Jesse Iwuji is the son of immigrants, a Navy reservist, a Naval Academy graduate, a former member of the academy's football team and, against all odds, a professional NASCAR driver.
How Iwuji turned his dream of playing football into a successful career in racing is inspirational, improbable and, he thinks, totally doable by anyone who wants to put the work into making it happen. He shared his story of success and tips for getting there at the 2019 Military Influencer Conference in Washington, D.C.
A moment before his 2014 deployment as a Navy surface warfare officer was the tipping point, he said. After dabbling in amateur car racing, he knew he had a passion and a special skill. But he also needed to make it a focus.
"I just was sitting in my room ... and I told myself, 'I like cars. I like racing. I'm the type of person who I don't like to sit on the sideline. ... Jesse, you are going to become a professional race car driver,'" he said. "And I wrote that on my whiteboard. ... I put that on my wall ... and literally that is where the journey began."
It was through his stateside experience with the Navy that he found his love of racing and developed an ability to both set a goal and attain it, he said.
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Going into high school in Dallas, he knew he wanted to play ball, but was far from the fittest or biggest player on the field. So he threw his focus into working longer and harder than anyone else, he said. He did so well that he was eventually scouted for football scholarships.
Among those scouts, Iwuji said, was a Naval Academy recruiter who came to watch a practice.
"The next day, he called me on the phone, and he was like, 'Iwuji! Do you want to be driving an escalade in Dallas, Texas, after you graduate school?' And I was like, 'Sure,'" Iwuji joked. "And he said, 'Come to the Naval Academy.'"
Four years of playing free safety for Navy later -- including four wins each against Army and Air Force -- Iwuji graduated, PCS'd to California and started taking his car to informal races.
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It was there, he said, that he discovered that not only did he enjoy racing, he was pretty good at it.
"I started noticing every time I got to these tracks, there's 100, 150 people there, and I'm always finishing in the top 5, top 10 of the fastest people there," he said.
He kept his whiteboard promise to himself after his deployment. With a collection of research in his pocket, he found a team doing late-model stock car racing that was willing to let him test and, eventually, buy into racing.
But racing is expensive. At about $5,000 per race just to get in, Iwuji had to drum up the cash himself. After quickly exhausting both his own bank account and the generosity of his friends, he was connected with a sponsor. And, while still serving in the active-duty Navy, he started his own drag racing event company, The Red List Group. Over time, he moved up, and today races in the NASCAR Truck Series.
Iwuji said that, while he does not look like the typical NASCAR driver -- he is only one of two African-Americans in the sport, he didn't let that or naysayers stop him from chasing his dream.
"Never let someone's opinion of you become your reality," he said. "That is something big that, once I took that in, I understood that all those people who think I should be something else ... that's their opinion. God did not give them my vision, so I cannot be mad at them if they don't have that vision that I saw."
-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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