For many on the outside looking in, professional racing can often appear to be the exclusive province of those who’ve dedicated their entire lives to honing their craft–or whose parents have dedicated them to it. It can seem that if you didn’t start turning laps on a kart at the tender age of eight, or spraying rooster tails of dirt behind an Outlaw car as a tween, you’re better off in the stands than on the starting grid.
Carrollton, Texas’ Jesse Iwuji was a bit of a late bloomer in terms of automotive competition, but it has proven to be no handicap whatsoever for the up-and-coming NASCAR K&N Pro Series West pilot. Iwuji’s path to becoming a successful race car driver included stints in both college football and the U.S. Navy before a mid-twenties awakening that would lure him into the world of drag racing and then, eventually, road course competition.
“Since I was from Texas, I played football, and football was my main thing,” the 30 year-old Iwuji said. “When I was a little kid I can remember watching NASCAR on television, but I didn’t know then that I wanted to be a driver. My family never had the money to go racing or anything like that, and the thought of asking my parents, ‘Hey, can we go do this?’ never even crossed my mind.”
When the NFL didn’t happen for Iwuji, he turned to a career as a Navy officer, and it was here that the seeds began to be planted for what would become his life’s focus. After purchasing a Dodge Challenger in 2010 the mod bug bit hard, and given that he was deployed to the Arabian Gulf for ten months shortly thereafter – with no rent to pay and lots of time to think of what he’d like to do back at home – he was able to save up enough cash to turn the muscle car into a serious beast.
“I started just doing little bits and pieces, just bolt-on stuff like a cold air intake, an exhaust, a non-factory tune,” Jesse explained. “Then, right before I left, I gave the keys to my brother and told him ‘I need you to drive this to the performance shop, and leave the car there, and then when I come back from deployment, I need you to go get the car again – but there’s going to be about 300-plus extra horsepower compared to when you left it! Just know that, ok?'”
Now boasting a Kenne Bell supercharger, the Challenger was good for about 800 horsepower, but as Iwuje’s interest in drag racing continued to grow so, too, would the Dodge’s output, eventually topping out at just less than 1,000 horses to the wheels. In addition to quarter mile racing, Jesse began to participate in standing mile competitions, posting speeds of over 200-mph in the car and attracting the attention of HOT ROD magazine thanks in part to his decision to publicize his high speed exploits on YouTube.
“I didn’t have any sponsors or anything. I was paying for everything myself out of pocket, and it got to the point where the driving was really starting to open the doors to a lot of different things,” Jesse told us.
Iwuji’s interest in speed soon expanded beyond the straight-line confines of his Challenger, leading him to begin testing the SCCA waters in a Chevrolet Corvette on tracks all over southern California. “I never went to any driving schools or anything like that, but I did a lot of events at places like Auto Club Speedway, Buttonwillow, and Willow Springs, watching a ton of videos online to learn more about how to be quick, riding as a passenger with other drivers who were faster, and asking as many questions as I could at the track. I was teaching myself how to become better and faster any way I could, and thankfully combining that with a bit of my own natural ability.”
Something started out as something he intended to do “just for fun” soon became a passion that caused him to seriously rethink the trajectory of his life.
“It was around the beginning of 2014 that I got more and more involved in sports car driving, and I began to realize that this was where I want to be – this is what I want to be doing with my life – I want to be racing,” Jesse says. “I remember I went home and wrote on my whiteboard ‘Become professional race car driver,’ and things unfolded for me from there. It’s crazy how the universe starts opening doors and paths and putting you in the right place at the right time and all of that. This was the first time I really started consciously acting to get in front of people who could help me make my dream a reality.”
What happened next for Iwuji is the kind of seemingly random chance that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood movie – or perhaps more accurately, in the life of someone who had been consistently pushing for his shot at moving up to the next level. While attending a car show in California, Jesse found himself over at the SRT Experience tent, trying to finagle some used take-off tires for his Challenger so he could ‘do some donut stuff’ and work on car control.
“They told me they couldn’t just given them away, but they did ask me what I wanted them for, and so I explained to them that I had this Corvette, and I do all this track stuff, and that I’m working on becoming a professional driver,” he explained. “Then later that afternoon I’m waiting in line at the Port-A-Potty, and who comes out of it but the guy I had been talking to at SRT. As soon as he saw me, the first words out of his mouth were ‘Would you be interested in stock car racing?’ And I was like, ‘Sure, yeah, like NASCAR?’ And he was like ‘Yeah.’ So basically, because I had to pee, I am now racing in NASCAR!” Iwuji said, laughing.
The team Jesse had connected with was Performance T1 Motorsports, which was running a late-model stock car in the NASCAR Whelen All-American series. By 2015 he was running races with them, before moving on to Patriot Motorsport Group in the higher-tier NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. It was a challenge to balance both his responsibilities as a full-time naval officer with a NASCAR ride, but thanks to weekend races and the Navy’s full support, he was able to make both work together until this past spring, when he transitioned from active duty into the Navy Reserves.
Although his ultimate goal is to break into the upper echelons of stock car racing with the Monster Energy NASCAR series, Iwuji is making waves in Pro Series West with his unusual approach to getting others involved in the. As part of his new ownership stake in Patriot, Jesse, car partner Shawn Merriman (of NFL fame), and team principle John Wood are working to make the dreams of others come true, too, by offering would-be drivers an affordable entry point for getting behind the wheel of a stock car through their NASCAR ladder and driver development program.
“John is just so open to different and new ideas on how to promote and market racing. Without him, I wouldn’t even have the opportunity to be an owner in the sport, because I don’t have a million dollars to be buying a bunch of cars and stuff. He just gave me the opportunity be like ‘Hey, you can be an owner of this car, and help bring people in to drive with us.’ And that’s what I did – these people didn’t drive the full season, but they were able help accomplish their dreams of being able to say ‘I drove on NBC Sports Network in NASCAR,'” Iwuji said.
When asked what words of wisdom he had for drivers like him, who don’t come from a racing background, don’t have extensive financial resources to draw upon, or who got their own late start in the motorsports game, he was clear.
“My number one piece of advice is actually a quote from this guy named Les Brown, and that’s ‘Someone’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality,'” Iwuji told us. “If someone tells you you’re too young, too fat, too slow, too ugly, too skinny, too short, too tall, whatever, it doesn’t matter. You can reset and restructure your life to accomplish your goals, just like I did, as long as you don’t let other people’s opinions affect you and cloud your perception.”
“Everyone told me that in order to succeed in racing I had to have started in go-karts when I was five or six years old, and go to this list of driving schools, and I was like ‘No, I didn’t do any of that, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to get to where I want to go. I’m just going to work really hard. When you’re going to sleep at night, I’m going to spend two, three hours in my racing simulator at home getting more laps. I’m going to spend a lot of time networking with people and working on getting sponsorships.’ I’m not rich, and neither are my parents, but guess what – I’m racing in NASCAR right now. I’m going to be what I want to be because I made a reality for myself, and a big part of that starts in your own mental approach.”