It’s not uncommon for a racecar driver to come from a family that has been a part of motorsports for at least a generation or two. Many of NASCAR’s stars such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Austin and Ty Dillon, Ryan Blaney, and Chase Elliott all had family members who were racers before they became ones themselves.
But that isn’t the case for Lt. Jesse Iwuji, an active United States Navy officer, who drives the No. 36 for the Patriot Motorsports Group (PMG) in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West.
Iwuji, 29, is a Carrollton, Texas native whose parents were both born in Nigeria. Iwuji, growing up in the Dallas area, was a football player in high school and it was then that he realized the competitiveness in his personality.
“In ninth grade, I was getting on the A-team for football, and I remember in seventh and eighth grade, I was on the B-team for both years,” Iwuji told POPULAR Speed. “I thought, ‘This has to be my year, I have to step it up, I have to get better and compete so I can beat out everybody.’ Really, I learned about hard-working ethics in high school which has helped me progress to where I am today.”
Serving Our Country
After graduating from Hebron High School in Carrollton, he attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland on a full athletic scholarship to play football and compete on the track and field team. After four years at the academy, he served a total of 15 months of deployment time on two tours to the Arabian Gulf, where he was a Surface Warfare Officer.
He had been involved with racing his Dodge Challenger on drag racing strips in Maryland since 2010. In 2013, he bought a Chevrolet Corvette and often drove it on road courses in California. He ran a test session in a stock car at Irwindale Speedway in Southern California, and it was there that his racing career was born.
Auto racing: From “A Hobby to a Career”
Iwuji raced in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series after the successful test at Irwindale Speedway. He ran the All-American schedule in 2015 and was ready for the next step: racing the entire 2016 K&N Pro Series West schedule.
Competing in the K&N Series was a steep learning curve for Iwuji. The races were longer, and the drivers are faster, but his military experience helped him find success in his rookie season with PMG.
“When it comes to time management, being professional, and presenting myself to people whether on-track or off-track or wherever, being in the military and the things I learned in the Naval Academy has helped a lot and hopefully it continues to help me as I progress,” he said.
“The biggest thing I learned was finishing races. The big goal I think for the year was to finish every single race, which I was able to do. Doing that gave me the opportunity to be in the top 10 in points. I was able to get points every single race … I wasn’t wrecking. I wasn’t taking myself out early in races.
“It helped to get the most amount of seat time possible to continue to progress my driving skills for next year in 2017 … not only to go out and finish races but finish with better positions than I did this year.”
He ended the year 10th in the points standings with one top-10 finish and 94 percent of the laps completed on the schedule.
Social Media Sharing
At Phoenix International Raceway in November, Iwuji hosted NASCAR’s Snapchat account for the penultimate weekend on the Sprint Cup Series schedule. He utilizes social media frequently, which has helped him gain a following among racing fans.
“I think social media is huge, and NASCAR having me on their Snapchat for that weekend was pretty awesome, and I thank them a lot for it,” Iwuji said. “It definitely helps bring more awareness about all the stuff I’m doing and let people know that I’m out there racing. Whenever I’m able to get on a platform like the one they have with Snapchat is huge — it really helps bring a lot of exposure, which hopefully leads to more in my career.”
Supporting Our Troops
Iwuji has done a plentitude of charitable work for military veterans, both on and off the track.
In 2015, he worked with the Phoenix Patriot Foundation, an organization based in Southern California, and occasionally took a veteran to a racing event.
“Their whole mission is to support veterans,” he said of the foundation. “What I was doing with them was bring a veteran to the track to honor them and put their name on the car and stuff like that.”
He also worked with 208 Cares, a nonprofit organization from Idaho which helps disabled veterans reestablish their lives.
“Their whole mission is to give away a house to one of the veterans,” Iwuji said. “I try to promote it and push it, and it was really awesome helping people and kids who have dreams and are motivated to get certain places, and I try to do what I can to help.”
Being of Nigerian descent, Iwuji’s journey into NASCAR is not one that many people would — or could — have predicted for a black student athlete from Texas. No one in his family had ever raced, and NASCAR has historically been a predominantly white sport.
However, the industry has embraced racial and gender variety with its Drive for Diversity program, which is marketed towards minority and female racers. He believes NASCAR will be more diverse in the future and does what he can to support it.
“The big thing in diversity is it just bring more relevance to the community and to reach out to as many minorities as possible,” Iwuji said. “The racing world isn’t closed just because in the past there hasn’t been a ton of minorities. [It’s] definitely open, NASCAR has opened doors and NASCAR wants to bring new types of people into the sport.
“It’s possible. I haven’t been racing my whole life. I wasn’t born into a racing family. No one in my family has done racing before.”
True to his Word
On Iwuji’s official website, his mission statement reads:
“At Jesse Iwuji Racing, our goal is to progress in NASCAR through the ranks while promoting sportsmanship through diversity, mentorship for youth and representing our nation’s Military Active Duty/Veteran community with the best professionalism.”
Having read this story, I think you’ll see that Lt. Iwuji has done all this no matter where he is in his professional life.
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