Jesse Iwuji is our guest on Fan4Racing NASCAR & Race Talk, Monday, July 2, 2018, at 9 pm ET. Call 929-477-1790 or tweet @Fan4RacingSite with any questions or comments during our LIVE broadcast.
Anyone watching the races at Chicagoland Speedway this weekend probably heard about the Stars & Stripes Weekend Official Track Ambassador Navy Lt. Jesse Iwuji (pronounced ee-woo-jee). Fans of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West have probably heard his name as he drives a car in the series. But, how Iwuji inspires others is what many fans may not know about him and his path to NASCAR is about as interesting as his journey since becoming a NASCAR driver.
Let’s start with this past weekend and why he’s at Chicagoland to represent the track for their Stars & Stripes promotion. Among active drivers at Chicagoland, Navy Lt. Iwuji is the only driver that has ever put on the uniform to serve our country and on Thursday night he took time to honor a local (Chicagoland) fallen soldier, Aaron Toppens on his car in the ARCA Racing Series. Fans may have also watched NBCSN before the Cup race on Sunday morning featuring Iwuji’s journey from the Navy to NASCAR.
“It means a lot for sure,” says Iwuji when asked what it means to be chosen as Chicagoland’s Stars & Stripes Official Track Ambassador. “Being in NASCAR right now, being a driver who’s serving in the military…there’s been at least one driver back in the day, probably the 60s or 70s who was. I think he was in the Air Force when he served. But at least in the last twenty or thirty years, I don’t think there’s been any other driver who’s actually served in the military. So, being that only one and carrying that has been pretty cool.
“But to be given the opportunity to be the Ambassador here for Chicagoland Speedway has been cool. It’s Stars & Stripes weekend so, it’s all Military, all go, the whole time and that’s what I love. So I feel like I’m at home. I see jets out there … I wish there was a ship…you could put a Navy ship out there and that would be pretty cool. But that’s a little too big. But anything that can help support the track, promoting any kind of military initiatives they have and I see a lot of that here. There’s going to be a lot of vets here, some service members and I’ve seen some of them already. And it’s going to be fun.”
Iwuji discovered his love for racing while stationed in San Diego, CA as a Surface Warfare Officer in the Navy and graduated from the United States Naval Academy where he played Division 1 College football. But it’s what he learned during his Navy experience that set the foundation for the next chapter of his journey.
“I am so thankful for my time at the Naval Academy. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Also, my time spent playing football for Navy and serving our country taught me the priceless lessons of teamwork and trust – all skills that will translate well into my racing journey.” As posted on his website.
The Navy has taught Iwuji what success looks like, how to face adversity and to keep believing, even when the odds are against you.
“My story is the story of anybody,” continues Iwuji. “Twenty-three years ago, I was just like any other fan. I was sitting on the other side of the fence watching drivers do their thing and now I’m racing on the track and trying to be just like them. So, it’s very possible and I try to tell people how I’ve done it. Where I went from and how it started, where it began, where I went, who I talked to and what I did to get to where I got.
“And where I’m at right now. And everytime I tell the story, there’s at least one person out there that it resonates with and says ‘you know what, that’s something I can do too. And it’s definitely been an interesting journey.”
What exactly inspired Iwuji to become a race car driver?
“I’ve always had a passion for cars and racing and motorsports.”
From 2010 to 2014 Iwuji used to take his car to drag strips and drag race as well as taking his car to road courses to do open track days. It was during this time that Iwuji decided to become a professional driver, taking it to the next level.
“In January 2014, I wrote this on the whiteboard on my wall…I wrote, ‘Become a professional race car driver,” says Iwuji about making this life-changing decision.
Iwuji admits he had no clue what to do or how to get there. Two months later, he met a guy at a car show and that guy gave him the suggestion about what direction he should take by saying “Hey, you should try stock car racing.” Iwuji liked the idea and decided, that he should at least give it a try.
He went and did a test with this late-model team and that went well. But then he went back to duty with the Navy and after five months he came back and transferred to shore duty so he could have all of his weekends off.
It was this point, says Iwuji that “It was time to go stock car racing.”
He started racing late-models in 2015, moved up to the NASCAR K&N Series in 2016 and 2017, Now this year he’s racing in the ARCA Racing Series. At Chicagoland, Iwuji had double duty racing both ARCA for Patriot Motorsports on Thursday night and in the Camping World Truck Series for Young’s Motorsports on Friday night.
Last weekend after racing the K&N West race at Sonoma, Iwuji decided to stay to watch the Cup race on Sunday. On his way home he stopped to help a family with car problems and became their hero when he encouraged them to leave the car and only moments later the vehicle went up in flames. Amazing to Iwuji is that of all the people passing this family on the side of the road, that he was the only one willing to stop and help. He says he doesn’t feel like a hero, he’s just a human being assisting people needing help.
Iwuji’s story is fascinating because on so many levels he is an inspiration for people from many walks of life – the military, sports, racing, and anyone looking to fulfill their dreams, even when they think it’s a big mountain to climb.
We’ll talk with Jesse Iwuji on our Fan4Racing Radio show about his experience at Chicagoland Speedway and his time with the family of the fallen soldier he honored last Thursday night.
Get to know Jesse Iwuji via these videos…
Most emotional thing I’ve been a part of was giving this gift from my car to Aaron Toppens Mom after my race. Aaron lost his life at age 19 on deployment in Afghanistan, RIP. His last thing he did before deploying & giving his life for our country was attending a Chicagoland race pic.twitter.com/7CYy8e01pu
— Jesse Iwuji (@Jesse_Iwuji) July 2, 2018