I am not sure I have the words to express the motivation behind Jesse’s voice in this “Q and A” session. It is obvious that his determination and dedication are responsible for his previous, current and future successes. The NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series driver has faced a number of hurdles to get to where he is today and it is evident that he has no intentions of slowing down until you see him in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and if I were a betting man, I would throw all my money on that happening sooner rather than later.
But, enough about me - read, feel and see the passion behind his story and journey below.
Q: Service Academy fans might be familiar with your story as an athlete at the Naval Academy and some may even be following your career today, but a lot of us don’t know your life story from before this moment. Could you tell us a little bit about your childhood and how you ended up at the Academy?
A: I originally grew up in Dallas, TX. Both of my parents are immigrants from Nigeria and came over to the United States in the 80’s and eventually had me, my brothers and my sister. We pretty much lived there (Dallas) our whole lives. I played high school football at Heborn High School in Carrolton, TX. Football was my main thing. I was very passionate about football. I did like cars. I did like racing, but being in Texas, football was my thing. So, I had this goal of playing football in college and I put my all into that. I wasn’t that good at football in ninth grade and I knew I had to work hard to reach this goal, so I did and made a lot good things happen. In my senior year I started getting recruited by the Naval Academy and was eventually offered. It gave me a great opportunity to play football at a D1-A (I love the old school reference) school and get a great education and eventually serve as a naval officer. When you put all of that together it is just an awesome opportunity for anybody.
So, I got to the Academy in 2006 (Iwuji spent a year at the Naval Academy Prep School) and graduated in 2010. My first duty station was in San Diego and I was stationed aboard a minesweeper for two years. I completed a deployment in the Arabian Gulf that lasted about 10 months and transferred to the USS COMSTOCK in 2013. But, in between both ships and in my free time in port I really started this passion for cars and racing. Football was over, so I couldn’t play football anymore. So, I was trying to find the next...extreme sport to be part of and cars and racing was my passion. I then decided that racing was going to be “my thing.”
Q: It really is an incredible journey. As a service academy graduate, you are familiar with the commitment required after in terms of serving - and it’s awesome that coming from an immigrant family that you get to do that - but, the racing connection is entirely unique. I can’t imagine there is a large veteran presence in NASCAR.
A: No, there are not really any other vets or people in the military that are currently racing in NASCAR. I have a friend that is racing in late model stock cars, that is the lowest level of stock car racing. I know an ex-Navy SEAL who is trying to work his way up and he is a few steps below what I am doing right now. I am still in the Reserves and serving, but people that are in the service and racing - there is not anyone else out there, especially in NASCAR. There have been people in the past, like 40-60 years ago, but of recent, there has been no one else. So, I am kind of paving the way for not only service academy folks, but people in the military in general so they can go after their goals no matter how impossible it may seem.
Q: That’s awesome that we can see someone be able to do that for the greater good of our military and veteran community. Kind of along those “impossible” lines, what has been the biggest challenge in terms of balancing that progress in the military and in racing? Your website mentions a love for country and a fighting spirit. Do you think those two elements that have contributed to your success?
A: The biggest thing is having that fighting spirit. At the end of the day you are going to go up against things that may push you away from the goal including a lot of negative people. Many people will call themselves realistic - and I hate the word realistic - whenever anyone says “be realistic” I always think there is no such thing as that. People tell themselves that when they are scared. They are scared of going for something big and using that word makes it okay if you don’t accomplish your big goals. At the end of the day, what I have learned through this whole journey is: anything that I want to do in life, I can do it. It doesn’t matter what it is. I can do it. I can make it happen. Now, that doesn’t mean it is going to be easy. There are a certain number of resources in the world and they are limited. All of us have certain resources to start with and the amount that you start with will help determine how long your journey will be to get you where you want to go. If I would have started with a few more resources I would have been further along, but I didn’t start with those resources, so I am not as far along as some of those people who are racing in the Cup series. That doesn’t mean I can’t get there, it may just take a little bit longer.
Q: I love how you talk about the “realistic” approach - I mean, you have to dream. You have obviously fulfilled your dreams in many ways in terms of the Academy and serving in the military, but as a Midshipmen and as an officer was there any skill set that helped translate into your success today?
A: Yes, a lot of skill sets. But, being able to manage my time and the assets I’ve been given, as well as the projects and all the different things I am doing at once, I learned that at the Academy. You don’t go to a lot of schools where you are put into those tough environments where you have to manage everything. The Naval Academy does that to you. They say “we are going to make you take 20 credit hours and play football, run track, and have your military duties all while trying to balance your personal life, too.” Then you get out into the (“real”) Navy and it gets even busier. So, that helped me a lot.
Also, at the Academy we learned “Message to Garcia” where it was all about the fact that it didn’t matter about the information you have at the start, you just figure it out and you can get there. The opportunity is there for you to accomplish something...you may not think you have everything you need, but that doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish it. You just (have to) figure it out.
You know, a lot of people reach out to me that say “Hey, I want to get into racing” or “I want to get into whatever in life, I just don’t know where to start.” I always look at them and say “That’s your excuse right now?” Just figure it out. I didn’t have the answers, I didn’t know either. I wasn’t like “Well, I don’t know where to go so I am just not going to go.” What I did was - since I didn’t know where to go - I was going to find out where to go. See, I am going to use some deductive reasoning.
Okay, I want to start racing. How do I start racing? Well, I need to get a race car. How do I get a race car? Oh man, it costs some money? Well, that didn’t stop me. How do I get money? Sponsors! Oh wait, sponsors want someone that is a little bit more established. Is that going to stop me? No. Well how else do I get money? Well there are other ways to get money. Maybe I can be an entrepreneur and start a business and make some money off of that.
So it was really all about using deductive reasoning. Whatever the journey is you just have to find the problems and then find solutions for those problems. If you keep doing that, you’ll get to where you want to go. That’s all it is.
Q: I love that. I know that maybe as recently as a week or so ago you made a post on social media about a sponsor that turned you down previously. I am sure that was a speed bump (no pun intended), or perhaps it just provided you with more fuel and more ammo to keep you going.
A: Oh yeah, exactly. It was actually one of the first places that I went. I had a sponsorship proposal and I was going to present it to this lady and see what she thought about it. I thought I did a pretty decent job and then she just told me “My son is racing right now and it is very difficult and it costs a lot of money. If you don’t come from money you’re probably not going to make it.”
She basically just told me to quit. Without directly telling me that, she told me that. That made me really, really pissed off. I left there highly heated and I knew that wasn’t going to stop me. I wasn’t going to let her opinion hurt my journey or turn into the reality of the journey. So, I told myself I was going to make it. Whatever she said, I could have just read on the internet. Nothing was going to stop me.
Fast forward four years later and now I am racing on national TV and continuing the journey.
Q: That’s an awesome story. I think everyone can appreciate the fact that someone has tried to put them down in life or there was a significant hurdle to overcome in order to accomplish a goal, so it is always good to see someone fight through that successfully.
Getting back to your time as an athlete at the Academy, and this is a question we like to ask everyone as part of this series; is there a specific game, moment, or meet that you remember the most, or something in particular that you will never forget?
A: It was probably in 2007 when we were playing Air Force. I was starting that game and it was the best football game I ever played. I had about six tackles and a blocked field goal. That blocked field goal, I will never forget. I never had a blocked field goal in my life. For the football fans out there, blocking field goals is very difficult. Sometimes it is just lucky.
Q: Well if you only get one blocked field goal in your entire career it might as well come against another service academy.
A: Exactly! That blocked field goal helped put us in a position to win that game and it was huge for me. I mean, I have decent hops. I have a decent vertical. But it isn’t like amazing or anything. I didn’t run across the face of the kicker to block it. I jumped as high as I could and blocked it and it was a really good time. That is probably the most memorable moment on the field playing football.
Q: I am going to try and find that on YouTube or something and provide the link (someone, please find this!). With weekend racing and traveling, is it tough to keep up with Navy football or college football in general?
A: It is tough, but I could probably do it if I tried harder. People have asked that before. I race in the NASCAR truck series and a lot of time people will ask me about the Cup races. Someone just asked me yesterday if I watched Game of Thrones. Honestly, I don’t watch TV. The only time I ever really watch any TV is when I am at home with my parents during Christmas or Thanksgiving time because that is the only time I rest. Besides that I just don’t watch TV.
People usually ask why I don’t watch TV and I always tell them “because I am trying to be on TV.” So, I don’t want to spend my time watching it, I want to spend my time working on being on it. I want to be the one watched. I hate being on the sideline. I want to be in the game.
Q: I almost just want to stop the interview right here and let you walk off with the mic drop, but I have more questions! Listen, I am not a Game of Thrones guy myself, I have no idea what is going on there.
Okay, I am going to call your racing career in its infancy right now because we hope to see more of you in the future. In this short time of your hopefully long career, what has been the biggest moment or accomplishment related to racing?
A: One of the biggest things for me wasn’t even on the track. We have had some good stuff and bad stuff happen on the track, but it has been generally positive. But, the biggest thing for me has happened off the track. We have an incredible platform and it’s great how we get to positively impact other people’s lives.
There was a kid I got to meet, his name was Darrian. At the time I met him he was just four years old and he was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer and his doctors basically told him he had two months left (to live). This was in March of 2016. So, he decided to make a bucket list, which is really sad that a four year old has to make a bucket list, but he did, and he really wanted to ride in a race car. So, when I heard about his story I actually took some of the money that we were saving up for one of the races we were going to do that year, basically tire money, and I used that money to fly him and his family to see me. We had a race car that we converted into a two-seater for ride-alongs and I was able to give him a ride on a track and just make his dream come true.
Fast forward a little bit and he ended up making it to his 5th birthday and then his 6th birthday and almost made it to his 7th before passing away in September of last year. I was able to see him before that. His parents reached out to me and told me his health was going down hill. So, I drove out to see him in Las Vegas and brought him some gifts. I brought him my first gloves I used racing and I brought him a die-cast car, the first one I ever got actually. He was super, super happy.
His mom told me before I left that Darrian said he didn’t want to go to Heaven unless he got to see (me) again. That is obviously really cool to hear and I was just happy I got to see him because about six days later he passed away. I was just happy to make his dreams come true and stay up with him those next couple years. Just being there for him and being a light to his life. Hopefully he will remember that forever in Heaven.
Q: I was familiar with the story just following you on social media but I wasn’t aware of the background in terms of the financials and how you helped. Those actions certainly speak highly of you. And kind of along those lines, we know you have used your platform for good and I think that is evident for anyone that follows you. Are there any specific groups or charities that you work with that we can assist?
A: We have been doing a lot recently with Team Rubicon. I really love their mission and it brings a lot of veterans together that deploy to different places to help in crisis times. These people leave their jobs and leave their families to volunteer and just help in some pretty dangerous areas. I think that is just huge. We have been taking some Rubicon folks with us to the track for VIP experiences just to say “thank you.” I hope to do more stuff with Team Rubicon.
We have also worked with other organizations and charities the last few months. I wouldn’t say there is just one group, there are so many people. At the end of the day we are just here to help people who want to do good things.
Q: I know you share a lot of this information on your social media, but for those who may not be familiar, is there a best way to follow or keep track of what you have going on?
The best way to track what I am doing it by going to my website (jesseiwuji.com). From there, you can see all of my social media handles. I update Instagram everyday and I am on Twitter every couple of days. If you find me on social media just send me a message or whatever. I am always trying to engage with folks, so look me up. You will see all of the stuff we are doing. I think we have missed posting only two or three days over the last couple of years.
Q: That website is where we can also find some gear, right?
A: Yep. Anyone looking to grab something just head over to www.jesseiwuji.com/store. Anything you buy will help us on the track and helps me keep this platform to help do better things for more people.
So, there it is. Be sure to follow Jesse’s adventure through his social media channels. All of the links can be found on his website. And while you’re over there be sure to get yourself a shirt!
Thanks again to Jesse for all of his time and inspiration. Let’s all use our platforms to “help do better things for more people.”