Growing up, some kids were introduced to sports by hitting a baseball, throwing a football or shooting a basketball — but Ryan Vargas’ interests were elsewhere. He tried every traditional sport you could think of, and wasn’t particularly great at any of them.
For Vargas, one hobby stood out amongst the rest. “I always liked cars,” he said. “Anything with four wheels and a motor, it was my cup of tea.”
Since Vargas began racing at 11, the past nine years have seen him not only achieve his dream of becoming a professional racecar driver, but also align himself with a brand that is of immense value to sports brands.
On Sept. 24, TikTok announced that it would be the official sponsor of the up-and-coming NASCAR driver, a first for both parties. Vargas’ partnership with TikTok made its debut on Oct. 3 at Talladega and will continue for each Saturday throughout the remainder of the season leading up to the season finale on Nov. 7 in Phoenix.
The 20-year-old Vargas has been using TikTok since 2019. From revisiting clips of past race victories to embracing relevant NASCAR humor, Vargas has accumulated more than 45,000 followers on the app.
Front Office Sports spoke with Vargas about why he’s partnering with TikTok and the challenges of finding sponsors during the coronavirus pandemic.
FOS: When did you first join TikTok and what initially drew you to it?
Ryan Vargas: I believe in August of last year, so we’re really only just over a year from that timeframe. I really wanted to hop on there because it was something that I wanted to do. It was a new platform and untapped market and demographic to really brand myself. If I could show them myself and provide good content that new potential fans would enjoy, it would lead to a successful overall program on there.
I’ve been on there now for a year, with over [45,000] followers. It’s just been so much fun. I’ve enjoyed meeting the people I’ve met on there and continuing to grow there.
FOS: What about your content do you think has been able to contribute to your following on TikTok?
RV: TikTok has a really just untapped demographic of new potential fans to really grow your brand. If I can go on there and create genuinely entertaining content and make new fans, that’s going to go a long way.
Now I have [more than 45,000] totally new fans that I never anticipated having, so that goes a very long way. If you’re just a driver who doesn’t do social media and doesn’t market themselves, you can go out there and be as good as possible, but if you have a bad day, nobody’s going to vouch for you. If I go out there and have a bad day, I have fans who are going to say, ‘Well, we know this guy is good. We still support him.’ It’s just building a brand and building a fan base behind you.
FOS: How did you go from being just another athlete on TikTok to partnering with them?
RV: My buddy Ryan [Pistana], who is a talented graphic designer within the sport, knows that I’m very into TikTok. I love the app, and I’ve told him several occasions that I love it. Just one day he put it out there on Twitter a crazy ‘what-if’ situation: what if TikTok sponsored Ryan Vargas?
And it was a really great render. It’s pretty close to the one that we have today. It just happened to kind of make its way through sport and through NASCAR and made its way to TikTok. They saw it and they were interested. A few conversations led to another and by a few, I mean way too many. There’s never too many conversations, but definitely a lot of meetings and phone calls and emails, but it led to this amazing partnership where we were able to represent such an incredible organization over at TikTok. I’m very excited to be able to do this.
FOS: I know that it was your birthday a couple of days ago. What better way to celebrate 20 than with this partnership?
RV: It was a huge deal, not just for myself, but for the whole team as well and really the sport. It really goes to show that there is value in the sport, and this [JD Motorsports] team can really benefit from this sponsorship. We’ve had races where we just haven’t had the funding to do everything right, so to land a sponsor like this and to represent TikTok on the track, it definitely goes a long way.
FOS: There’s the TikTok branding on your car. There’s your new uniform. In your opinion, what excites you most about the partnership?
RV: Honestly, just being able to race and have the funding to go out there. Whenever a sponsor jumps on board like this, it gives you the tools necessary to go out there and race well.
JD Motorsports — we’re not one of the bigger teams. We’re not a Penske or a Gibbs. We’re JD Motorsports, but we go out there and do what we can. With TikTok, it’s a brand that I really love and I use every day. To have a brand that believes in me and to have a brand that I believe in, I feel like it can provide a successful base and help us grow, not just myself as a driver, but the team overall. Hopefully we see a spike in performance, but it all comes down to that.
So I’m just all about getting it going and getting it out and front, really just showing out and proving a lot of people wrong.
FOS: What has the past couple of months been like for you as a young driver trying to make a name for yourself in racing?
RV: It’s just all about making a name for yourself, building that brand. Along with building that fan base, you also have to just make sure that the people around you can vouch for you. By me working within the sport and working on the cars and being a road crew member, it’s earned me a lot of respect amongst the other teams and the other drivers and the other team owners.
FOS: How much of an impact do you think this partnership will have not only increasing TikTok’s standing within the NASCAR and racing community, but your standing as well?
RV: It’s definitely going to add a lot of stock to my name. A lot of people before yesterday didn’t know who I was, and now here we are on the front page of all these outlets and on NASCAR’s homepage. It’s definitely gonna just add a little bit more notoriety to my name so that … later on down in the career, if there’s more sponsorship opportunities that need to come, there will be more opportunities because I’m that guy who was able to land this partnership.
This big company trusted me with their brand and everything that goes on, so I’m just really excited to do this. I’m excited to prove myself on the track, represent TikTok and tell their story and provide the message that they’re here to stay. They are here to provide an outlet for those creators and everyone involved.