By Seth Eggert, Staff Writer
For this week’s edition of Climbing the Ladder, Seth Eggert sat down with U.S. Navy Lt. Jesse Iwuji. Lt. Iwuji is a 30-year-old that drives the No. 34 BBMC Mortgage Chevrolet SS in the ARCA Racing Series for Patriot Motorsports Group. He also competes in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series West full-time and the East Division sporadically. Lt. Iwuji is also the first Naval Academy Graduate to compete in the ARCA Racing Series.
Seth Eggert: How did you become interested in Motorsports?
Lt. Jesse Iwuji: “Most of the drivers that we go against started driving at five or six-years old in karts and so on. They moved up to Legends, Late Models, K&N or ARCA, and eventually further up there. For me, I was playing football when I was in college at the Naval Academy. That was my full focus, to play college football and do that well. Then once I graduated and became an officer in the Navy, I had to shift focus to a different sport because I wasn’t able to play football anymore.”
“I got into drag racing with the street car that I had. I went to different drag strips and different road courses with my Corvette. I had fun with that. Then one day, I decided that I wanted to take this to the next level, actually do something in motorsports and become a professional driver. I met Kyle Wisner, at a car show and he asked me if I was interested in doing some stockcar racing. Since my goals were to eventually race professionally, I took him up on that offer, tested with the late model team in 2014.”
“The test went well, and then I went on deployment for about five months. I came back in 2015, and that’s when I went full focus on this. I’m on shore duty now, so I’m not on the ships anymore and I have time on the weekends. And now, it’s time to race. I started in Late Models, moved up to K&N, this year ARCA and K&N. Other than that, just working on skills and experience to continue moving up the ladder.”
SE: You had a relatively later start that others in auto racing. Do you feel that’s a disadvantage?
JI: “It doesn’t help because they have years of experience. Any other way I can gain experience to try to catch up, I try it. During the winters, I do some dirt track racing, in Outlaw Karts. I would do some late model races. I have a simulator at home where I spend a lot of time on iRacing every single week night. Anytime I can spend some time in a seat, working on my craft, decision making on the racetrack, it’s going to help me get better. That’s what I rely on to catch up, so I can be somewhat up to speed with everybody.”
SE: Where and when was your first race? What was the result?
JI: “My first stockcar race ever was at Irwindale, California, April 2015. That was a pretty fun one. We were mid-pack at first. Then around the halfway point of the race, some guy I made contact with earlier decided it would be a good idea to spin me. We didn’t wreck, just spun, got back into the race, and finished 15th. We were 13thuntil that point in a 21-car field.”
“The next race after that, I actually qualified 12thout of 21. For me to do that with no experience and not really knowing what I’m doing at the time, that’s what showed me that I had a little bit of the ability here. Not the greatest, but I can work on that ability and build from there, eventually get better.”
SE: Who would you consider your mentor?
JI: “There’s a lot of people who have helped me out, not just one person. Kyle has been a great one. I have other friends who have raced that have helped me out a lot too. I’ve gotten some life pointers, racing career stuff from Dale (Earnhardt), Jr. That’s pretty cool.”
SE: What inspires you to compete?
JI: “Just because of the challenge. It takes you out of your comfort zone. You’re going to a place where when you get there, you know that everyone has more experience than you. They might have more funding than you. But, that’s a challenge, and that’s something that draws me towards it. Same thing playing college football. I didn’t play college football because it was easy, I went because it was a challenge. For me to go there, start, and play in games, I was able to overcome that challenge.”
SE: Although you are still developing as a driver, is there a specific track that you want to win at?
JI: “Daytona would be the one. I would love to win at other tracks because they are a little more technical, I feel like would be a little bit more drivers’ tracks. To win at Daytona would be huge because it is such a crapshoot. You never know what is going to happen. Just because you are the fastest car does not mean that you are going to win. We had the fifth quickest lap of the race, but in qualifying, we were 34th.”
“You never know what’s going to happen. And when you win, it is such a team effort, being in the right place at the right time. Just to be able to make it to the end of the race is an accomplishment, let alone finishing first. That would be one to definitely win with a lot of eyes and attention on that race.”
SE: Have you given any thought as to how you’d celebrate a victory?
JI: “Yes, I have thought about how I would celebrate a win. I would do a burnout for sure, try to bring the house down. Then, after I’m done doing that, I would be on the frontstretch, right there at the start-finish line, get out of the car and stand on the roof, looking at the entire crowd, thousands and thousands of people, and the millions of people watching on TV, with my helmet on, I would salute the crowd and all of the service members out there, pay tribute to them before I get back into the car and drive to victory lane.”
SE: What are your thoughts on being a role model and an inspiration to race fans?
JI: “That’s big for me. In this whole journey, it’s been able to show people, ‘hey, you can come from nothing, or you can come from a background that maybe is not regular for people already in the space that you’re trying to go to.’”
“And, it shows that you can come from that and make yourself into something wherever you want to go, whether it’s racing, the business world, relationship life, or school. It shows that just because we’re wanting to go where people aren’t like you, doesn’t mean that you can’t go there and do it too. You’re not going to be the best at first, you’ve got to learn. It’s not going to be easy, you might have some success here and some fails there. At the end of the day, if you stay with it, believe, and put action and effort towards whatever you’re trying to get to every single day, you’re going to get to it.”
SE: Can you describe the feeling you had the first time you went through the tunnel at Daytona?
JI: “That was huge. Big thanks to BBMC Mortgage, Homebird, Operation Home Connect, and all of the great people who jumped onboard as partners for that race and this whole ARCA season. That was huge that they even gave me the opportunity to even be there for that race. Coming out, thinking that just three years ago, I was literally sitting in the Arabian Gulf on a ship, every night thinking, ‘How am I going to get into racing?’”
“To go from that in such a short time to race at Daytona, have the fifth quickest lap time of the night, and be in the top-20 before we had a hole in the oil cooler. Just being able to do that and get through at least half the race was great. Then we went to Talladega and finished top-15. It definitely was a proud moment for me and all of those who have helped and supported me throughout this whole journey. There will be a lot more, great moments like that as time goes on.”
SE: You served in the United States Navy and you’re still in the Navy Reserves. How do you balance service to your country and racing?
JI: “When I started racing at first, I was active duty, but I wasn’t on the ships anymore, I was on shore duty. I had all of my weekends off. May 2017 is when I transitioned from active duty to the reserves. Now my reserve duty weekends is basically one weekend a month, two weeks a year, about 16 total days of the year instead of 365. That gives me a little more flexibility, but it is still tough because reserve time is on the weekends, and of course, races are mainly on the weekends. I’ve tried to balance that, moving around my duty days, but it all works.”
“The Navy has been very supportive of it. They love the journey, that I am the first Naval Academy graduate and Officer to do this, and I’m out there promoting it in a positive way. I’m not bringing a bad name to the service.”
SE: How do your fellow Navy crewmen and Commander view your racing career? How do your competitors view your career in the Navy?
JI: “My fellow sailors out there love it. It’s an inspiration for them to go to try to achieve whatever they want to achieve. A lot of people in the world have big goals and dreams, but they’re afraid to push forward and achieve it. But, when you see someone out there that is doing something that seems impossible, and he is able to make it happen, it shows that if I get out there and keep grinding, I can get to my goals and dreams too.”
“Fellow competitors, a lot of them are very cool with me. They love the fact that I am in the Navy and that I am racing too. A lot of the people that I race against are really young too, so they may not completely understand, but the ones that are a little bit older do understand. I just try to be like everyone else when I show up to the track and be a racecar driver. When I’m off the track I do my day job, being an officer in the Navy.
SE: Is there anything in your Navy experience that can transfer to your racing career?
JI: “A lot. Being able to present myself in a professional manner, time management, being a team player, finding partnerships and sponsorships, being able to sell an idea and present it in a way that is in a confident manner that makes them also believe in the goals and journey. That is all stuff that I learned in the Navy. I’ve got a lot of practice doing all of that stuff in a different way in the military. The Navy has definitely been a big help, without them, I would not be doing this.”
SE: What does the future hold for you, where will you be one year from now?
JI: “I don’t know exactly just yet. I mean, I have an idea, but I don’t want to put it out there, I’ll keep it with me. I know where I want to go, but, I see myself a year from now as being better than I am now, hopefully helping more people to get to where they want to go to, helping more servicemembers get into racing. Being able to put those two together and continue to promote this journey, gain more respect from drivers, help from other teams, that’s where I see myself a year from now. My goal is to just be better, better than where I’m at right now.”