Ryan Vargas has been making a name for himself in the NASCAR Xfinity Series paddock for so long that you might be surprised he’s never run back-to-back races until now. His partnership with TikTok and JD Motorsports has given him the opportunity to run the final six races of the 2020 season, and his most recent two were at some of the most chaotic tracks on the schedule: Talladega and the (rained drenched) Charlotte Roval.
We had a chance to chat with Vargas about his journey into the series so far and how his TikTok deal came together ahead of tonight’s Kansas Lottery 300.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Elizabeth Blackstock: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today.
Ryan Vargas: No, of course!
EB: Tell me a little bit about how your partnership with TikTok came about. That’s a pretty big name sponsor to organize.
RV: It all really came about through talking with my friends dozens of times in the past getting them on TikTok. One of my buddies, Ryan Pistana, he’s a graphic designer who does paint schemes for a couple drivers within the sport. Just out of the blue, he decided to make a fictional TikTok render of my car. It was really cool. We shared it around, and it was one of those things that was like, “Man, that would be really cool if that could really happen.”
It ended up making its rounds in the industry and ended up at TikTok.
EB: That’s wild.
RV: Yeah! They were really excited. They saw it and were like, “Well, we’ve never done anything like this before, but we’re interested.” They reached out to get hold of me. From there, we had our conversations.
Initially we looked at doing maybe just a one-race deal, but from there, as conversations kept going on, that blossomed into what we have now, which is the rest of the season. It’s honestly a real big honor to carry their colors on the race track. They’re really excited, and this is just big for, not just myself, but the team as well, JD Motorsports. We’re a pretty small organization, so to have a partner like this jump on board this late in the season is a really big deal for them as well.
EB: How does that change the environment of the whole team. I can imagine it’s really exciting, but does it boost morale in the team?
RV: Oh, 100 percent. Everyone there is really, really excited about this. Like I mentioned, it’s a really big deal for the team. This is a lot of good, positive press to come their way and a lot of good publicity. It’s really important to be on the map in the sport. For JD to have the attention of the media, it’s a big deal. It attracts people, it brings people in, and it just shows that there is value within the sport and our team and within myself as a driver.
EB: What’s it been like coming in at such a late point in the season when championship points are high and everyone is duking for those last few points?
RV: It’s all about knowing who you’re racing against. There are guys out there who are racing for a championship and then I’m also there trying to race and do my own thing. At the end of the day, you’re all doing the same task, just with different goals in mind. You do have to be a little more aware of that, but keeping that balance while going out there and getting the best results possible is important.
EB: What’s the mindset when you’re coming into these races? What are your goals?
RV: You know, at the end of the day, seat time is still the biggest thing that I need. This past week at the Roval, that was only my eighth start in the series. I’m still really, really new to the scene. I’m still going to tracks for the first time.
Actually, this weekend at Kansas, this is the first time I’ll be going to a track for the second time.
It kind of goes to show what little experience I have. That’s the big thing, just getting experience and running all the laps and letting the race play out as it does. Luckily, now we have the funding and a little bit more resources to show what we can do, but you’ve still gotta go out there and race smart and think ahead.
EB: Your first two races with TikTok and JD have been at two of the most unpredictable tracks on the Xfinity schedule. How do you prepare for something like that, especially knowing that you haven’t raced there before but you’re also not going to get practice or qualifying to get that extra track time?
RV: It’s all about knowing what you’re getting into. You’ve gotta watch over footage, you have to go over data, you have to do iRacing laps and practice. Study. You’ve just got to know what you’re getting into before you get there. It’s the same for everyone—nobody else is getting practice either, you know? It’s just a matter of how you prepare.
I think, so far, our preparation—for myself as a driver and by the team—has been really good. We’ve unloaded and had really good speed. At Talladega, the car we brought, we were second quickest on the speed chart, but circumstances in plate racing lead to you getting involved in messes.
At the Roval, we had a good car, but the defogger didn’t work. When you’re racing in the rain, the thing you need most is visibility. To still leave there with a top-20 finish—one of my better finishes— is really important to me. I think, heading into Kansas now… now that I have starts as a sequence, right next to each other, it’s allowing me to start further up in the field. Every start I’ve had this year, I’ve started well outside the top 20. In Pocono, I started dead last. It kind of takes out that pressure of having to pass a lot of cars early, and that helps a lot as the race progresses.
EB: Could you talk about those back-to-back races? I know this is the first time you’ve done this with Xfinity—it must be a big learning curve coming into all these race weekends.
RV: It’s a really big learning curve. I’ve spent much of the season on the sidelines, working on the cars when I can and trying to be there with my team. But now I have these races all in a line like this, and honestly, it’s been the best experience I’ve had for my career. I get out of the car, and here I am: I’m getting ready to race next week. It forces me to be in better shape physically and mentally going into each race. I’m not getting out of the car and spending a month or two months before the next race. It’s all in a line. That definitely helps out.
It gets that repetition in, too. You see these guys… I say it all the time—I don’t have the laps. I don’t have the repetition that many of these guys get into. The more laps I do, the more repetition we get, the better I feel we’ll be.
EB: Walk me through what your week looks like. It’s gotta be chaotic getting all that preparation done.
RV: My week is.. Yeah, actually pretty chaotic, especially now with the TikTok sponsorship. It’s a lot of content creation, a lot of physical training, a lot of film study, iRacing laps. I say “film study,” but that’s basically what I’ll do. If I’m not actually studying the footage, I’ll put on another race a year prior at that same track just to have it on in the background so I’m listening to it. Just keep it fresh in my head.
You know, going over onboard footage, asking other racers. That’s been another big thing. I’ve been leaning heavily on my teammates, and they’ve all been really supportive and really helpful all season. Bouncing ideas and keeping everything fresh in your mind so that, when you get in the car, you’re ready.
EB: That’s a lot.
RV: Oh yeah. It’s definitely a lot!
EB: What does your content creation look like? How does that play into your bigger picture as a NASCAR driver?
RV: Even before the TikTok sponsorship, TikTok was by far my favorite platform. I jumped onto the platform in August of last year, and—if I’m wrong, I’m wrong—I believe I was one of the first upper-level NASCAR drivers to hop on that platform. I knew it was an untapped market. I knew it was a new avenue for me to connect with new, potential fans and just bring myself down to earth.
For me, I was a fan before I was a driver, and I was a fan for a lot longer than a lot of these other guys have been. They started racing when they were five, six. I started racing when I was 11 and a half, turning 12. I still have that fan mindset. I’m still very excited every time I wander into a race track. For me, if I can show fans of mine or new potential fans that I’m just like one of them… I want to be that guy that you can come up to at the track and talk to.
I try to show it through my content. Half the time, it’s me making fun of myself. I made a video the other day of me spinning out at the Roval. It’s like, making fun of myself. You don’t see a lot of other drivers do that, but I think that’s just what you’ve got to do.
I say this all the time, and it’s kind of a crazy thought process, but I really strongly believe that, if you don’t have a strong fanbase behind you, you will never make it far in racing. Right now, I have the funding thanks to TikTok and their support, but I made it into a lot of places based solely on the hype based around me. I feel like, if you have a couple thousand people vouch for you, if you do have a bad day, if I just run slow and miss the mark, I still have a couple thousand people rally behind me who will say, “Hey. We know you’re good. We know you can handle this.”
That’s versus being Joe Lastname who doesn’t care about social media, who doesn’t care about his fanbase, and when they have a bad day, they’re either not talked about, or they get crapped on. It’s important to have that fanbase around you so that, when you go to the team, it incentives another avenue for them to want you.
EB: I think that’s a really good point, and I don’t know if a lot of people realize how important that is. I mean, if you look at Ryan Eversley, how many people tweet at teams to sign him or to do things for them.
RV: Exactly. He’s still a very relevant figure in racing, and he doesn’t race much. And I think that’s very important. You look at Landon Cassill. You look at Parker Kligerman. Every single one of those guys are very, very talented, but they also have a lot of fans that want them to race. And that’s just like how it’s been for me this year. I’m very, very thankful to have that. I never thought of myself as the person who would have fans, but thankfully, I’ve been able to show to fans that I care about them and that I want to be in this sport. It’s gone a long way.
EB: It’s nice to see that kind of payoff. You’ve put in the work and the time, and it’s coming to fruition, both in getting you a sponsor and with having fans rally behind you.
RV: Yeah. That’s the big thing. Getting every base knocked down. Have the fanbase. Have them vouch for you. Like I said earlier, it just makes you more of a valuable asset to a team or a sponsor when that many people support you.
EB: Do you feel like iRacing plays into that at all? I feel like that plays in with a lot of younger drivers.
RV: For me, I’m very new to the iRacing scene. I just hopped on it two years ago. But I’d say the biggest thing on iRacing that has really kind of changed a little bit of people’s perception of me was, when the pandemic first started happening, you had all the races cancelled. I put out a tweet that said, hey, let’s get a big race, get a bunch of drivers and sim racers, members of the media, fans, everyone—give them a chance to race against each other and make it a full-on event.
I anticipated maybe getting 30 people that wanted to do it and have someone livestream it on their Twitch channel and call it a day. Well, the tweet got a couple hundred likes—I think it was over 1,000 at one point—and it made its way around the sport. You had Cup drivers, Xfinity drivers, IndyCar drivers, dirt racers, NHRA drivers—we had Ron Capps!—and then fans, media members… by the end of it all, we decided on a formula where we had 23 locked-in drivers and then 20 fans who raced their way in through what we called the “open,” which was rounds of dozens of races.
We put out an open entry. Free to enter. We had 320 people sign up within one hour.
We were anticipating having it up for two days and maybe getting 100 people, but when we saw that it filled up quite like that, we had to shut it down within an hour and a half of it being up. There was no logical way we could have done it.
Within the first day of planning the idea, we had a sponsor, we had a broadcast sponsor, presenting sponsors, and we had our locked-in driver field. Then, a few days later, we got all those fans to race in.
It ended up being, at the time, the second-highest watched iRacing race ever at the time. It was called eTruck series night in America powered by FilterTime. It just grew. I got a lot of respect from the sim racing folks, the Twitch streamers. So many communities rallied behind me, and that was really the turning point for myself because it showed that I still had worth within the sport when I wasn’t racing. That definitely helped me out a lot.
EB: Did it help you out in terms of having your name out there, or was it more the personal sense of, “I can keep doing this”?
RV: It was a little bit of both. When you put something together that quick, and it gets national media attention for a sim race, it definitely brings it all into perspective and shows that the racing community and media is very strong when banded together. And to have had a part in that was a really big deal.
And it wasn’t just me that was behind it. It was really a three-person operation: myself, a buddy of mine Jon Palmieri of Speed Visions, and another friend, Austin Blair, whose father is one of the chairmen at Gateway [Motorsports Park]. The timing was right. Everything worked out. We brought the community together for one awesome night of racing, and for a few minutes everything seemed normal.
EB: I remember watching that race happen, and it was really awesome to see it all come together. We were all hungry for racing in whatever fashion we could get it, so it was awesome when drivers were able to put on those events.
RV: It was a big deal, and it was a big deal for those guys, too. John from Speedvisions, he kind of coined the term “Truck Series night in America.” He has this t-shirt line, and he’s a very, very talented graphic designer. He’s done several things for me in the past. When the idea first came to me, I shot him a message that said, “Hey, call me. We need to make this happen” We talked, and I said, let’s make eTruck Series Night in America a thing. He did all the graphic design. Austin did a lot of the number crunching, and I did a lot of the hyping up and streaming. It was a lot of fun.
EB: You guys have a good little group going there.
RV: Yeah, definitely. And like I said, you had Coke Series drivers. I think we had a Cup Series driver in there. You had Xfinity drivers, Truck Series guys, ARCA guys, NHRA, World of Outlaws, media, fans. It was just a big deal.
EB: You’ve got two races under your belt with TikTok, plus a few others this year. What have you picked up? What have you learned so far?
RV: It’s hard to tell. The first race we did was Talladega. The second race we did was the Roval in the rain. Two very drastic races. Two races that you’ll never replicate. I think the biggest thing that it’s shown for me is that we have speed. We have cars that can go out there and run really well.
We had a 12th place car at the Roval. I’m just gonna say that right away. We had a 12th place car. It was just a matter of me not wanting to put the car in a bad place and under-driving it. But that’s just part of it. That’s part of my learning curve.
To leave the race track knowing that you could be better is a better feeling than knowing you’re giving it all you have. In my opinion. I know a lot of racers are the other way around, but for me being as new as I am, I’d rather leave the track knowing, alright, we have a good base. We could build upon this and grow and give JD a really good opportunity to show off. And that makes me really happy.
EB: With Kansas coming up—a track you’ve competed on before—do you feel that you’ll be more able to show off some of the skills that you’ve learned or to get a better finishing position?
RV: I mean, I hope so! It’s so hard to tell. It’s really, really hard to tell. Everyone’s going to be on their A-game. It’s a night race, so that track’s going to be gripped up, it’s going to be fast, it’s going to be very high paced, and it’s also going to be the longest race I’ve ever done! 300 miles. Although it’s the same track I’ve been to, the conditions are far different.
It’s going to be cool. When we were there in the summertime, it was a hundred-something degrees outside. This time, with it being nighttime, it’s going to be in the mid- to low-60s. And it’s going to be night. So, longer race, different track conditions, different mindset going in—you’re going to see guys make mistakes. You’re going to see guys go out there and drive over their head. Kansas has proved to be a track that’s a little wild. It’s one of the more unpredictable mile-and-a-halfs, and I think that’s why it’s a fan favorite.
I feel a lot better going into it this time because of my starting position and because I have a bunch of laps under my belt.
EB: After that, you’ve got Texas, Martinsville, and Phoenix. How do you feel about those three tracks?
RV: It’s hard to tell. You know, Kansas this year was my first mile-and-a-half, and now I’m going back to Kansas for my second mile-and-a-half. Honestly, it’s just, go it by race. Texas is a totally different mile-and-a-half than Kansas. Martinsville is a new track to the series—at least, we haven’t been there in over a decade. That’s going to be a wildcard. Then you have Phoenix, which is a track I’ve been to before. All totally different races, all totally different race tracks. Different styles of racing. It’s just going to be about keeping my head on straight and going out there, finishing the laps, getting what we can and capitalizing on other’s mistakes.
EB: Do you feel like just getting those laps under your belt—is that what you’d consider a win for where you’re at in the series right now?
RV: Finishing races is by far the most important thing you can do as a driver who’s just starting out. Obviously the racer in me is like, “nah, I want to go out there and win,” but it’s all relative. For me, a win is going out there and finishing in the top 10 or top 15, I’m going to go home and have myself a nice plate of chicken nuggets to celebrate. It’s a good day! That’s a great run for our team. If we can go out and have days like that and be consistent at that, as well.
We’re bringing a really good car to Kansas this weekend. It’s just all about the consistency and being there at the end. I like to quote, “to finish first, first you must finish.” And that’s been my story. My first DNF was Talladega, and we’ve had so many races where just being there in the end has led to some good finishes. You look at Pocono, I was running in the top 5. Look at the Roval this weekend—just by finishing, we had a great run. Look at Iowa and Road America last year. It’s just about being there at the end.
EB: You’ve stayed present in the NASCAR paddock in whatever possible way you can, even when you’re not racing. What do you end up doing on those weekends where you turn up at the track and just offer your help?
RV: For me, it’s just about being there and learning what I can. With the current COVID protocols, there’s not much working on the car that you really do. It’s just really about getting through tech and helping unload the car. For me, on pit stops, I’ll catch tires and do tire pressures and stuff like that.
Doubleheader weekends are really where all the work is being done. They finish a race, then after a long day of doing the race, you pull in and we go to work and turn the car around for the race the next day. I think that’s where I’ve learned the most.
I remember Dover earlier this year—that was around the time I knew the TikTok thing was happening, but it wasn’t put out there yet. It was kind of one of the last weekends where I was working. Same as Richmond—man, we did a lot of doubleheaders this year. I just remember working on the car and thinking, okay, I’ve definitely learned a lot here. I’ve learned more about these cars in these last couple months than I have in my entire career.
I think that’s been very valuable to myself for when I need to make adjustments, but I also think it’s good in the sense of being hands-on with the team. I think, when you can go out there and show your team that you want to be there and not just take advantage of a weekend off, I think that shows to them that you want it more than the other guy.
EB: Does that make you a better driver, understanding more how other people work on the car? Does that help you while you’re in the car?
RV: Yes and no. At the same time, you don’t want to overwork yourself, and that’s something that I had a problem with in 2018. I was really overworking myself. I was not in a good mental state. I say this year, I’ve found myself in a really good position. I’ve found myself in a really good home at JD Motorsports. I think, when you look at Pocono, and I was able to really feel a little bit more than what I had known in the past just on the basis of understanding what goes into the car. I think that’s probably the most valuable thing, just knowing what needs to happen to the car.
EB: How are you feeling about your 2021 prospects?
RV: I feel good. I hope I’m racing a lot more next year. My whole thing with this is that I feel this partnership with TikTok and having these races back-to-back and knocking down good finishes… overcoming, you know? We had a tough start at the Roval, got caught in that early pileup through the infield section but came back and got a top 20. If I keep going out there, having these runs, putting my name on the map like we have with this partnership, I think this just adds stock to my name. That’s been the big thing. By me working on the cars, by me landing this sponsorship, by me racing week in and week out, getting the repetitions, it’s just adding more and more stock.
It’s a very underused phrase in racing, having stock. I think everything that’s going on right now, everything that I do in the garage area or at home or at work or with business, I do it to build stock. I do it so that this guy in the garage area will say, “Man, that kid needs to be here. That kid is the guy that we need.” If you can build that stock and have a reputation of being The Guy, that can go very, very far.
EB: You’ve definitely shown that you’re interested in being here and putting in the work to get to NASCAR. It’s rare to see that high level of determination in up-and-coming drivers, to put in that kind of legwork.
RV: That’s what I’ve been raised to do. With my family, my mom is a kindergarten teacher and my dad is a construction worker. The term “construction worker” gets thrown around a lot—he doesn’t own a construction company. He’s a construction worker. There are so many drivers that say their dad is a construction worker, but in reality, their dad owns the company.
No, we’re largely middle class. We come from a non-racing background. We don’t have the funding. At the end of 2017, my last real late model year, we were done. We were done racing. We couldn’t keep doing it. When I made the Drive for Diversity program in 2018, when I landed the sponsorship to do late models and run Xfinity last year, to do it this year and run Xfinity—this has all been built upon building that stock.
When you don’t have the funding behind you—and that’s not a bad thing, I’m not ripping on anybody who has the funding. They were blessed and born into the right family. They were blessed and born into the right situation. I know a lot of people that are bitter about stuff like that. You can’t be. That’s a terrible, terrible mindset. I’ve grown up racing against kids who, today, I race against now in the Xfinity series, and I have all the respect in the world for them. Everybody’s journey through the sport is totally different. Everyone has their own struggles. Everyone has their way of doing things. Mine isn’t the easiest, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
EB: My last question for you: where do you get your chicken nuggets?
RV: McDonald’s. McDonald’s is the stereotype. When you have a chicken nugget, you hold it to a standard, and that standard is the McDonald’s McNugget.
EB: That’s true.
RV: That’s my mindset. When I have a chicken nugget, I think about, how does this stack up to the McDonald’s nugget? It’s nostalgic, it’s overall good seasoning, good breading, juicy. Their sauces are good. Every time I say that, people are like, “ew, haven’t you seen that video of the pink stuff?” I don’t care!
EB: It’s good. It doesn’t matter.
RV: It tastes great.
EB: What’s your dipping sauce?
RV: I do the tangy barbecue.
EB: Nice. Good choice. Good choice.