By Seth Eggert, Staff Writer
The stories of each driver that climbs the NASCAR ladder to reach the Cup Series is unique, and Ryan Vargas may have one of the most unique journeys to this point.
Vargas, a native of La Mirada, Calif., competes part-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for JD Motorsports with Gary Keller. The TikTok-sponsored driver has six career starts to date with a best finish of 13th at Pocono Raceway in the No. 15 Cranio Care Bears / FACES Chevrolet Camaro SS.
The interest in motorsports started at a young age for Vargas. Although he tried his hand at several sports in school: baseball, basketball, and football. They didn’t hold his interest. However, he always had an interest in cars. After finding out that kids could race cars, he convinced his parents to start competing. Shortly thereafter, he was running in Bandoleros.
“When the opportunity really kind of arose for me, that I realized that kids can race Bandoleros,” Vargas recalled, “I had to jump on the opportunity. When I convinced my parents to jump into Bandoleros, it was such a culture shock. I had never raced anything in my life, and here I’m jumping in at 11, 12-years-old, having to learn from scratch.
“We ended up moving up through the ranks of Bandoleros all the way up to Late Models and eventually got picked up to race on the East Coast. I’m just all about that steady progress and not pushing too hard or too far.”
The first race for the West Coast driver was at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Bullring. Vargas finished fifth in a field of 17 Bandoleros.
Although Vargas never stuck with the traditional school sports, he earned a nickname from those sports that he still carries today. The nickname ‘Rhino,’ does not come from his hard-nosed, on-track competitiveness but rather from T-Ball.
“A lot of people think this name came from racing, thinking that I’m a hard-nosed driver,” Vargas joked. “Rhino really came from when I was playing T-Ball. I was one of the fastest runners on the team, but I was the fattest. So that has kind of stuck with me all the way to today.”
Craniosynostosis and Awareness
The 20-year-old driver for JD Motorsports was born with craniosynostosis. The rare condition often affects the growth pattern of the skull. In Vargas’ case, the right side of his head became completely flat. His specific case of craniosynostosis was coronal synostosis. At 11-months-old, he had surgery to correct the condition.
Throughout his career, Vargas has been an advocate, raising awareness for craniosynostosis. Since he made his Xfinity Series debut in 2019, he has had Cranio Care Bears and FACES on his Chevrolet Camaro SS in four starts.
“Today I have this scar that goes down the side of my head that I wear with pride,” explained Vargas. “It’s the reason why I’m here and I’m alive. I know a lot of kids out there who have it are a little embarrassed, shy, don’t know what to think of it. I’m kind of here for that person, for them to say, ‘Hey, that this is something that you can overcome.’
“I’m very fortunate. My type of craniosynostosis was able to be reversed through the surgery, but I know some kids have theirs had long lasting effects. I know that Cranio Care Bears and FACES, the National Craniofacial Association, they’re both incredible organizations that raise awareness, not just for craniosynostosis, but other craniofacial differences, and help raise awareness and raise the funds so that parents can get those surgeries for their kids.”
The awareness efforts that Vargas conducted have not gone unnoticed. In 2016 and 2017, he was named a recipient of the Wendell Scott Trailblazer Award. The award, named in honor of NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott, the first African American to win in the Cup Series, is given annually to a female or minority driver that personifies excellence on and off the track.
The magnitude of receiving an award named in honor of Scott was not lost on Vargas.
“It just goes to show the kind of impact that Wendell Scott has had within the sport,” explained Vargas. “To receive not just one but two awards in his name, it’s honestly an incredible, incredible honor to carry his name. He opened up the doors to many minority drivers to enter the sport and, without him who knows (how many would be in the sport?)”
For the Fans
In addition to being an advocate raising awareness for kids, Vargas has strived to be a fan friendly driver. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he had been a driver that race fans could walk up to and have a conversation with. Since the start of the pandemic however, Vargas had to find another avenue to be approachable.
As the motorsports world turned to iRacing, Vargas spotted an opportunity. He created the eTruck Series Night in America, which at the time became the highest-streamed iRacing event. Vargas also hosted Street Stock races on the motorsports simulation service, inviting fans and other competitors to join in.
“It’s been really fun,” admitted Vargas. “I mean, I’ll go on iRacing all the time and host a random Street Stock race, and we’ll get upwards of 35, 40 people entering, and we’ll fill the server. It’s opened a lot of opportunities for the fans to kind of race with me and have fun. It’s all about just showing you guys that I’m that driver that they can walk up to at the track, have a conversation with. I’m not going to blow anybody off. I want to be that guy that fans root for.
“To see what we were be able to do in such a short period of time and we just made lots of connections within eSports and NASCAR, it’s been very, very fun.”
While Vargas has had fun on iRacing, he’s also used the simulation as a tool. Of the six remaining races in the 2020 season, the TikTok driver has experience at just two tracks, Kansas Speedway and Phoenix Raceway.
With no practice or qualifying due to COVID-19, iRacing has been where Vargas has turned to gain experience. He will be making his first career starts at Talladega Superspeedway, the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, Texas Motor Speedway, and Martinsville Speedway. Vargas specifically identified the Roval as a place he is using iRacing to learn.
“iRacing’s a great tool to use, especially when I’m going to all these tracks for the first time,” Vargas stated. “I don’t consider myself a road course guy, but I love road course racing. Definitely utilizing iRacing a bunch just so when I do go to the Roval, I know where I need a brake or whatever you can do. It’s a very valuable tool for that.”
TikTok and NASCAR Next
The TikTok sponsorship came to be after Ryan Pistana posted screenshots of a then-fantasy paint scheme for iRacing. Upon seeing the paint scheme, representatives from TikTok contacted NASCAR and Vargas and the sponsorship opportunity grew from there.
The contacts that Vargas had at NASCAR also stemmed from his time as a NASCAR Next competitor. The program taught Vargas, and others, more about marketing and media relationships in addition to on-track experience.
“It opened up a lot of opportunities for myself,” said Vargas. “It introduced me to a lot of great partners within the sport. When we landed this TikTok deal, I leaned on a lot of people that I originally met, some from NASCAR Next. It gives you a lot of contacts and really, it’s a lot of useful information that you have to take advantage of and I’m really glad I was a part of it.”
Advocate, Driver, and a Mechanic
When Vargas hasn’t been behind the wheel at the track or on iRacing, he’s been working on the car. The NASCAR Next alumnus has been a member of the road crew for JD Motorsports. However, that is nothing new for Vargas as he has always been hands-on with every racecar he has driven.
By doing so, he had gained a new respect for what his team does week in and week out. At the same time, he as earned the respect of his crew members because he works hard to protect his equipment.
“I feel like if you can go there and work with the team and learn from them, learn what goes into these cars to earn not just a new respect for what they do, but you earn their respect. When you go out there and race, they’re going to put the best that they can on the track to give you as good of a car as possible.”
For Vargas, the Xfinity Series Ag-Pro 300 at Talladega marks the next rung on the ladder for his career. His ultimate goal is to race on a more regular, full-time basis. He recognizes that comes down to funding though, and is hopeful for the future.
“The goal is to race more on a regular basis,” admitted Vargas. “Then again, that comes down to sponsorship. I’m hoping to carry some partners in the next year, but also find new ones. We’re always looking for business, open to have new partners on the car. We had a lot of things in the works that I’m just really very excited for what opportunities present themselves.”
Photo by NKP / NKP Photo