Texas native Jesse Iwuji is a rarity in the NASCAR garage. That isn’t because he’s one of a growing number of minorities in the garage. Rather, it’s because the full-time K&N Pro Series West driver is also an active-duty member of the United States military. A U.S. Naval Officer, Iwuji finished 10th in the 2016 K&N Pro Series West standings, with a season-best finish of 10th at Orange Show Speedway in May.
Iwuji, driving the No. 36 Chevy for Patriot Motorsports Group, talked with SpeedwayMedia.com about racing, deployment, and making a difference in the lives of the fans.
Speedway Media: What was it that drew you to NASCAR?
Jesse Iwuji: I think what really drew me to NASCAR was that one, it’s a really big motorsport in America and it’s America’s number one watched motorsport. I felt that NASCAR was going to be the big stage and the place where I felt that I was going to make a big impact because I’m different when it comes to the sport. There’s not a lot of African-Americans in the sport or a lot of active duty members of America’s armed forces.
SM: How did you first get involved in racing?
JI: “Right after I graduated from the Naval Academy in 2010, I began drag racing at local dragstrips in a Dodge Challenger that I had, and it was a great car. I was souping it up, adding a lot of power to it, and just going to different, small, local competitions.
“Then around 2013, I bought a Corvette and began taking it to local road course tracks nearby to run time trial events and after about a year of doing that, I’m getting pretty good at it and I thought, ‘You know what? I think there’s something I could do to push my performance. I want to pursue a professional racing career.’ That’s when I decided to pursue my goals and NASCAR was the first door that opened up for me.”
SM: How do you balance being active duty military with your NASCAR career?
JI: “There is a balance you have to find when it comes to stuff like time and time management and everything. because, you know, I am still full-time in the Navy, I’m still active duty, and I got to work Monday through Friday and the main thing is to just make sure I balance my time right so that I’m not missing too much work and ultimately be able to meet my racing obligations too.”
SM: As a U.S. Naval Officer, how often have you been deployed, and where to?
JI: “I’ve been in the Navy for six-an-a-half years now, and I’ve been deployed twice. My first deployment was in 2012, for about 10 months from February through December, and I was on a minesweeper ship in the Arabian Gulf in Bahrain most of the time, where we would do exercises and operations with other naval forces as well as the U.S. Navy, training and doing different things.
“In 2014, I went on my second deployment on a different ship, the USS Comstock, which was an LSD (Dock Landing Ship) amphibious ship. I was on the ship from July to December of that year, about five months. We had left from San Diego, then we had gone to Hong Kong, then all the way around to the Middle East. Once we got there, we spent about five months there before we came back.”
SM: What are your goals as a NASCAR driver?
JI: “Ultimately I’d like to make it to the top level of NASCAR, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. I also want to use this as a platform to help a lot of people. It doesn’t necessarily have to be people in the motorsports world; it could also be people outside of it. I just want to use it to bring positivity, to help people achieve their dreams, to show people it is possible to achieve dreams that may seem impossible, that may seem unrealistic or something like that. I just want to show people that, hey, if you’re going to put your all into it, put your life into it, really believe in yourself, and continue pushing and grinding every single day, then those dreams can come true.”
SM: You’re highly active on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Is there a favorite platform?
JI: “Instagram and Facebook are my favorite right now, but I find myself interacting more on Instagram than Facebook. Instagram’s algorithm allows for posts to reach more people than Facebook’s, which allows me to promote the things I’m involved with better. The visual aspect of Instagram also is very intriguing too.”
SM: How do you feel social media helps your brand?
JI: “Social media is a powerful tool you can use to build your brand and other brands looking to get involved with you. The amount of people engaged on there is second to none. If used correctly, social media can be a key tool in attracting sponsors to help further your career.”
SM: You had a post on Instagram recently that stuck out to me because of the way you handled a follower’s negative, racial comments. Could you reiterate your stance when it comes to negative NASCAR “fans” like that?
JI: “NASCAR does not need racist fans and many NASCAR fans feel that racism does not belong in NASCAR. Our sport promotes positivity and growth and with it now being 2017, we, as a sport and country, should be past the times of the 50s and 60s. NASCAR is currently doing a lot to expand its diversity initiatives and I’m in full support of that.”
SM: You’ve been showing some material with Kappa on your Instagram lately. Will they be a 2017 sponsor?
JI: “Kappa Riding has brought me on board to be a Kappa Riding Ambassador in 2017 and I’m looking forward to supporting and promoting that brand throughout the year. Throughout the year you’ll see posts on my social media of me sporting their gear and pushing their marketing efforts to reach new crowds. It should be exciting and their gear is phenomenal!”
SM: You do a lot of charity work as well as interact with a lot of young fans. What drives that in you?
JI: “I love inspiring those with dreams and aspirations of becoming more than what they currently are. Young minds think big and see themselves doing great things. It’s our jobs as adults to feed that hunger to become great. With the position I’m in as a driver in such a popular industry, I love utilizing my status in there to help mentor, motivate, and inspire the youth to go after the dreams and goals they have that people may have told them they couldn’t reach before.”
SM: How do you stay active away from the track?
JI: “I spend two-plus hours a night on my iRacing simulator at home and I work out daily. When I work out I lift weights and do sprints to keep my physical condition where it needs to be to compete in such a physically demanding sport. On my iRacing simulator I use it to train my racecraft so that when I’m on the track in real life, situations that occur will not surprise me.”
SM: What type of track do you feel strongest at?
JI: “The ¼ mile ovals have been my best performances in 2016. In 2017 I’m looking forward to getting better at all of the other tracks. I need to be a versatile driver that is strong at all types of tracks.”
SM: Recently on your Instagram, your No. 36 Chevy was adorned with NASA livery for a visit to NASA. What was that about?
JI: “In October 2016 I was invited by NASA Ames Research Centers to speak to employees in a brief about the correlation between NASCAR and NASA. My race team supported my efforts by bringing the racecar to the event so the workers at NASA could view it after the brief. Since we were there, I decided it would be smart to put NASA on the car as a decal. Everyone loved it and the car was a hit!
SM: Which other drivers have been the most helpful to you?
JI: “Ryan Partridge has been a great teacher when I’ve come to him asking questions about tracks and how to run the race line there. He’s one of the rare few who can be a great driver and a great teacher at the same time. I’m definitely thankful for his help.”
SM: You talked about being aboard the USS Comstock, and last year Bubba Wallace carried the USS Comstock name on his No. 6 Ford for a XFINITY Series race. How did you react to that?
JI: “It was an honor to see the only African-American driver in the top-three national touring series of NASCAR carrying my last ship on his car for the NASCAR Salutes effort in the 2016 July Daytona race.”
SM: Recently you were on Oscar Mike, discussing racing. What’s Oscar Mike, and how did you get on the show?
JI: “Oscar Mike is code words for “On the Move.” It is a Verizon Go90 show about Army Vet Ryan Curtis going around from city to city finding military active and veteran service members doing cool things outside of their military careers. In each show, he will learn the occupation of the person he visits and then challenge them in a contest at the end of the show against what the military member does best. In my show, I taught him how to drive a racecar then we competed in a time trial competition at the end of the show.”
SM: You’ve been doing some Outlaw Karting. How’s that been going? There was one race that went south, what happened?
JI: “Outlaw Karts on dirt have trained me well and helped me learn how to drive a loose racecar. The race that went south really didn’t go too south except the one point when I flipped the kart but at least it still worked and I finished the race fifth.”
SM: Do you have any other family members who are up and coming drivers?
JI: “I’m the only person in my family racing. I might know one other Nigerian in the world who is a racing driver. I’m a pretty unique Nigerian when it comes to my passions!”
SM: In both military and racing, when will be your stopping point?
JI: “In the military, I plan on retiring in the Naval Reserves and in racing I plan on eventually competing at the highest level of NASCAR. That’s my goal, and that is what I will accomplish.”
Special thanks to Jesse Iwuji (Instagram: @jesse_iwuji).