The Caps race car wins
Ryan Ellis has always had two sporting passions: watching the Caps, and racing cars. Aside from a few posed snapshots in his go-kart with former stars Peter Bondra and Michal Pivonka (see below), those interests never really intersected.
But as he got ready for his second season in the VW Jetta TDI Cup - an entry-level road-racing circuit for drivers wth professional dreams - Ellis had this idea: maybe he could drive a Caps car.
See, it's not easy to get sponsorships when you're a 20-year old George Mason sophomore in a slumping economy, and so you always have to be on the lookout for a PR angle. Ellis brought his idea to VW, a Caps sponsor, eventually resulting in a deal between the car company and the team. One Caps racing car showed up in Verizon Center this winter, for fans to gawk at and snap photos of, and another came to Virginia International Raceway in Danville two weekends ago, for the season's first race.
And when Ellis got to his home track, he was assigned to the Caps car.
Now, this was somewhat of a change for Ellis, who started driving seriously at the age of 4 and has spent basically every weekend of his life, from March till October, behind a wheel. Last year, the Ashburn resident was in a car sponsored by a local computer company, and no one took much notice. But in the Caps car?
"Fans were coming up to me out of everywhere," he told me. "People were flocking up to me, taking pictures, wearing Backstrom and Ovechkin jerseys. You would have never seen that a few years ago. It was a pretty cool feeling, actually."
During his rookie season in the series, Ellis never finished in the top five. But with confidence borne from a year of experience, and a new paint scheme, something clicked. He qualified first for both races at VIR, and then finished first in both races, allowing him to lead the points standings heading into this weekend's races in New Jersey. The series winner gets $100,000 of career support from VW.
After his first-ever win, on that Saturday night, he went up to the track tavern to watch Game 5 of the Caps series with some fellow fans. That didn't go so well. Neither did Games 6 or 7.
His mom Jane, a fan for decades, actually cried after the season ended. Co-workers bought her a sympathy card. She had already imagined Ryan driving the car in the parade down Constitution Avenue.
And now Ryan heads to New Jersey Motorsports Park, of all places, driving a car that screams out support for a franchise infamous for its first-round disappointment. I asked if he's ready for the insults that will surely come his way.
"I haven't thought about that," he admitted. "I know I'm probably going to be down a couple fans. But I'm a Caps supporter. I'm used to getting our hopes up and getting them smashed, kind of like any other sports team in the area. But I'll get over it.. [ellip] In the past we would never get hate as Caps fans, they just kind of overlooked us. It's good to be hated. That must mean we're doing something right."
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