NASCAR driver Jesse Iwuji talks diversity, his learning curve and working with Shawne Merriman
He’s one of three African-American drivers across NASCAR’s series
One of Jesse Iwuji’s favorite quotes is from motivational speaker Les Brown.
“He said, ‘Someone’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality’ and that’s huge,” Iwuji said.
The 30-year-old NASCAR K&N Pro Series driver incorporates that axiom into his personal and professional life.
Currently a naval officer, Iwuji says his goals are to progress through the ranks in NASCAR while promoting sportsmanship, mentorship for youth and representing the military community with professionalism. As a rookie in 2016, Iwuji finished among the top 10 in points for the season out of 59 drivers in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West.
He recently teamed up with former NFL star Shawne Merriman. Merriman and his company Lights Out became Iwuji’s first big sponsor. Merriman is the owner of Iwuji’s car through Patriot Motorsports Group.
“I met Shawne at this fashion show for the grand opening of his store in L.A.,” Iwuji said. “His products were going to be sold from Lights Out. When I saw him, I mentioned to him about the NASCAR stuff I was doing and the journey I was taking in the sport, and he took interest in it. We decided to link up and make him the car owner of my car in NASCAR, and that was going to get him the opportunity to get his feet wet and into the door of NASCAR so that he could start making big waves and an impact in the sport, especially on the diversity side of things.”
Diversity is a goal of NASCAR, as the organization currently has only three African-American drivers. Twenty-five-year-old Jay Beasley rides in the K&N Series with Iwuji, and Darrell Wallace Jr., known as Bubba Wallace, just became the first black full-time driver in the NASCAR Cup Series.
“I think it’s awesome that he’s getting the opportunity to do this,” Iwuji said of Wallace. “It’s definitely been a long time coming for him, and I think he’s going to do some great things. The guy’s a really good driver. He’s had a lot of great opportunities in his life to be on some great teams and learn a lot and compete at a high level, which has been great. I’m just trying to follow along and hopefully get the same opportunities to compete on great teams and make it up to his level so that maybe I can be the second African-American in recent times to race full time in the NASCAR Cup Series.”
His company, Red District, has hosted drag racing events since 2015.
How did you take the dive into racing?
I’ve always loved cars and racing my whole life. When I was younger, I used to watch a little bit of NASCAR here and there randomly. I don’t know why. None of my family comes from any racing background at all. We’re Nigerian. Both my parents were born and raised in Nigeria before they came over to the U.S. in the ’80s and had me, my two brothers and my sister. Living in Texas, football was the main thing. So my big goal was to get to college, play football for a big Division 1A school, and have a great education, too.
In the middle of college, I started gaining a big interest in cars and racing, and I started researching it more. When I graduated college in 2010, I finally had a little bit of money to go buy a Dodge Challenger. I started drag racing with it at different tracks in Southern California. I kept on building it up and adding more horsepower. Around 2013, I bought a Corvette and started taking that to different road course tracks, where I was spending a lot of time learning how to take turns, left and right, at speed.
In 2014, I met a guy at a car show who had asked, ‘Hey, would you be interested in trying some stock car racing?’ I was like, ‘Stock car racing as in NASCAR?’ He was like, ‘Yeah.’ Then, I was like, ‘Sure. I mean, I’m open to it. I’ve always loved cars and racing. I’ve been thinking about becoming a professional driver, and this might be my opportunity to start going down that path.’ So I went and did a test with his racing team in May 2014. It went well. Right after that, I went on deployment with my ship. When I came back from deployment in early 2015, I decided to start going down that path of the whole NASCAR route. That’s when my racing career began in, really, April 2015.
What drives your passion?
I’m always seeking challenges. I love challenging myself. I love doing things that are fun and exciting and that you can look back on when you’re 57 years old and know that, hey, I lived an exciting life.
How is the NASCAR K&N series for you?
I’ve been learning a lot. Unlike most drivers who race in the series, I don’t have a lot of racing experience. I’ve basically only been racing for about 2½ years now, whereas some of the people racing in my series have been racing for 20. I have that learning curve that I’m trying to get over. … I’ve been getting better and better every race, every year. I’m just going to continue to do that and try to really continue to move forward so that I can keep going up the ladder of NASCAR.
How is NASCAR approaching diversity?
They’re trying to reach out to different demographics of people nowadays like African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, you name it. They’re trying to diversify a little bit to gain more fans from different backgrounds, and I think they’re doing a pretty good job on it. Yeah, it could always be better. There’s more things that they can do, and I think they’re working hard to try to figure that stuff out. There’s a lot of opportunity to really bring new demographics into NASCAR so that we can continue to grow, get more fans out there, and continue to be the No. 1 watched motor sport in the U.S. and maybe, one day, the No. 1 watched motor sport in the world.
What goals have you set for yourself on the track and off the track?
I see myself making it to the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series. I want to get up to the top level of NASCAR. I want to compete. I want to be good and eventually win a championship in that series. Also, on the way going up and while I’m there, I want to be able to help people get to their goals and dreams. A lot of people look up to me because I’m just a regular person trying to do some big things. Every step I take that is in the positive direction, people see it, they love it, and it gives them hope for them to know that, hey, they can also do the same thing, too, whether it’s in racing or the business world, school, their relationships, whatever.
What’s been the hardest part of your journey?
The toughest part of my journey has just been the experience and the funding part of it. You know, racing’s not cheap at all, and it takes a lot of money. Thankfully, I’ve been able to make it this far so far, but it hasn’t been easy at all. I had to go and start my own company to put on drag racing events. I just recently captured my second big sponsor, which is Perfect Hydration. Perfect Hydration, they are a 9.5 pH alkaline water company based out of Southern California. They sell water in Costco and places around the U.S. Great company, great people, and they’ve been really supportive.