for the rest of my life.

“Then I ran Xfinity and was like, ‘Nope. I want to race Cup, or I’m not doing this anymore.’

From his desk, he holds on to a hope that sometime soon, with the right break, the cars being built on the other side of the wall will be for him.