By Bettina McBee Hohmann
Navy Lt. Jesse Iwuji is on a mission to become the first U.S. naval officer to compete in top-level professional NASCAR races. After only two years of competitive racing, he’s well on his way.
Jesse is an active duty U.S. naval officer at NPS, and on the weekends, he races in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West for Patriot Motorsports Group with Ex-NFL Linebacker Shawne Merriman as his car owner. “My passion for speed and cars started when I was about five,” says Jesse. “I loved the show Knight Rider.”
He was born in Dallas, Texas to Nigerian immigrants who taught him the values of hard work, determination, and self-discipline. At Hebron High School, Jesse excelled at football and track, and in his junior year, the Naval Academy recruited him to play.
After graduating from the Naval Academy in 2010, Jesse became a Surface War Officer. “I was at sea in the Arabian Gulf imagining what it’d be like to be a racecar driver. After coming on shore duty and achieving my dream, I realized nothing’s impossible if you’re willing to work countless hours to make it happen.”
He used the money he’d saved from his two Arabian Gulf deployments to build streetcars and raced them at tracks in California. He broke records, gained publicity, and won the opportunity to drive stock cars. The moment he drove in his first drag race, he knew he wanted to race professionally.
In 2015, he began his NASCAR racing career. “Racing is another way to compete against people in an environment that’s high intensity, high publicity, and high visibility,” says Jesse. “I like to compete on a big platform, and what bigger platform than NASCAR! I love everything about it.”
In celebration of 2016 Black History Month, Jesse spoke at Seaside High School, sharing his belief of chasing your dreams, even when faced with negativity. For this and other positive efforts, NASCAR awarded him the Diversity Award, which is given to racers who “exemplify outstanding performance both on and off the race track in encouraging awareness with NASCAR.”
In May, Jesse gained his first Top 5 finish of 2017 in the NAPA Autoparts Big 5 Series in Boise, Idaho. He also spent a day with military veterans sharing stories during an interview with We Are the Mighty, which will be aired on digital media later in the year.
Jesse is also an entrepreneur. “The Red List Group is an organization I started to help bring street racers off the streets and then onto the track through quarterly California drag race events. I started this event to help finance my racing career while I work to gain more sponsors. People come from all corners of the state to watch or compete.”
Jesse’s daily routine includes eight hours at NPS, then home to practice in his race simulator, one hour for dinner, then back into the simulator for a few hours. Finally, he shifts into business mode until 1 a.m., sponsorship hunting, answering messages, and entertaining his 19,000 social media fans.
“I get better each week. One-tenth quicker, a dollar richer, a pound lighter, a chapter ahead, but all in all, I continue to get just a step closer to my goal.” Jesse believes the most important thing is to finish the race. “Nothing good can happen unless you finish each race.”
Pre-race rituals? “I pray and avoid candy,” Jesse says with a smile. “I love anything gummy, but not before a race!” In August, Jesse will be participating in the Concorso Italiano at The Bayonet Black Horse in Seaside.