NASCAR driver Jesse Iwuji talks diversity, his learning curve and working with Shawne Merriman He’s one of three African-American drivers across NASCAR’s series

One of Jesse Iwuji’s favorite quotes is from motivational speaker Les Brown.

“He said, ‘Someone’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality’ and that’s huge,” Iwuji said.

The 30-year-old NASCAR K&N Pro Series driver incorporates that axiom into his personal and professional life.

A former naval officer, Iwuji says his goals are to progress through the ranks in NASCAR while promoting sportsmanship, mentorship for youth and representing the military community with professionalism. As a rookie in 2016, Iwuji finished among the top 10 in points for the season out of 59 drivers in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West.

He recently teamed up with former NFL star Shawne Merriman. Merriman and his company Lights Out became Iwuji’s first big sponsor. Merriman is the owner of Iwuji’s car through Patriot Motorsports Group.

“I met Shawne at this fashion show for the grand opening of his store in L.A.,” Iwuji said. “His products were going to be sold from Lights Out. When I saw him, I mentioned to him about the NASCAR stuff I was doing and the journey I was taking in the sport, and he took interest in it. We decided to link up and make him the car owner of my car in NASCAR, and that was going to get him the opportunity to get his feet wet and into the door of NASCAR so that he could start making big waves and an impact in the sport, especially on the diversity side of things.”

Diversity is a goal of NASCAR, as the organization currently has only three African-American drivers. Twenty-five-year-old Jay Beasley rides in the K&N Series with Iwuju, and Darrell Wallace Jr., known as Bubba Wallace, just became the first black full-time driver in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“I think it’s awesome that he’s getting the opportunity to do this,” Iwuji said of Wallace. “It’s definitely been a long time coming for him, and I think he’s going to do some great things. The guy’s a really good driver. He’s had a lot of great opportunities in his life to be on some great teams and learn a lot and compete at a high level, which has been great. I’m just trying to follow along and hopefully get the same opportunities to compete on great teams and make it up to his level so that maybe I can be the second African-American in recent times to race full time in the NASCAR Cup Series.”

His company, Red District, has hosted drag racing events since 2015.


How did you take the dive into racing?

I’ve always loved cars and racing my whole life. When I was younger, I used to watch a little bit of NASCAR here and there randomly. I don’t know why. None of my family comes from any racing background at all. We’re Nigerian. Both my parents were born and raised in Nigeria before they came over to the U.S. in the ’80s and had me, my two brothers and my sister. Living in Texas, football was the main thing. So my big goal was to get to college, play football for a big Division 1A school, and have a great education, too.

In the middle of college, I started gaining a big interest in cars and racing, and I started researching it more. When I graduated college in 2010, I finally had a little bit of money to go buy a Dodge Challenger. I started drag racing with it at different tracks in Southern California. I kept on building it up and adding more horsepower. Around 2013, I bought a Corvette and started taking that to different road course tracks, where I was spending a lot of time learning how to take turns, left and right, at speed.

In 2014, I met a guy at a car show who had asked, ‘Hey, would you be interested in trying some stock car racing?’ I was like, ‘Stock car racing as in NASCAR?’ He was like, ‘Yeah.’ Then, I was like, ‘Sure. I mean, I’m open to it. I’ve always loved cars and racing. I’ve been thinking about becoming a professional driver, and this might be my opportunity to start going down that path.’ So I went and did a test with his racing team in May 2014. It went well. Right after that, I went on deployment with my ship. When I came back from deployment in early 2015, I decided to start going down that path of the whole NASCAR route. That’s when my racing career began in, really, April 2015.

What drives your passion?

I’m always seeking challenges. I love challenging myself. I love doing things that are fun and exciting and that you can look back on when you’re 57 years old and know that, hey, I lived an exciting life.

How is the NASCAR K&N series for you?

I’ve been learning a lot. Unlike most drivers who race in the series, I don’t have a lot of racing experience. Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve basically only been racing for about 2½ years now, whereas some of the people racing in my series have been racing for 20. I have that learning curve that I’m trying to get over. … I’ve been getting better and better every race, every year. I’m just going to continue to do that and try to really continue to move forward so that I can keep going up the ladder of NASCAR.

How is NASCAR approaching diversity?

They’re trying to reach out to different demographics of people nowadays like African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, you name it. They’re trying to diversify a little bit to gain more fans from different backgrounds, and I think they’re doing a pretty good job on it. Yeah, it could always be better. There’s more things that they can do, and I think they’re working hard to try to figure that stuff out. There’s a lot of opportunity to really bring new demographics into NASCAR so that we can continue to grow, get more fans out there, and continue to be the No. 1 watched motor sport in the U.S. and maybe, one day, the No. 1 watched motor sport in the world.

What goals have you set for yourself on the track and off the track?

I see myself making it to the Cup Series. I want to get up to the top level of NASCAR. I want to compete. I want to be good and eventually win a championship in that series. Also, on the way going up and while I’m there, I want to be able to help people get to their goals and dreams. A lot of people look up to me because I’m just a regular person trying to do some big things. Every step I take that is in the positive direction, people see it, they love it, and it gives them hope for them to know that, hey, they can also do the same thing, too, whether it’s in racing or the business world, school, their relationships, whatever.

What’s been the hardest part of your journey?

The toughest part of my journey has just been the experience and the funding part of it. You know, racing’s not cheap at all, and it takes a lot of money. Thankfully, I’ve been able to make it this far so far, but it hasn’t been easy at all. I had to go and start my own company to put on drag racing events. I just recently captured my second big sponsor, which is Perfect Hydration. Perfect Hydration, they are a 9.5 pH alkaline water company based out of Southern California. They sell water in Costco and places around the U.S. Great company, great people, and they’ve been really supportive.

Shawne Merriman takes 100 students to NASCAR The ex-NFL player launched ‘Lights Out Drive’ youth initiative that exposes children to the sport

Shawne Merriman named it after his apparel line — Lights Out. The former NFL player recently expanded his personal brand to launch Lights Out Drive, an initiative that gives children exposure to NASCAR. Which is why on Oct. 1, 100 children from the program visited Dover International Speedway.

“All those kids won’t get the opportunity to be a football player in the NFL, [or play in the] NBA, but exposing them to a different demographic and exposing them to a different platform will ultimately, at the end of the day, allow them to be a part of the NASCAR circuit, somehow, some way,” the three-time All-Pro linebacker said.

“There’s media departments. There’s marketing. There’s working at the track, being a part of whatever it is. NASCAR is such a big sport, there’s so many different levels and so many different ways to be part of it, that’s ultimately what you want to do. Out of those 100 kids, you want a good percentage of kids walking out of there to still follow the sport and want to go to another track.”

Merriman’s passion is in line with NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, an initiative launched in 2004, which works to diversify its drivers. As owner of NASCAR K&N Pro Series West driver Jesse Iwuji’s Chevrolet, Merriman’s goal is to offer accessibility to youths. Iwuji is one of two black drivers in NASCAR.

Merriman grew up in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and as a high school player quickly gained the nickname “Lights Out” because players who he hit were rendered unconscious, as the story has been told. He attended the University of Maryland, was drafted 12th overall in 2005 by the San Diego Chargers and was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Merriman spoke to The Undefeated about giving back by bringing children to NASCAR.


When did you first get interested in NASCAR?

You know what, it happened in 2008, when I was invited out to be the grand marshal of the race in Fontana [California], and it really caught me off guard because I was going to a NASCAR event. I didn’t think that people would really know who I was or know who I am. I was honored. It was cool for NASCAR to invite me out. I didn’t know that it was going to be that many football fans.

So they announced me over the intercom, people went crazy, and from that point on, I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy. I didn’t even know.’ I was walking up to the top, I was about to start waving the green flag. A guy behind me tells me, ‘Don’t drop the flag,’ and I’m looking at him like, ‘What are you talking about? It’s just waving a flag. There’s nothing to it.’

The cars all started up, and the crowd went crazy and I got so nervous because my hands started to get like clammy and I felt myself about to drop the flag because I was so damn nervous, but it was that adrenaline and it was the energy from the crowd that kind of made me fall in love with the sport. That was my first time actually being at a race. I used to watch it on TV growing up as a kid, but I had no idea it was that much excitement, that much energy there at the track.

What do you think about the lack of diversity in the sport?

For me it never really hit me hard. It was 2008, so basically nine years ago. I was in my mid-20s, and that was the first time I had an opportunity to go to a track but I got the opportunity to go to the track because I was Shawne Merriman, football player, linebacker of the San Diego Chargers at the time. That was my opportunity.

If I wasn’t who I was, I don’t know if I’d-a been open to going to the races. I don’t know if I would have been invited. I don’t know if I would have ever got a chance to see how exciting it was. That was part of my initiative of trying to get more ethnicity in there, more minorities involved in the sport, because without the opportunity, how do you really know?

I would have never known how to go to a track or how to look up the schedule or anything about the sport. That’s just part of our whole initiative to get this done.

Did the children on hand to go to the race as part of your initiative enjoy the event?

It was incredible because they really didn’t know what to expect. And we got there, and walking into the parking lot they heard a couple of the cars, it was probably two or three cars, on the track and they were doing all their practice runs. They were like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s loud,’ so they all wanted the little earpieces. I said, ‘No, no, no. Those are two or three cars that are practicing right now. Wait until 20-plus cars start up and then they start going around the track, then you’ll really see how the intensity and how crazy it is to be there.’

Maybe one day, when they get older and they’re looking for a career, they’ll remember that race that they went to and how exciting it was and want to be a part of the organization. To me, it was much bigger than trying to really inspire them to just be in the car racing.

How did you choose that group of students? What was the process for getting that initiative started?

I got the James Madison Middle School, where I went to middle school, so I got some kids from there, but I also got some at-risk kids at a top-notch program in Baltimore. I got some kids from D.C. We really wanted to get inner-city, most of the city as possible, because those are the kids that won’t have the opportunity to even go or won’t even find out the information to go or how do we get there. Whatever the case is.

I hope that grows from 100 to 1,000. I thought it was a great turnout. The kids really enjoyed themselves, and I would love to have even more involved and possibly even one day having a big race even closer to the inner city, if possible, so even more people will get the opportunity to be there.

How did you meet your driver?

So I have my company, Lights Out brand, which is an apparel company, and I was having a fashion show in downtown Los Angeles at a place called Brigade, where we hold a lot of our fashion shows at and I was introduced to Jesse, my driver, by a mutual friend of ours who’s a really big YouTube and social media star named Jason Dozier.

We talked about another 30 minutes or so at the event and I said, ‘Man, just come up. I would love to hear more about what you’re doing and how can I be more involved in the sport. Will you come to my office in the next few weeks or so?’ And he drove up from Monterey, California, all the way to my office in downtown Los Angeles, and from that point on we made it happen. He became an ambassador for my company, for Lights Out, and I became his car owner.

We were able to bring on a huge partnership and sponsor, Perfect Hydration, the water company, and they really liked our efforts and what we’re trying to accomplish. Without them, I don’t know if we could continue to do what we’re doing right now. They just really came in and gave us the resources that we need in order to be successful in our initiatives.

What do you have upcoming?

I have stuff for Lights Out. Actually, I’ve got a show coming out that I guest-starred on, the comedy Get Down, on BET, with George Lopez, Cedric the Entertainer, Charlie Murphy, Eddie Griffin, D.L. Hughley.

How was it working with the late Charlie Murphy?

Oh, my God. I was so privileged to not only work with him on the screen, but off set, when everybody’s trying to just relax and stuff like that, you hear Charlie. Charlie’s so real and raw and blunt and up front. I was in hair just listening to him talk all the time. He was just so damn funny. I was really blessed to get a chance to work with him before he passed away.

Are you missing football?

I’m still around it. I’m at every home Chargers game in L.A., support them in that move and really trying to get them more involved in kind of L.A. market and just do whatever I can. I’ve been around the team since 2005, and so I’m just glad to be a part and still kick it with them.