We Talk with Jesse Iwuji, Stock Car Racing’s Up and Coming Renaissance Man

Jesse Iwuji talks about the Navy, football, NASCAR, and more.

byT. Walker| PUBLISHED Feb 13, 2018 12:00 PM
We Talk with Jesse Iwuji, Stock Car Racing’s Up and Coming Renaissance Man

When you think of the Navy, good ol’ American college football, and American stock car racing, a guy of Nigerian descent isn’t exactly what comes to mind, but soon enough it will. Professional Stock car racer Jesse Iwuji has only been on the scene for a short time, but his unorthodox arrival to the world of motorsports has been nothing short of refreshing. The son of Nigerian immigrant parents, the 30-year-old race car driver is the epitome of the American dream. He’s an athlete, a college graduate, a soldier, a business owner, a role model, a philanthropist, and most importantly, an all-around good guy.

Jesse Iwuji is front and center at a time when motorsports, especially NASCAR, is in need of a few feel-good stories. A splash of diversity and a real-life hero like Iwuji wouldn’t be a bad addition either. Today, most of the headlines regarding Iwuji’s story may boast that the Texas native is the first active armored service member to compete in Automobile Racing Club of America Racing, a feeder series into NASCAR’s Truck, Xfinity, and Cup Series; however, there is so much more to his developing storyline. After becoming aware of the Naval Academy graduate and getting to know him a bit through several chance meetings on the track, I found myself often spreading the word that Iwuji was someone to watch. After all, he’s a United States Navy Reserve officer behind the wheel of a race car—definitely a guy you can’t help but root for.

My first impression of Iwuji was that he was way too happy. You see, Jesse has a smile that is beyond infectious and if you are lucky enough to spend time talking to him, you’ll quickly realize that his optimism is contagious. I can go on and on about Iwuji’s spirit and hustle, but instead, I will let his words speak for him. On the heels of his debut at Daytona in the ARCA Racing Series (he finished 36th) and before the start of his return to the 2018 NASCAR K&N Pro Series, I caught up with the up-and-coming race car driver. We discussed his unique path to the world of motorsports, what it will take to break through to NASCAR’s highest level of racing, the Dodge Challenger that started it all, and so much more. Below are excerpts from our conversation. It is my hope that you too will become a fan.

Officer Jesse Iwuji, Jesse Iwuji / Instagram

The Drive: Your life was Navy, Football, and a souped-up Dodge Challenger with an incredible amount of horsepower. At what point did you decide becoming a stock car racer was a legitimate goal?

Jesse: Yeah. So it was really around 2014, that was right around towards the end of the time that I was doing the drag racing stuff with the Challenger. And I also at that time was doing some open track days with my Corvette, where I was taking it to different road course tracks in Southern California and just doing open track days—not like real competition. We were going out and doing, basically, some kind of time trials type stuff just by yourself—you're not racing against people. I mean, other people are on the track, but it's not a competition. But I was doing that, learning how to go fast and turn left and right, and right around that time I started going to watch different amateur racing events and after checking those out I was like, "You know what, I think I want to go the route in life where I become a professional driver." And I didn't know where exactly I wanted to go with it. I didn't know what series I wanted to race in professionally; I just knew I wanted to be a pro driver. So, that was happening in 2014, and right around that time when I made a decision that I wanted to be a driver, I met a guy that was doing stock car racing—I actually met him at a car show—and he asked me if I would be interested in trying it out and I told him "Yes." And from there he connected me to his team and I did a test with his late model team at Irwindale Speedway. That went well, and after my second appointment, which was later that year in 2014, came back in 2015 and began racing late model stock cars at Irwindale Speedway. 

The Drive: So in 2014 you decided that this is what you're going to do. In just a few years, you have managed to go from drag racing, racing late models, then the K & N Pro Series and now ARCA. What’s your end goal with racing? Is it to ultimately race in NASCAR Cup Series, or do you have other plans?

Jesse: The goal is to make it to the top level of NASCAR—to get up to the NASCAR Cup Series and race there. I want to make it to the Cup series, race there for a long time and eventually win a championship. So, that's the aim. That's where I want to go and that's where I will get to and I'm just gonna continue to really progress and do what I have to do to make it to that level. It's all a process. You’ve got to really gain the experience. You've got to learn how to gain the funding, the sponsorships, and be marketable. There are so many different things with it [racing] that allows you to make it to that level, so that is all the things that I'm doing right now. I'm learning and piecing together so that eventually I'll get to that goal.

The Drive: Would you ever consider open wheel racing? Like IndyCar or Formula 1?

Jesse: I would love to do it. I would do it—It's not my goal, but I'm very open to doing it. I would love to do some one-off races maybe do the Long Beach Grand Prix with IndyCar one of these years or something, but, yeah, I'm completely open to it. I'm not opposed to any form of racing that has four wheels and a high-powered motor.

The Drive: So, there's no go-kart racing as a kid and no fancy driving academies like the legendary Bob Bondurant Racing School. What have been the advantages and disadvantages of not taking a conventional path up the rankings of racing?

Jesse: With racing, there is a general path that people tend to take and when it comes to getting up to being a professional driver. Typically, the general path is people start go-kart racing when they're young when they're five or six years old, and then from there, they move up. Whatever route or direction they want to go to—whether they want to go Formula 1 or NASCAR or whatever, there's a certain route that you tend to take as you're growing up.

For me, I didn't have that. I didn't start racing as a little kid. I didn't start racing until three years ago, so my path had to be a little bit quicker and I’ve had to make a lot of strides early or really throughout this whole time. So for me, maybe the advantage of it is ... I don't know. There's not a ton of advantages because I'm always going to be behind the curb a little bit just because I don't have the same experience level as a lot of people. But at the same time, I think that drives me even more to want to push myself and to know that I don't have forever to get it. If I want this, I’ve got to make it happen now, and that pushes me to grind every single day ridiculously hard to make it happen. It means that much more to me because none of this was given to me. I'm not rich. I don't have millionaire parents. I have to find the funding myself, whether I had to create it myself through business, like an entrepreneurial route, or to find it through being marketable enough to be sponsored. Some of these things other drivers don't have to worry about as much because they might come from a very wealthy family where their family can take care of the bill—their racing bills—whereas for me, that's not the case.

I played football all through my life and I'm glad I went the route I did because it allowed me to learn a learn a lot of things that other people didn’t get a chance to learn. Playing football, playing team sports like that, and learning how to make it through college to play the highest level of college football, and also being in the Navy, going to the Naval Academy, experiencing deployment, and learning real-life experiences—all those things adding up together, I think, helped shape me the way I am now so that I could do the things I am able to do and be where I'm at right now. Not many people can go from never racing before, to in a few years, you know, racing in ARCA and the NASCAR K&N Pro Series on TV. Not many people can do that from nothing, but the thing I learn from the route I took in life, it allows for that to be possible.

Irwindale, California - March 25, 2017: Jesse Iwuji and Shawne Merriman at the Irwindale Speedway, T. Walker

The Drive: Can you talk a little bit about Patriot Motorsports, your part ownership stake in the company, and how that came to be, as well as your business relationship with ex-NFL player Shawne Merriman?

Jesse: Patriot Motorsports Group—our team is actually based out of Eagle, Idaho and the team owner is John Wood. He's had the team for a while now but when I came on board and started racing, he made me kind of a part-owner/manager/ marketing person/ I don't know…I just do all the things he needs me to do to help the team and to put it out there. That's what I do and it's been crazy because it has given me the opportunity to race and to use the platform, use the team to help advance everything, so that’s been really great. And then Shawne, on how he came on board was, we met at this fashion show type thing that was a grand opening for a store that his apparel brand "Lights Out" was gonna be in. And, through "Lights Out" and him being a football player prior to NFL and just having that football connection right there, we connected and I told him, like, "Hey, I'm racing in NASCAR. My goal is to make it to the top level. You can be a part of this and I think it would be a great way for you to expand your ventures right now that you are doing and get your feet wet in NASCAR, and really help this diversity movement in NASCAR," and he was on board for it. So he jumped on board, and he became my car owner for the team and for my particular car. Through that, we've been able to leverage that to help out with the sponsorships and then also help him get his name out there in NASCAR, and just adding more pieces to this whole pie and I think, overall, it has helped everyone.

The Drive: Because you've taken the non-traditional route, what’s the next step for you? Trucks or Xfinity?

Jesse: So, with doing the ARCA stuff right now and the big focus on this year is running bigger tracks. That's why I'm doing ARCA—ARCA and K&N—and doing all the big tracks for K&N.  But to be doing both of those, the goal is to give myself the experience I need so that I can move up to the next level, so I think Trucks would be the next logical route to move up but from there. The next thing would be Xfinity.

How long I do trucks, I don't know—whether I do maybe … two truck races and then from there move up to Xfinity, or I do six or so truck races before I move up to Xfinity, I'm not sure—but the goal is not to spend too much time in the Truck Series. Eventually, I just need to move up to Xfinity and learn the car and then from there Cup so I haven't completely figured out how many truck races I want to do just yet. It's going to come with time and the goal is to hopefully run some of those truck races this year and maybe even some Xfinity too, so that would be cool.

Irwindale, California - March 25, 2017: Car No. 36 at the Irwindale Speedway, T. Walker

The Drive: As a driver and car owner, as you said, you are doing a bit of everything at Patriot Motorsports, how do you balance everything while being on active reserves in the Navy? What’s a typical day like for you?

Jesse: Earlier this year, I was active duty in the Navy and then I transitioned to reserve and with that,  instead of being full-time in the Navy every day, now I'm just part-time. The only thing is that part-time in the Navy now falls on a weekend, not during the weekdays, which kind of affects my racing a little bit. So, I've been able to balance it and reschedule some of my drill days where I reschedule them for other days when I don't have races but, yeah, it's just all time management. For me, I don't ever want to give up being in the Navy because that's part of my story and being an Officer in the Navy and racing in NASCAR—that just hasn't been seen before. And, also, I think it's a great light and inspiration and motivation for others. You might be in the military, whatever branch you're in, just show them that, "Hey! You have a dream. You have a goal. You have places you want to go. You can still make it happen even though you are in the military. Don't let it stop you."

The Drive: What does your physical and mental preparation consist of as you get ready to make your ARCA Series debut at Daytona in just a few weeks?

Jesse: Physically, I'm still doing the same stuff I'm doing--working out and running each day. That doesn't stop and I do that throughout the year every single week of the year. As far as mental preparation, I do spend a lot of time on my racing simulator at home. Each night, I try to get some laps in at Daytona just to work on running the proper line, working on some drafting stuff, and doing different racing series on my racing simulator just to work on other kinds of skills, but those are two main things that I'm doing. If I can try to do other stuff on track like…this weekend, I went and did some laps at Irwindale Speedway in a late model. Next weekend, I'll be, if all goes well, I should be doing some laps in a Sprint car on dirt, and then the following week after that, I might be possibly racing Outlaw cart on dirt, so just doing different things to race and just keep my mind on racing.

The Drive: I've spent some time with Alex Bowman and talked to him a lot about using a racing simulator. How can you prepare for restrictor plate racing on a simulator because so much happens when you're at a Daytona or Talladega race, like, how can you actually prepare, seriously?

Jesse: The one thing the simulator doesn't do is, you don't feel the G-force going into the corner. That corner sucks you into that seat like crazy because of how banked it is, so you don't feel that. You also don’t get to really, truly feel the physical aspect of the turbulence in between the cars and vehicles pushing you around; you don't get to feel that.

What it does help you with is, when you're doing some of the races on the simulator, you're on there, there's anywhere from 10 to 30 different people, and they're all real people on there, so you do get to work on drafting because the simulator does simulate the airflow over the vehicle so you do feel the effects of drafting. You do see what it does to the vehicle, how it sucks it up to the next one, or how you can lose the draft. The car does move around a bit in the draft so you do get that sense and sensation and to see what's going on but you just don't get the physical feel of it, like, that's the only thing you're missing from the simulator. That's how the simulator is over all different kinds of the race itself—you don't get the physical feel—but you get everything else, and, mentally, it helps to keep your mind in a good place so you can learn how to make certain decisions. 

You learn how, like, if you move out of the draft, how it's gonna kill you. Or, if you move into a certain line that 's maybe moving faster than the draft, it can help you advance up a little bit more in some positions, or you can move into a wrong line during a draft and you can go back from maybe 5th to 15th that quick, so that's what the simulator help simulate. And the big thing is, it helps with the in-race craft. It's learning to race against people and making good decisions.

The Drive: Talk a little bit about your experience behind the wheel driving around Daytona International Speedway for the first time.

Jesse: The first time going around, it was a crazy feeling. I mean, my first time actually taking a lap around the track, I was in a minivan. They were taking us around just to show us how it was and the banking and everything, and I remember, literally, almost dangling from my seatbelt because of the banking. I mean, literally, it was steep. And then we get in the car and you go for the first time around the track full speed, going to the corner about 170 miles per hour or more and now you feel the g-force sucking you into the seat because the banking is so much. Doing that for a few laps, it was crazy. I mean, I came off the track and was like, "That - was - insane!" That is crazy, and you get the next insane feeling when you first try to draft because after you get used to driving a single car alone--It's fine. Okay. You got comfortable with it. Okay, it's not too bad—and then all of a sudden you get into a draft where everyone is pushing you around. You're getting sucked-up to the next car, or, just, different things are happening with the air and the aero and now you're going against all that stuff, and then your mind just has to go into another place, that's just another crazy experience itself. So, the two crazy experiences are: the first thing is just on the track by yourself. The second part is when you start drafting. So, yeah, it's a lot to take in for a day.

The Drive: Yeah. I can only imagine. I’ve driven a NASCAR racecar. I've driven pretty much everything, which is crazy, on a few tracks but somebody is in the car telling me what to do. You've only been racing 4 years and it's like you're preparing to race at Daytona.

What would it mean to you, and how will it affect NASCAR when Bubba Wallace Jr. makes his debut as a full-time Cup driver at Daytona?

Jesse Iwuji, Jesse Iwuji / Instagram

Jesse: I think it's huge. It's really huge for the sport. It will be the first time in a really long time that an African American will be racing in Cup full-time. That's big. I think it will be big for the diversity side of the sport, and it will be big for him because he's now gotten to where he wanted to go in life. For his whole life, he wanted to be a Cup driver. Now he's there. And for me, I think it's huge because that's somebody that I can look up to and aim and aspire to be like and get to his fame level, you know. I completely see myself racing side by side with him one day once I get myself to that level, and it is going to be really cool and really special. I think, hopefully, it will pave the way for others to make that leap, make that jump and just show people that, “Hey, NASCAR isn't just a sport that has one ethnicity in it. There are multiple races and genders and all that stuff in the sport. It's open to it. It's not closed to people so, yeah, do it.” Not everybody has to play football, or basketball, or soccer, whatever. You can race.

The Drive: What I'm hearing from you, the odds are very high that you are going to become the second African American in recent times to race full time in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Jesse: Yeah—unless there's somebody else out there who plans on doing it before me [laughs]. I don't know, there are people out there. They could find a way. There might be somebody racing sports cars in Europe right now who's African American and they're like, "You know what? I'm going to go and get into NASCAR now." [laughs]

The Drive: What’s your ultimate car? What car does Jesse drive if he could have any car in his garage?

Jesse: I currently drive a Chevy Corvette C6 ZO6. It's a pretty fun car. It's really loud. I was building it to actually be a race car and then halfway through—I stopped once I started doing the NASCAR stuff so now it's a really loud street car that looks like a race car. That's what I'm driving right now but my ultimate car, if I could have anything right now would be a Pagani Zonda. The Pagani Zonda is like this crazy hypercar. It's like $1.5-$2 million dollars, really sleek, super fast, really cool-looking, great sounding, would love to have it, and maybe some other hypercars too but, yeah, those are kind of my favorite cars out there.

The Drive: You'll get it soon. You're speaking it into existence.

Jesse: Oh yeah. Most definitely.

Tam: A lot of your early storylines revolved around your modified Dodge Challenger, being on active duty in the Navy, playing football and pursuing racing. How do you see your storyline now? What would you like people to share when talking about you?

SPOKANE, WA - MAY 13: Jesse Iwuji #36 talks to a member of his crew during final practice at Spokane County Raceway on May 13, 2017 in Spokane, Washington. , Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images for NASCAR

Jesse: When talking about me, I think the biggest thing to share is really that journey and that grind to …really just talking about me going from never racing before, to racing now and what it took. A lot of people nowadays, everyone has a goal, has a dream, has a vision and barely anyone ever really truly acts on it. A lot of people will have an excuse. They'll be like, "Well, I didn't have enough money. I didn't have enough time. I was too old. I was too slow. I'm not smart enough.” Or, “I grew up here. I didn't have both my parents,” or whatever. Something. Everyone has an excuse for why they didn't achieve their vision, their goal, their dream.

I'm trying to live my life in a way and shows people every day that no matter what dream it is, as long as you have that vision—it wasn't a vision that was given to you by someone else. As long as you have that original vision—you saw yourself being something or someone, you can do it. I'm trying to show people every day that it's possible because I'm doing it right now. I'm racing. I'm on TV. It's crazy, and I'm trying to show people through hard work that you can make it happen. So, when people speak about me, I want them to talk about that. I want them to talk about, "Okay, this is the guy who went from here to there, and this is what he's doing to get there."

That's why I use social media as that platform to showcase that. That's why I'm very open on social media when people reach out to me. I respond to everybody's messages. People ask certain questions or leave comments, I'll answer as many of them as I can. I'm always trying to let people know that "here is my journey. This is what I did and if you just take those concepts of what I did and apply it to your life, you can make whatever you're trying to make happen, you know, happen.

The Drive: What would people be surprised to know about you?

Jesse: Surprised to know about me...that is a lot of things. I have a lot of hidden talent. [laughs] Surprised to know about me...That I actually have a pretty decent movie trailer voice. So if you put like a movie preview in front of me, I could narrate the trailer like a horror film or something like that. Like, some really scary movie, I can narrate the trailer really good. If you want me to do that right now, I can.

The Drive: So, you're telling me you have a career as a voice-over when you finish racing?

Jesse: Yes, watch this. Hold on. [laughs]

(Movie trailer voice) “In a world where few survive, she had one chance, and her chance was to fight back. But what she didn't know was someone's playing a deadly game.” [laughs]

The Drive: Okay. Now, seriously, you really can do voice-overs. I think it's something you should probably pursue.