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Jessie Iwuji path to NASCAR isn’t the typical story of becoming a professional stock car racing driver. Where a vast majority of drivers start racing go-karts as early as age 4 and continually progress, Iwuji’s journey didn’t begin until the age of 26.
Born to Nigerian immigrant parents in Carrollton, TX, the values of hard work and discipline were instilled in Iwuji from an early age. Unable to escape the pull of football in the gridiron-crazed Lone Star State, he became a stellar all-around athlete. While at Hebron High School, he was a letterman in both football and track. Offers from D1 schools began to come in, but the one that stood out was the Naval Academy. Not only would Iwuji receive a great education, but he would set himself up for a career in the US Navy immediately after graduation.
After a four-year career and graduation, Iwuji began work as a Surface Warfare Officer, in which he had the opportunity to travel all over the world. He was stationed in San Diego, where, during his down time, Iwuji would take his personal cars to the area’s race tracks, where he would test the limits of his vehicles. There was something about being on the track that gave him the same feelings as he had during his athletic career. He was hooked, and in January of 2014, he made the decision to become a professional driver.
The was one small problem, however: He had no clue where to begin. He began researching on how to get started. Iwuji’s first step was purchasing a racing simulator to practice while at home. He started a small business on the side to help with the heavy finances that come with racing. He also studied team ownership. The following year, he got his start in late-model stock cars in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West.
Six of Iwuji’s first seven races ended in crashes. It would have been easy to walk away knowing he had at least given it a try, but the crashes only made him hungrier to improve. He’s now at the second-highest series in NASCAR, the Xfinity Series.
Recently, he partnered with NFL legend Emmitt Smith to form Jessie Iwuji Motorsports. More than just a racing team, Iwuji wants to create an “opportunity-generating system” for diversity in NASCAR through eSports and other initiatives. He will also be a driver for the team, which is in the process of obtaining a license to join the Xfinity Series in 2022.
From those early crashes to now being in a position to usher in a new wave of diversity in a sport in which many like him never see an opportunity, Iwuji’s story definitely isn’t like any other. And as the Naval officer explains, it’s only getting started.
Whenever you’re going through any journey in life, you have to get your mindset to this dangerous place. When I say dangerous, you become dangerous because you become so relentless. You put yourself in a place where you’re willing to risk it all and continue to keep going. If you’re not in that place, you won’t achieve anything big in life at all. When you’re going after goals and dreams, you’re going to have setbacks. They’re going to be big and little, but they’re going to happen. You must remember that every setback is a setup for a phenomenal comeback. Once I engrained that in my mind, anytime anything bad would happen — yeah, it hits you hard and you feel crappy — but then I would smile because I realized the more the setbacks were happening, the bigger things would happen on the backend.
If you don’t have your mind in that dangerous place, you’re going to succumb to that crappy feeling and quit. That’s what happens; people don’t get their mindset in the right place, so when bad things happen, they quit. Even in the darkest part of night, the sun is going to rise. That mindset is why I was able to get through those first six wrecks. If I didn’t get through those, I’m not partnering with Emmitt Smith now to start a NASCAR team.
There are 24 hours in a day and 168 hours in a week. If you only spend six or seven of those hours sleeping, and you spend the remainder of the time doing whatever your day job is, which leaves you time to actually do a lot of things. When I first started racing, I was still active duty in the Navy, but fortunately for me, I wasn’t on the ships anymore. I was on shore duty and had more free time. I worked my normal day job with the Navy from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then would go home, work out, run, then I’d spend until about midnight training on my simulator. I would also spend that time sending out sponsorship decks, networking online, jumping on calls to make deals happen, do more research on how to progress up the ranks in racing.
Each weeknight, I was doing that. On the weekends, I would race on Saturday, fly home on Sunday and go back to work on Monday. Those five to six hours I would have each night during the week, that’s 25 to 30 hours a week, which is close to a full-time job. When a lot of people say they don’t have time, I don’t buy that. No matter what you have going on in life, there actually is time.
My military background has helped me be able to make the transition to racing and do it well because of all the different things I’ve learned when it comes to communication, being organized, leading, managing assets, and being resourceful. All these different things are constants I learned in the military, and I was able to apply them time and time again. In the military, a lot of times, we’re not given a ton of resources, but we must make big things happen without having what we necessarily need to do it. By doing that time and time again, that’s what’s allowed me to make the leaps I have in NASCAR to work my way up the ranks. When I first got started, I didn’t have a lot of resources or support. I was able to figure it out and make it happen because I went back to my training and figured it out. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have been able to make this happen, but without that training, it would’ve been a much more difficult road.
It means a lot to partner with someone who I looked up to as a kid playing football. My first number in seventh grade was 22 because I played running back and he was the best running back in the NFL, period. It’s great that I can now talk with him, have a relationship to form this deal, and now we’re starting this race team. It’s big because it’s not just about us, it’s using our platform and what we both built. Obviously, he’s built this huge network and he’s done so many great things. I’m obviously at the beginning of my journey and building a lot of great things. We’re putting our forces together so that we can create an opportunity-generating system to bring diversity, help kids, and do all these great things for different areas in life that mean a lot to me and mean a lot to him. Yeah, we’re going to be out there racing, having fun, having ups and downs, but it’s all about using this platform to create good for others so that when we’re done racing, we’ll still have this team and others will have the opportunity to live out their dreams.
It’s still a constant chase when it comes to sponsorship. We’re still putting together deals with different brands. I feel like we’ve had more opportunities come our way because of the partnership between me and Emmitt. He’s a big name, he’s done so much and he’s continuing to do so in the business world. I think with all the different relationships he’s been able to build and all the good he’s been able to do over the years, it helps solidifies the belief for any companies that might have been on the fence. You can’t do anything big alone. You have to have a group of people to make big things happen. It’s always a constant hunt with sponsorship because that’s what makes this entire thing tick. At the end of the day, if we funded racing out of our pocket alone, it wouldn’t last forever because how do you replenish those funds? I feel like our cards are even better now.
We’re starting off in the Xfinity series with a one-car team and then we’ll have multiple cars. We’re eventually going to start a Cup Series team and eventually span that out to multiple cars. I see this growing past that into the eSports world because it’s growing, and it gives people more opportunities to get into racing without having to experience the high cost of racing. I see it growing into other business ventures too. At the end of the day, everything that we’re doing is going to be geared toward helping people, providing opportunities, and making big things happen so all parties are winning. That’s where I see it, continuing to expand out this opportunity-generating system that we’re creating.