INVERNESS — If there were more room in his No. 98 Ford Fusion, James Ellis would cruise around the Citrus County Speedway every week with his entire family riding shotgun.
That's because Ellis, 41, has two passions in his life: racing and family.
When his father, Richard, bought him his first race car, a Ford Pinto, at age 17, Ellis instantly fell in love with the sport. The heart-pumping excitement that comes from rubbing other cars at triple digits on the speedometer gets his adrenaline going.
By the time he was 22, however, the passion wasn't enough to overcome the financial strain associated with maintaining a race team, and Ellis was out of racing.
Instead, Ellis focused on the family he adores. He has a wife, Lori, and three kids: Brad, 15; Jeffrey, 12; and Jasmine, 8. When he moved to Brooksville seven years ago, he had just started his own landscaping business, Mid-State Landscapers. Two years later, he read an ad in the paper about a guy selling a stock car.
"I just went up there to take a look at it," Ellis said. "I came home that night with a car."
To his surprise, it didn't take much to reignite the fire in his belly for the sport he used to love so much.
His 80-year-old father, who now lives with him, is no different. When asked what made him buy his son a race car at such a young age, his answer was simple.
"I love it," Richard Ellis said.
With his family by his side, James jumped back into racing. He was aggressive from the start and got into his share of wrecks. Racing in the Mini-Stock Challenge Series, he traveled around the state to New Smyrna Beach, Lake City and Orlando. Although he never won, he did finish second and third and he credits that experience for his success now.
The person who remembers those races, especially the accidents, is Lori, his wife. One wreck in particular was scary. In Orlando, Ellis hit the wall and everyone rushed to see if he was okay. That's one of the fears of being married to a driver.
"He didn't knock himself out," Lori said, "but he really knocked the wind out of himself."
That circuit series has since folded because of economic struggles, but Ellis found his niche at the nearby Citrus County Speedway. The mini-stock division at Citrus is one of the track's most competitive. With cars reaching up to 230 horsepower, they are some of the fastest that spectators see race there.
Last season, Ellis intended on competing for points, but some early races in which he didn't finish ended his chances of running with the pack. This year has been completely different. With two cars in his stable and sponsors including Paul Davis Restorations in Tampa/Miami, Brooksville Transmissions and TNT Auto Salvage, he is armed with one of the best-prepared teams.
He has put $17,000 into his best car and another $10,000 into his backup car. If something goes wrong, he has some of the best equipment of any team at the track.
"Other teams come ask me for help if something goes wrong with their car," Ellis said. "I'm always glad to help when I can."
It also helps that his crew chief/radio man is his brother, Jesse Ellis. Jesse's responsibilities include keeping times during practice sessions, helping work on the car and fine-tuning things just prior to the race and working the radio during the race. Jesse also works with James during the week at Mid-State Landscapers.
The family ties for James never seem to end, and he doesn't want them to. During the week, he spends his fair share of time working at his company, but then comes home and estimates that he labors over the car about three nights a week. He helps his kids practice for baseball and coaches them in Little League in Leesburg on Saturdays before they head over to the track in Inverness.
"We were just over (in Leesburg) before we came here," he said before he started his practice session on a recent Saturday night at the Citrus County Speedway. "We make a day of it."
The family support is a big deal to Ellis. His dad never misses a race, and his brother is always walking around with the headset on. His wife is either sitting in the back of the trailer, by his side or giving him a good-luck kiss before he departs for another big run. His kids, Ellis said, might be the most excited ones of all.
"They want to win just as bad as I do," he said. "If they didn't want to be here, we wouldn't be here."
In the end, it all seems to be working. After the eighth week of the season, he holds a 13-point lead over Clint Foley, last year's champion at Citrus.
The experience has been doing him some good, and even though there is a lot of racing left this season, his outlook is optimistic.
"You have to pick your spots," Ellis said. "When you have the points lead, you have to race safer, but you have to still be aggressive."