DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — When Jesse Iwuji appeared on a NASCAR podcast at a trade show in November with NASCAR driver Ryan Blaney, the challenges to make it in racing were evident.
Iwuji, at 30 years old, had started his racing career just a few years earlier at 27. Blaney, 23, was completing his second full-time season and fourth overall as a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver.
NASCAR drivers typically know by age 27 whether they have a future in the sport. But the Navy lieutenant and former Naval Academy cornerback is used to doing the unconventional.
While many of his friends have settled into more normal jobs, Iwuji just can’t fathom a 9-to-5 life just yet.
“That’s just too regular and boring to me,” Iwuji said Thursday as he stood in the garage at Daytona International Speedway. “I’m all about excitement and doing cool things. I couldn’t just go home every day and sit on my couch and go to sleep, wake up and do that every single day.
“To me, that’s not fun. For some people, that’s what they want: safe, conservative, that is the life. For me, it’s not. I’ve got to go out and do things. It is a lot of work; sometimes it can be stressful and take up a lot of time. At the end of the day, I look back and wow, I was on TV racing in front of thousands of people. That’s cool.”
Iwuji will compete in the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) event Saturday afternoon. The stock car series — a mix of up-and-coming drivers as well as veterans who compete in the circuit, which races mostly on Midwest tracks — will feature drivers competing at speeds of 180-185 mph on the high-banked 2.5-mile trioval.
On Sunday, he will compete in NASCAR’s developmental K&N Pro Series East on the half-mile New Smyrna (Florida) Speedway. He competed full time in East’s sister series, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, last year, finishing 14th in the standings.
Iwuji’s cars for both races will be fielded by Patriot Motorsports Group, whose ownership includes former NFL All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman. In the regional series this year, Iwuji is hoping that his full year of racing last season will give him the experience to keep pace with the younger, more experienced drivers. He also spends an hour or two nightly on iRacing, a racing simulation program.
“Age, to me, is just a number,” Iwuji said. “I am still very energetic. I still work out and run. I’m stronger and faster than half the people here physically. Just because I’m not 16 or 18 doesn’t mean I can’t physically outdo a lot of people.
“Experiencewise, yes, I am behind. It just takes time. The more time you’re in the seat racing, the better. A lot of these people started when they were 5 years old. Their 10 to 15, 20 years of experience racing is huge.”
Iwuji’s 2018 plans include about seven ARCA races and a return to the NASCAR regional series. The next step would be to compete in NASCAR’s truck series.
His Daytona debut Saturday will be something special, and part of the progression for any stock car driver.
“Everybody out there who has a dream to race or just do anything that is out of the ordinary, I’m here to show them it’s possible,” Iwuji said. “I’ve always loved cars, I’ve always loved racing. Sometime around 2014, I made the decision, ‘Hey, I want to become a professional race car driver.’
“I remember I went on deployment that year and every single day on the ship, every night on watch, I’d just be in my head thinking, How can I make this happen?”
Like many of his Navy brethren, Iwuji will use his military experience to make up for the lack of experience in his field.
“They’re behind in maybe real-world experience in whatever field, but they’re not behind in just real-life experience, period,” Iwuji said. “They’ve been out there, they’ve been doing things, they’ve led people, they’ve had to make big decisions, whether it’s money, equipment, time or lives. … They have had to manage a lot of things that people in the real world really don’t get the opportunity to do at their age.”
His military experience allows Iwuji to handle the stress of racing, a sport that often depends on sponsorship and is unpredictable in regards to how a driver rises through the ranks. He has sponsorship for the ARCA race from BBMC Mortgage.
“You’ve got to deal with a lot in the military,” Iwuji said. “Being here? There’s nothing here that is going to faze me. When people get stressed after dealing with one or two things, I’m like, ‘How about dealing with about 30 things?’ ”
Iwuji will be the only African-American driver in the race Saturday. There is only one full-time African-American driver in NASCAR’s three national series: Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., a NASCAR Cup rookie this year at Richard Petty Motorsports who is the first African-American full-time driver at NASCAR’s top level since Wendell Scott in 1971.
“Bubba Wallace, he’s definitely paving the way right now,” Iwuji said. “Right now, diversity is going in a positive direction for the sport. … Whether they’re females or black, Mexican, Asian, you name it, the sport’s open to it and I think more people are starting to recognize that.”
Iwuji hopes to follow Wallace and race at NASCAR’s Cup level in a few years. The odds are against him. But whether he makes it or not won’t define him.
“At the end of the day, racing isn’t my whole life,” Iwuji said. “I’ve got some other big stuff going. I’m going to make it big in the business world too. Racing is the really cool, fun side of things.
“I’m not going to look to make this my end-all, be-all. I’m going to make it to where I want to go but I don’t have to just to live.”