Change of plans. "The Rhino" is comin’.
Ryan Vargas, an 18-year-old La Miranda, California native, former NASCAR Next member and 2016 Wendell Scott Trailblazer Award winner, will be gunning for the track championship at Irwindale Speedway in 2019.
"Really happy to announce I’ll be going full time at Irwindale Speedway with Alec Martinez Racing," Vargas told NASCAR.com. "I’ve really been enjoying working with those guys and kind of reconnecting with my old crew. To be able to further Alec’s program with a couple wins under our belt so far, it’s really cool to be able to go chase a championship now."
After eight races, Vargas leads Bakersfield’s Blaine Perkins by eight points. Rookie Jace Jones is third, 40 points back and six ahead of former track champion Nick Joanides.
Vargas, who won one of his two races thus far on opening night and has scored a top five in all eight races this season, said the decision to run full-time was one that was made recently and not a part of the original blueprint for the season.
But everybody involved was 100 percent on board in changing course.
"It really wasn’t even part of the plan," Vargas said. "It kind of was brought up jokingly opening night when we got that win and took over the points lead right away. My car owner Alec was jokingly saying it, but as the season went on, we maintained that points lead and it got bigger every so often. Now we have a pretty decent points lead, a few races in, got a couple wins under our belt, a lot of solid runs. We’re at a point now where we can put together a solid championship run. Took a lot of convincing from Alec and myself and we decided to go full bore and chase a championship."
While most 21-year-olds are figuring out their life and finishing school, Alec Martinez is owning and operating a race team. He stepped away from driving following an accident last season and decided to rent the car out in order to keep sponsors exposed. When Vargas came calling, he didn’t hesitate.
Martinez, whose sponsor LKQ Pick Your Part will be on the car for the entire season, reminisced on the conversation following the fast start with Vargas, and was pushing him to go full-time from the start.
"We were still leading the championship two weekends in," Martinez recalled. "I was like ‘Hey Ryan, we should go run for this championship,’ and he’s like ‘Yeah, let’s see how we do next weekend.’ And I had a feeling deep down we’d still be leading, we kept growing that lead. And he finally texted me ‘Let’s go win a championship.’ I was super excited when he said that. He was playing it safe for awhile trying to make sure he had a good lead, but I’m super excited to go for it, see what we can do for him and grow together."
Martinez, who had raced with Vargas for the past four seasons, has had Kayla Eshleman and Toni Breidinger race for him before. Marketing himself as a diversity team owner employing diversity drivers, the match was one that was made in heaven.
"In reality, we’re the underdogs," Martinez said. "I’m 21 and don’t come from money. I started all this on sponsorship. When I stopped racing, I tried to pitch that I’m doing a diversity program and my sponsors were all on board for that. A kid like me and Ryan, two Hispanics that don’t come from money are beating million dollar teams out there. It’s awesome."
But there’s more uniqueness to this story. The main sponsor on the No. 26 Chevrolet, Lombard Bros Gaming, is exactly what it sounds like: a video game company owned by the Lombard brothers.
Joseph Lombard, who has been a YouTuber in the NASCAR community for the last seven or so years, took a liking to Vargas. When the opportunity for a partnership arose, it was a no brainer.
"When Ryan came to us for a late model sponsorship, we offered to help him out. He gave us a quote on how much it would be to sponsor him for the entire Irwindale season and we said ‘You know what, we can help this guy out.’ It’s been a pleasure working with Ryan, he’s a good kid. Been very helpful not only for him, but for our business as well. We’ve been getting a lot of publicity and recognition for it so far. It’s been going great, we hope this sponsorship deal can continue this run and hopefully get a championship later this year."
Vargas’ success shouldn’t come as a surprise. He raced at Irwindale in 2016 and 2017 full-time in a late model, working his way up from a newcomer to a mainstay up front, winning a handful of races. From those two seasons as well as 2019, his confidence isn’t lacking on winning this championship.
"I’m pretty confident. It’s racing though, it’s always unpredictable and you never know what’s going to happen," Vargas said. "Especially at Irwindale, such an unpredictable track with how competitive everybody is there. There’s races where it’s a two car show and others where there’s nine battling for the win. I always have the time of my life racing there, and doing it for a stout team in AMR and having Lombard Bros Gaming on the hood so far."
But Vargas confidence didn’t come without some tribulations. After driving the No. 2 for Rev Racing last season in the K&N Pro Series East, he was informed he’d not be returning for 2019.
Thank you, and love you all. pic.twitter.com/LL1gpGDAOt
— Ryan Vargas (@The_Rhino23) December 6, 2018
He was lost. Alone. He had doubts. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger couldn’t be more true in this case. If a championship were to come to fruition in 2019 for Vargas, it’d be a storybook ending to a roller coaster year on and off track.
"It would mean a lot," Vargas admitted. "Going from where we were a few months ago, getting the news that I wasn’t going to be able to continue my stay at Rev Racing in 2019, going from having zero races on my schedule to now a full season and more, racing with Lee Faulk and some more coming up. It’s been a really incredible journey so far. It’s been a real big confidence booster. Especially with how the offseason went, it’s always good to come in guns blazing."
On top of not returning to Rev Racing, Vargas’ grandmother fell ill as the season began. She unfortunately passed away in early May.
Vargas and AMR added a pink decal honoring her and wound up in Victory Lane: for grandma.
GOT THE WIN FOR GRANDMA!! pic.twitter.com/2KFvxhdggE
— Ryan Vargas (@The_Rhino23) May 12, 2019
"The offseason wasn’t easy on me or my family," he said. "Losing Rev was hard for us and losing my grandmother over the last few months wasn’t the easiest time. The season is going to be for my grandma and to put a statement on the year and say I’m not backing down. I’m here to stay and Im ready for this sport."
Vargas will look to continue his winning ways at Irwindale in his next race on July 4.