One of the biggest surprises late last year was Lilly Diabetes announcing it was leaving Roush Fenway Racing and Ryan Reed for 2019. The two sides had been aligned since Reed was introduced to the Xfinity Series in 2013 for six races.
In 171 races, Reed recorded a pair of victories, both coming in the season opener at Daytona (2015 and 2017). The No. 16 car posted five additional top-five finishes with a total of 27 top 10s, placing no worse than 11th in points in five full seasons.
With the timing of Lilly’s announcement, Reed knew he was in trouble for the 2019 season. Through the opening three months of the NASCAR season, the California native has competed in one race, finishing ninth for DGR-Crosley Racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Reed spoke with Frontstretch to discuss the timing of Lilly’s announcement, what he’s been up to in his downtime, the current sponsorship model in NASCAR, moving his focus to 2020 and much more.
Dustin Albino, Frontstretch.com: What are you up to these days?
Reed: Obviously staying busy, trying to put something together to get back in a racecar. That’s not uncommon for drivers these days, especially when you’re young. If you’re not an established driver and a sponsor leaves, that determines if you’re in the racecar.
I’m really good friends with Ryan Truex and Brett Moffitt, and I’ve seen both of those guys go through this over the past few years. Both of them are very talented and were able to do it. Finding sponsorship is an interesting dynamic that’s part of our sport. The primary sponsor that I had over the past five years of my career left. They announced they were leaving in October and it doesn’t leave you a lot of time to get a full-time ride put together for the next year. Roush [Fenway Racing] obviously shut down their Xfinity program as a whole.
It was a challenging series of events. Nowadays, it’s all about working really hard on finding that primary sponsor and finding the right team to align ourselves with. Other times, it’s staying involved in the advocacy side of things as far as diabetes. I think that through NASCAR and my professional life, it’s something I’ve really developed a passion for. I’ve stayed very active in encouraging others in living a healthy life with diabetes and not letting diabetes hold you back.
Albino: How much have you been able to lean on Brett Moffitt and Ryan Truex?
Reed: I hang out with both of those guys quite a bit. I train with Ryan Truex and I golf with Brett Moffitt. I see those guys every week. I’ve certainly talked to each of them about it, but we don’t necessarily sit down and have a long conversation about it. We all know that’s part of the world we live in as far as the sponsorship side of our sport. Each of those guys – Ryan with his opportunity with JR Motorsports this year and Brett, obviously with the success last year with Hattori Racing, and this year the full-time ride with GMS. I feel like those things helped develop those guys into the talent that they have.
I’ve been able to stay really motivated because if an opportunity comes, I’m ready. I’m in the best shape of my career, been able to study from a different lens outside the racecar and getting more time to understand the sport as a whole. The key thing is getting in good equipment. That’s what I’m focused on now and hopefully, I’m able to do it.
Albino: What, if any, have been some of the positives of having more free time?
Reed: Since I was a little kid, my focus was to drive racecars and compete in NASCAR. It’s hard to sit on my couch instead of in a racecar every weekend, but there are positives. I think the ability and amount of time I’ve been able to spend on the advocacy side, that’s been pretty awesome. There are some things we’ve been working on that I’ll be able to announce in the next few weeks that I’m really excited about. Unfortunately, not on a racecar, there’s nothing to announce there yet, but there’s some stuff I’m going to be a part of, really centered around diabetes and some of the big foundations and groups of individuals that are doing pretty amazing things with diabetes.
There are probably four-five key events I’m going to be able to be at that if I was in a racecar I literally wouldn’t be able to be there because I would be at the race track. I’d say that’s the biggest positive I can take away from it. Other ones are just perspective, being able to sit back and looking at stuff through a different lens and being able to appreciate what the sport is and how badly I want it. When you’re in the trenches every weekend, it starts to blur the lines of how much you really appreciate it because at the end of the day when you’re doing something every week, and you’re focused on it every single day, it becomes a job to some degree. For me, being able to sit back and say ‘I want this really bad, I’ll do whatever it takes,’ has been good.
Albino: When Lilly’s announced last October they were leaving, did you have a feeling 2019 was going to be tough?
Reed: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s extremely difficult in today’s climate. It’s something that realistically, when we signed with Lilly’s, just to put it in perspective, we started those conversations with April or June the year before they signed up. It takes three-six months to put something together with a company that can spend the amount of money that needs to be spent in NASCAR. That’s just the reality of it.
These deals can’t be put together overnight and there are 20-25 guys that if their sponsor were to leave tomorrow, they would have a ride in NASCAR. At the end of the day, that’s not a lot of guys. There’s a big chunk of guys that sponsorship is a key component of being able to put themselves in a racecar.
Obviously, my goal is to be at the Cup level and contending for wins and championships. Once you have that on your resume, then sponsorship takes a back seat. Until then, you have to be able to put those deals together. That’s just the reality of where my career is at and where the sport is at.
Albino: How much do you feel like performance was a part of Lilly’s deciding to go in a different direction?
Reed: I talked at length with them about it and they seemed to be very confident that results weren’t a part of it. They felt like, while yes, they were very adamant and put pressure on the team to perform better, every sponsor does in this sport. At the end of the day, they felt like they had a great partner with me and a great ambassador with me but it had run its course.
It was a five-year program, and in reality, that is a long time. It’s a long time to invest in a marketing-based program and they felt like it had run its course. In my honest opinion, if we had gone out there and dominated, won three-five races per year and contended at Homestead every year, then maybe it’s a different story today. The reality of it was that isn’t the case.
We all know that Roush Fenway Racing has been trying to rebuild over the past few years. I don’t have a bad thing to say about them. They’ve given me a tremendous amount of opportunities, but they have been rebuilding and trying to progressively improve their equipment. I think we saw moments of that throughout the years. Those were the realities of the situation. We always want to strive for more. Joe Gibbs Racing has won seven of the 12 Cup races this year, but they are back at the shop today talking about how they can get more and get faster. It’s just the nature of what we do.
Albino: How would you gauge your performance at Roush over the five-plus years?
Reed: I think a tremendous amount of growth. When I came into the Xfinity Series in 2013 for my first race, I had run a season or two of Late Models out on the West Coast and ran a season of Late Models, probably 12-15 races out on the East Coast the following year. Then I ran 14 ARCA races and then I was in an Xfinity car.
That is a decent amount of time in a full-size car, but compared to some guys who have run 80 Late Model races a year for two or three years, I felt like I had a little bit of work to do and play catch up. I had to learn a lot about this style of racing. I think in my first couple of years, there was a lot to be desired. I felt like I didn’t get enough out of the equipment. The basis is comparing it to your teammates. Even though you have teammates and are in the same equipment, there are different people involved in key positions; crew chief, car chief, engineers, etc. As a driver, I felt like I needed to do more.
My third, fourth and fifth year, if you compare stats to Bubba Wallace, we were very close in points, and a lot of times ahead of him in points. By the end of my time, I felt like I was getting everything out of my racecar and we needed to get the cars better in order to achieve more. That didn’t happen right off the bat. It took some learning and self-growth. There were days that I had to look in the mirror and say ‘Hey, you’re not doing a good enough job.’ Those aren’t fun moments, but they are big character builders.
Albino: In November, you mentioned you were excited about the free agency process. How challenging has it been?
Reed: It’s extremely challenging. The phone rings a lot about what we’ve got going on. The question always is ‘Yeah, we’re interested, but what do you have for sponsorship?’ We have the opportunity right now to align ourselves with teams, great teams. We’ve had some great conversations and we’ve had great conversations with sponsors as well.
It’s not quite halfway through the year and we feel like we have a great opportunity of getting one done maybe as soon as the second half of this year. Our focus is on 2020 and being able to be back full-time in one of the top three series.
The experience of free agency has been challenging, certainly tough not being in a racecar every week. It’s hard to sit on your couch and watch it, especially when you’ve been a part of it for five years. I’m only 25, so that’s 20 percent of my life. 20 percent of my life I’ve been at the race track competing at the Xfinity Series level. At the same time, I’m going to keep my head down, doing all the things I can do and let the chips fall where they may.
Albino: You mentioned to me at Homestead last year you were excited about what the future holds. Do you still feel that way?
Reed: Absolutely. If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that I truly do believe everything happens for a reason. I was diagnosed, was told I had diabetes and had no clue what that meant. All I knew is there was going to be a tremendous amount of needles and insulin, all kinds of different things in my life. I thought it was going to be the worst thing imaginable.
I met so many amazing people. With that, it led to the partnership with Lilly Diabetes, and it was an amazing partnership for five years. It’s easy to look down and say ‘Why am I in this situation, what did I do wrong, what could I have done different?’ I think if you do believe in yourself and what you have in front of you and deal with it as best you can and work hard when it all surfaces, it’s going to be for the best one way or the other. That’s just how I view things. I think it keeps my work ethic on track and motivates me to the best I can.
Albino: It seems like dealing with past experiences in your life from a young age has helped motivate you in this time?
Reed: For sure. I think if you ask anybody with diabetes – obviously there’s a lot of people diagnosed at such a young age that they don’t remember it – but for me and some of the people I’ve met that were diagnosed later in life, the ability of handling adversity before and after diagnosis is tremendously different. It puts so much perspective in your life and you’re able to rationalize and be able to not dwell on the tough times and focus on the good times much more efficiently after having to deal with a disease like this.
Albino: How did the opportunity with DGR-Crosley come about at Las Vegas this year?
Reed: Everyone in the sport has seen what DGR-Crosley has done in the sport in a pretty limited amount of time in building a great team. My dad knows David Gilliland from back on the West Coast and so he talked to him and was like ‘Hey, David would love for you to check out the shop.’ I drove up to the shop and talked to him, Bono [Manion, crew chief] and the guys up there. I was pretty impressed and we were able to secure some sponsorship from Dexcom, a longtime partner of mine.
It happened pretty quick, I’d say a couple months and we went and raced Vegas. Ironically enough, I had one truck race at Vegas seven years ago, and that was my only other truck race. It’s funny how it all comes full circle. It was fun to work with a young team like that. Bono had a tone of experience and I think everyone there does it right and is very ethical. That was something that was pretty big for me, and whatever I do next is having the right people around me.
We finished ninth. I wish we could have gotten up there and contended for a win. I felt like there were two or three things we could have done to make that happen but the speed was there. I felt good about being able to go out there and be competitive in a racecar right off the bat.
Albino: You mentioned you’re focused on 2020, but it seems like you’ve talked with teams about getting a ride here or there for the second half of 2019?
Reed: Yeah, we’re going to work as hard as we can to be back in the car as soon as possible. If that was today, that would be great, tomorrow would be great. If a sponsor calls me and willing to write a check we could go this weekend and compete. The reality is we know how long these deals take. I think that you have to mentally focus on 2020 as your goal, and if something happens between then and now, that’s great and icing on the cake.
Albino: But you’re not going to give up, correct?
Reed: No, unfortunately, that’s not something that’s bred into me. There’s no quit. It probably would be a little easier if that was the case but I’m addicted to the competition.