The clock felt like it was potentially ticking on Ryan Vargas’ NASCAR career, but thanks to an imagined TikTok paint scheme and a can-do attitude from the young driver, a breakthrough came in the eleventh hour.
On July 22, freelance graphic designer Ryan Pistana tweeted one of his creations, a mock-up of Vargas’ No. 15 NASCAR Xfinity Series race car with social-media platform TikTok as the then-fantasy primary sponsor.
— Ryan Pistana (@ryanpistana) July 22, 2020
What Pistana called a dream sponsorship opportunity turned into a reality for 20-year-old Vargas, who will drive the No. 6 TikTok Chevrolet for JD Motorsports in the final six races of the Xfinity Series season, beginning with Saturday’s Ag-Pro 300 at Talladega Superspeedway (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN/NBC Sports App, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“It really just all came together from his tweet,” Vargas said. “He knew that I was a very avid TikTok-er. I love the app. It’s by far my favorite social-media platform and that’s not because they sponsor, it’s literally the most fun and the easiest way to connect new potential fans. When he posted that, that post really kind of made its rounds through the industry.”
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But this newly blossomed relationship wasn’t a one-way street. TikTok also sought out Vargas, showing a genuine interest in jump-starting discussions.
“When TikTok started talking with me and NASCAR, it just started to grow from there,” Vargas said. “TikTok is just so enthusiastic about being in the sport and really just enthusiastic about partnering with myself and my team. I think that’s probably the coolest part.”
While most NASCAR Cup Series drivers have larger organizations and personal managers assisting them with major primary sponsorship deals, Vargas started working with TikTok on his own for the most part, with help from Truex Management Group, owned by Joe Gibbs Racing driver Martin Truex Jr.
The Truex-owned group provided consultation, but it was Vargas tirelessly picking up the phones that made the deal happen, which is a situation he has grown accustomed to throughout his entire racing career.
“I think that’s been the biggest thing for me over the last few years — handling everything business-wise, whether it would be with the race team or any potential sponsors or any potential rides,” Vargas said. “It’s always been me going in there and making those deals. I think that resonates with teams and businesses a lot more, when the driver themselves are doing it. I do know later on in the future, I do have to start handing that off to people and luckily the folks at TMG have stepped up and helped me out a lot, which is so new to me. Marketing is just so tough in the sport and, you know, no one has the secret power or the secret to landing sponsorships, but when it comes down to it, a lot of it is just chance and taking risks.”
Those risks have included leaving his family and friends in La Mirada, California, at age 17 and having it all nearly come to an end after 2018 — spending more than nine months out of a race car until his next opportunity. Vargas then made his debut start for JD Motorsports at Iowa Speedway in July of 2019, followed by two more starts that year at Road America and Phoenix Raceway. His 2020 starts so far have come at Pocono Raceway, Kansas Speedway and Darlington Raceway.
On top of the pressure to perform for a company known around the world, Vargas will be making his first-ever start on a superspeedway.
“If that’s not getting a crash-course in NASCAR, I don’t know what is,” Vargas said. “… I can’t wait. I’m ready to go. JD Motorsports … there’s several occasions where they have competed for wins on superspeedways. With TikTok on the hood and we have some good power under the hood, I’m excited.”
While a victory is always on the table at a track like Talladega, Vargas is keeping his end goal very simple over these next six events — finish.
“At the end of the day, we’re still JD Motorsports,” Vargas said. “We’re not a Penske (Team Penske) or a Gibbs (Joe Gibbs Racing) or a JRM (JR Motorsports). We have the equipment and tools necessary to go out there now to compete and run top 15, top 10, fingered crossed and knock on wood. At the end of the day, it’s about finishing races and learning. As long as we go out there and have a clean race and give TikTok the best possible showing that we can without going out there and tearing stuff up, I consider that a win.”
One major victory throughout his young career has been Vargas’ social-media presence, exhibiting the hard work, dedication and resiliency that has allowed him to push through while also betting on himself and his racing prowess. Mix that with his willingness to grab the business side of the sport by the horns, it has been a lethal combination for a young man with grit and determination who has never showed signs of wavering.
So, does Vargas’ ability to find beauty in the struggle set him apart from other younger drivers in the same predicament?
“I’d be lying if I said no,” Vargas said with a laugh. “It’s very important. That’s just the biggest thing … like if I wasn’t like this, I wouldn’t have a ride. That’s just plain and simple. I wouldn’t be able to race in the Xfinity Series. I know what it’s like to come very, very, very close to losing it all. I’ve spent the last year and a half not knowing when my next race was, I’ve spent the last year and a half not knowing what I was going to be doing. So, to have this kind of partnership come about and really just set the course for me this year, you know, really what it does is legitimize everything that I’ve worked on and tells people that there is stock to my name.
“There is a reason to work with me and invest in me, take a chance on me. I think that’s what matters the most, is having the opportunity to go out there, have these races and go race.”