Navy Lt. Jesse Iwuji takes unusual path to racing career

Jesse Iwuji’s wild ride at Daytona International Speedway last week lasted 44 laps, less than half of the Feb. 10 ARCA race.

He enjoyed every minute of it.

“That was a real cool experience, getting to be on that track with 38 other cars, bouncing back and forth, moving up in position, losing positions. I had a lot of fun. I look forward to do it again,” said the Navy lieutenant, who took up stock-car racing just three years ago.

The ARCA race was the 30-year-old Iwuji’s first on a track longer than a mile. He started 34th and moved up to 20th with the fifth-fastest lap speed of the day at over 184 mph until contact with another car punctured his oil cooler on the 44th lap, ending his day.

Like every race, the experience made him hungry for more.

Iwuji has probably been the most famous driver at this year’s Daytona Speedweeks who has never entered a NASCAR truck, Xfinity or Cup series race. The former Navy defensive back who caught the racing bug while he was in the Naval Academy after entering a drag race, has been a media darling all week.

He has made the rounds as he tries to get a foothold in the sport. On Thursday he received the NASCAR Diverse Driver Award for the second year in a row during a reception at the speedway. The award is presented to a minority or female development driver who “exemplifies outstanding performance both on and off the race track in encouraging awareness and interaction with NASCAR and motorsports.”

This weekend he hung around the speedway watching the races and networking.

Having begun his racing career 20 years later than some of his competitors, Iwuji knows he needs all the help he can get to reach his goal, which is to be racing in the Cup Series within the next few years.

“I didn’t take the traditional path. I didn’t start when I was a kid racing go-karts,” he said. “My first wheel-to-wheel racing was 2015, racing a late model stock car at Irwindale Speedway in Southern California. “Prior to that, I had a Dodge Challenger I used to take to different drag strips and drag race and then I had a Corvette I would take to different road-course tracks on open-track days.”

In 2014, Iwuji met a guy at a car show who raced late models at local short tracks and convinced him to give it a try.

A year later, Iwuji was racing on the NASCAR K&N East and West Pro Series.

“After my (Navy) deployment that year I found the funding, started a business (putting on drag races) and made it happen for 2015,” he said.

That year he met 1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope, who introduced him to Patriot Motorsports Group, which would become his race team. Patriot Motorsports’ ownership includes former NFL All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman. This year, BBMC Mortgage is sponsoring Iwuji in seven ARCA events.

“BBMC has shown huge support for the military with their Patriot Charity Initiative,” Iwuji said. “It’s a good fit for me.”

Now in the Navy Reserves after 7 1/2 years full-time, Lt. Iwuji will get to race at Talladega, Kansas, Michigan, Pocono and Charlotte among other major speedways this year while continuing to compete in the developmental K&N series.

Last week’s ARCA race at the super speedway was quite different than his previous racing experiences.

“When we were in the draft, you’re moving, I mean you are cooking it,” he said. “There’s a lot of concentration, a lot of decision making. It wasn’t a lot of truly wheel-the-car around like on a short track where you’re sliding all the time. It was more concentrating on making calculated moves, staying focused, being smooth.”

Iwuji hopes to get a chance to run a Camping World Truck Series race before the year is over.

If he does get to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, he would love to see Navy return to NASCAR sponsorship and pick him up.

“I’d like to be their first driver who is actually in the Navy,” he said.