Several service members recently got a tour of Las Vegas Motor Speedway from a NASCAR driver who showed them the ins and outs of the track, the cars and the work that goes into making a race happen. It’s a perk of military service. But what’s even cooler? Getting that tour from a NASCAR driver who’s been in your shoes.
Meet Navy Reserve Lt. Jesse Iwuji, the first Navy officer to race for NASCAR.
“It’s been pretty cool to be able to have that [designation] to myself,” the sailor-turned-race car driver said.
So … how? Why?
It all started when he was playing football at the U.S. Naval Academy. Yes -- football. Which has nothing to do with cars. But during the offseason, he started taking an interest in the motorsport, so he took his V-6 Chrysler 300 on weekends to a drag strip at Capitol Raceway in Maryland.
During his very first race, he was surrounded by cars that were faster and louder than his. It was a feeling he’ll never forget.
“You’re nervous inside. … You’re hoping everything goes well, nothing breaks, and you don’t crash,” Iwuji said. “But once you hit the pedal and you just smash it and go, it’s almost like everything gets calm. You’re finally in the moment, you’re one with the car, and you’re just racing.”
And just like that, he was sold -- he knew he wanted to be in motorsports someday. He started devoting the few hours he had free at the academy to racing. After graduating in 2010, he served as an active-duty surface warfare officer, but he kept racing on the side when he could.
“I bought a Dodge Challenger that I used to race at drag strips,” Iwuji said, adding that the strips were often hours from where he was stationed. “I started doing half-mile and one-mile drag race events.” Later, he said, he bought a Corvette to race on open track days.
He wanted to take it to the next level.
“In January 2014, I was in my room and I wrote on my white board, ‘become professional race car driver,’” he said. “From then on, I was on this journey.”
Over the next three years, in between deployments and other duties, Iwuji raced more competitively, including in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series.
The Inside Scoop
“Being on a track with other race car drivers is not like on the street,” Iwuji said.
Aside from going a lot faster, drivers also don’t have brake lights, so you have to judge when someone brakes.
“People are bumping you, they’re hitting you, they’re trying to spin you out. They’re crashing in front of you, behind you, around you. It’s a lot of contact,” he said.
And it’s hot.
“There’s no air conditioning or music. You can’t hang out and chill and relax,” he said. “You’re trying to control a car that’s very hard to control at high speeds.”
By early 2017, Iwuji knew he had to make a major decision.
“I wanted to still be connected to the Navy. It’s something that’s been a part of my life since 2005,” he said. “But I also wanted to race. So, the best way to mix the two and have the time to do it was for me to transition from active-duty to the [Navy] Reserve, and it’s probably the best decision I ever made.”
That’s because his career is flourishing. Earlier this year, Iwuji got promoted to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, which is the only series in all of NASCAR to race modified production pickup trucks.
“It’s been a pretty incredible journey. I’ve gotten to race a ton of different cars on a ton of different tracks like Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte [Motor Speedway], Pocono, Sonoma, you name it,” he said.
His advice to other service members?
“No matter what, you can still go after all of your goals and dreams,” Iwuji said. “The military isn’t going to be something that stops you. It’s something that helps you become a better person and builds you so that you can go after big goals and dreams.”
Setting the bar high — we like it!