NASCAR: The race winner who was told he’d never race again

Ryan Reed, MBM Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Ryan Reed, MBM Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

Ryan Reed’s story of his journey to becoming a NASCAR driver is one that goes far beyond his recent Xfinity Series return and even transcends the sport.

Ryan Reed made his first NASCAR Xfinity Series start since 2018 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway a few weekends ago, driving the No. 66 Chevrolet for Alpha Prime Racing.

The 30-year-old Bakersfield, California competed full-time in the series from 2014 to 2018 for Roush Fenway Racing after making select starts in 2013. He was a playoff driver from 2016 to 2018 and would have qualified in 2014 and 2015 had the postseason been in existence.

From 2019 to prior to the Las Vegas race weekend, he had made only a handful of starts in the Truck Series since his most recent Xfinity Series start, competing once for DGR-Crosley in 2019, twice for CMI Motorsports in 2021, and once for GMS Racing later in 2021.

Reed, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the beginning of his racing career in 2011, made his recent Las Vegas start with sponsorship from Tandem Diabetes Care.

He spoke to Beyond the Flag about how this deal came together.

“Conversations that I had started to have with Tommy [Joe Martins] and those guys,” Reed said. “I still live in Charlotte, North Carolina, so I talk to a lot of the folks in the industry, and you kind of get a pulse for who has some openings and kind of where the opportunities are, which is one of the nice things about having spent so long in the sport.

“I’m really fortunate to have a lot of really strong relationships where I can have those conversations to get an idea of kind of at least what direction to look in if you’re trying to, whether it’s a one-off deal or full-time deal, whatever you’re trying to accomplish. Those relationships in the sport mean everything. So that’s kind of where it started.”

Alpha Prime Racing have given quite a few drivers opportunities to compete, some for the first time, and it worked out for Reed that he could return to the series where he scored two wins back in 2015 and 2017.

“I talked to Tommy and said, ‘hey, do you have any availability?'”, he explained. “Tommy said that he had a few, and when he said Vegas, I perked up. Tandem is a west coast company, and I grew up on the west coast, so it’s always nice for me to get close to home.

“Vegas is only about a three and a half, four-hour drive from where I grew up in Bakersfield, California, so I felt like it’d be if I was going to come out of retirement, so to speak, that’d be a good one to do it at. So that’s kind of how it all how it all came about.”

It also helped that Reed himself had been familiar with Tandem, due to being a type 1 diabetic.

“Super familiar,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to work with the Tandem Diabetes Care folks for a number of years now. I have been a human with type 1 diabetes who has used their product for a few years now, so I wear their t:slim X2 with control-IQ. I’ve been using that pump for I think about four years now, and it has been an amazing process.

“We’ve partnered up on some events before. They sponsored me at Darlington when I ran the Truck race there for GMS, and they were the sponsor of that truck as well.

“We’ve done some great programs off track to talk about living with diabetes, encouraging others to chase their dreams with diabetes. I’ve worked with Tandem in a lot of different ways, but I think that this weekend was one of one of the coolest.”

Reed said that his Las Vegas start, which saw him place 20th, was even cooler than when he ran with Tandem and GMS Racing at Darlington a few years ago.

“When we did the Truck race at Darlington a few years ago, it was tough; it was right on the heels of COVID-19,” he said. “There was very limited accessibility. We all know one of the great things about NASCAR is how accessible it is, how close you can get to the drivers, how tangible everything becomes when you do the pre-race on the grid and all that, and none of that was there when they were on the Truck at Darlington.

“So I was so excited to get to come out and be a part of that, be a part of the program that weekend in Vegas with Alpha Prime and MBM and really see what NASCAR has to offer more traditionally, because obviously around COVID-19, it was an anomaly for a lot of people and a lot of sports.”

Reed also shared his personal story of being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, including the point when he was told that he would never race again.

“It certainly affected me a lot, I would say, early on, when I was first diagnosed, and it affected my mindset,” he admitted. “The mindset that my initial diagnosis kind of created lasted forever. When I was diagnosed, long story of kind of how I got there and what my symptoms and all that were, but I was sick the point was I had been sick for a number of months.

“Finally, I go sit down with the doctor to find out what’s going on; they pretty much diagnosed me on the spot with type 1 diabetes. And the piece that stuck with me forever was right away, because I was 17, I was getting ready to move back from North Carolina, everything was about racing all the time.

“As you know, when a when a young man or when a young individual commits themselves to a craft or to a sport, that’s oftentimes all they think about; that’s their world, and it’s a great thing, because there’s a lot of passion involved and a lot of commitment.

“Well, that was all I thought about from the time I got up until the time I went to bed: racing. It’s what I lived, and I was, no matter what it took, I was going to become a NASCAR driver.

“So when I got diagnosed, my first question was, ‘okay, well, I’m a race car driver; how does this affect my racing?’ And they told me, the doctor told me, unequivocally, that you will never be in a race car again; you have to focus on living a normal life.”

It’s an interesting thing to tell a now two-time Daytona winner. It’s a good thing that that 17-year-old kid wasn’t having any of it.

“And it was awful,” Reed said. “I left that doctor’s office thinking my dreams and my ambitions to be a professional athlete in the motorsports category were over.”

But things changed when he found a doctor who actually wanted to help, one who was willing to be more than the bearer of bad news.

“Then I was fortunate to find a doctor, an endocrinologist, a diabetes specialist, by the name of Anne Peters,” he said. “She turned everything around for me. I found her because she worked with a lot of different athletes, and there were a lot of athletes talking about her commitment to helping folks with type 1 achieve their dreams, which was so cool.”

Having said that, Reed knew he still faced an uphill battle to race again, much less to ascend all the way to NASCAR.

“But that diagnosis stuck with me,’ he continued. “It was something that I knew if I was able to get back into racing, I wanted to use the platform to tell that story. And I was very confident that other folks were probably having somewhat similar experiences where they were being told they couldn’t go do X, Y, or Z because of diabetes, and I didn’t want that to be.

“I wanted to make an impact in that where I could and encourage folks not to give up because of this disease.”

Once he got over that initial hurdle, Reed didn’t feel he was limited at all.

“The second part of your question was how did it affect my progression throughout the sport after that,” he continued. “Once I found the right doctor, I don’t think it limited me at all. I think that if anything, diabetes forced me to be smarter. I was more educated about the things that I was putting in my body. I felt like it made me become a better athlete.”

That doesn’t mean it has been easy.

“It’s certainly more challenging,” he explained. “There was a lot more to think about, but I think from that point forward, I was so committed, and it really kind of lit a fire underneath me to make sure that I was dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s so that I could go do what I wanted to do.”

Another element of the whole equation that has helped Reed is the fact that he has watched and interacted with other top athletes who are dealing with the same disease.

“I think there are a lot of athletes out there [with type 1 diabetes],” he said. ‘There are some in the motorsports category, you got a linebacker who plays for the Jacksonville Jaguars [Chad Muma], I just met him at a Tandem event actually; he is a really, really cool dude. You got [Baltimore Ravens tight end] Mark Andrews. You got some baseball players.”

IndyCar and NASCAR driver Conor Daly is the athlete with whom Reed is most familiar, and the two are close away from the race track for that reason.

“Obviously the ones who I know the best are in the motorsports world for sure, one of them being Conor Daly, who is a very good friend of mine,” he said. “He stayed with me a couple weeks ago when he was running the Xfinity race here at the Roval in Charlotte, so he’s a great house guest.

“Me and him told diabetes stories pretty much the whole weekend, so it’s cool though. I think that when you when you have type 1 diabetes and you meet someone else who lives with the disease, you go through so many of the same trials and tribulations on a day in and day out basis and there is a big connection in that.

“You know right away you understand someone a little more than most people would if you guys share the disease, and so I think those relationships are really unique and really special. Conor and I always have a joke when we’re on the race track, it’s “Team Diabetes”, so it’s cool to see that, and we’ve gotten some of our fans involved with it, which is cool to see.”

Reed’s diabetes has never impacted him in a way that has hindered him on the race track, largely due to being smarter and being prepared.

“Well, I think the biggest thing is being prepared and being able to have plans and contingency plans if plan a doesn’t go right,” he said. “It’s much the same as anything else, when you’re preparing for a professional event, you want to know that you have your bases covered the same way a crew chief doesn’t just have one strategy in mind.

“They can have their strategy that they prefer, but you get a flat tire or you get some damage — whatever, right? You’ve got to pivot; tires are wearing out much quicker than normal, etc. Point being is that you have to be prepared for multiple different options.

“So I think that when you talk about myself or Conor or [IndyCar driver] Charlie [Kimball], folks competing specifically in motorsports with type 1 diabetes, those are all things that are in play.”

So how does one prepare?

“Essentially it comes down to a couple factors,” he stated. “One is you got to know what your blood sugar is, and then you got to know what you’re going to do if it’s high or if it’s low, and I think it’s different for everybody.

“The thing about diabetes management is there are so many different treatment options; how you go about treating your diabetes, it’s different for everybody, and it’s pretty common knowledge in the diabetes world, but everybody’s diabetes is different. So I think that the answer is, yes, we’re prepared for those scenarios if I was to have a lower or higher [level].”

Reed gave a clear answer as to what would happen if he found himself with an unfavorable blood sugar level while competing.

“At the end of the day, if blood sugar isn’t where you want it to be and it gets to a point where you feel like it’s unsafe, you stop,” he said without hesitation. “You stop. And that, as a race car driver, it almost seems like that’s not an option, because everyone works so hard to get there, then you train so hard and you do everything you can to be able to finish the event on every single level.

“But at the end of the day, it’s a sport, and safety is the number one priority. So I think that that’s something that when I think back all the way to my first Xfinity start when I was 18 or 19, that was a conversation that Anne Peters and I had.

“If we get to this point, no matter what, we’re stopping, we’re going to stop, get your blood sugar up or get it down, depending on where we’re at, and we’re going to make some adjustments and then get back out there. You can always race again. But having an issue on the racetrack because of a diabetes complication, it’s just not an option.”

Having competed in just four NASCAR races from the end of 2018 up until before the Las Vegas weekend, what has Reed been up to over the last few years?

“It’s been an interesting couple years,” he said. “I’ve been around the sport some. I’ve done some driver coaching, a little bit of spotting, some consulting, and then I went to work; I got a day job. I work in sales for a company based out of California, the company’s name is Vita-Pakt, and it’s cool that they’re a California company.

“I still live in Charlotte like I said, but it gives me an excuse to go back home and see some friends and family as well as the co-workers. Shout out to them for letting me go play race car driver over the weekend. Hopefully they let me do it some more if I get some more opportunities!

“But yeah, it’s cool, and I think for me it gives me a much different relationship with racing than what I’ve had in the past, where when I would go to the racetrack, there was so much pressure and so much angst because that’s your job and when you feel like every day you’re auditioning, every day is kind of a job interview when you’re at the racetrack.

“When I was in my early to mid 20s, that’s a lot of pressure, and you’re trying to manage all that. So I feel like having a few years to kind of step away and reflect on it and be in a position where I have a job and I can do the racing more on my terms has been something that really helps me have a better appreciation for all aspects of it.”

He has embraced that new perspective.

“Obviously driving the race car is the fun part,” he continued. “That’s what we love to do. But also, just all the little things along the way, and having an appreciation for it, from interacting with the fans to doing some interviews and talking about what we love to do, like we’re doing right now, or just spending some time getting prepared. All those things I really enjoyed getting ready for Vegas.

“When you do it every week it kind of becomes easy to take it for granted. Where I sit now, I have a deep appreciation for when those opportunities come around.”

Reed doesn’t know when another opportunity will come around, but he is in the process of working on putting one together.

“Yeah, still working on it,” he said. “I think last weekend it was a big step in that direction. We put the deal together; Tommy and the MBM folks in collaboration together prepared a great car. It looked great.

“We had a really solid weekend for performance. Step one was go make the show; not being in on points was definitely stressful, not having been in an Xfinity car in five years. We get 20 minutes of practice and one lap to qualify, and those guys are really, really good from top to bottom; everyone in that field has a lot of talent.

“You have to bring your A-game, which I didn’t even know what my A-game was anymore because it’s been so long! But from the first lap, I think we were P15 in practice, qualified 25th, and finished 20th. I feel like we did what we were supposed to do on the performance side.”

But the number one thing Reed took away from the successful weekend was the fans.

“I think to see the impact, to see the reaction from the fans, whether you’re starting all the way back to the week when we first announced it, throughout the weekend, there were so many fans engaged. Regardless of whether or not I get future opportunities, which I hope I will, it was so cool to see what my return meant to so many people.

“That’s really cool, and I think that as a race car driver, you can kind of go to the racetrack and you interact with your friends, you sign autographs, and it becomes — you do it so often — that it becomes so normal then.”

Having not done it during an Xfinity Series race weekend in half a decade, Reed embraced the opportunity.

“But it is really cool, man,” he concluded. “It’s really cool to have fans out there and to hear how much me being out there and competing with those guys means to them, whether it’s a NASCAR fan or someone who is a part of the type 1 diabetes community, that this story means something to them. All of that is so, so cool, so hopefully we can do some more and continue to build on that!”

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Just don’t tell him he can’t do it.