The crowd roars with excitement as Jesse Iwuji glides perilously close to safety guard rails in his gray Chevy Corvette during his practice runs.
Iwuji is one of thousands of Reserve Sailors nationwide who left active duty to pursue other career goals, but remain dedicated to continuing military service, to bolster the Navy’s fighting force.
Over the course of 15 years, Iwuji’s journey as a Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) and NASCAR driver has shown the public, with determination, Sailors can proudly serve in the military and still pursue individual passions at the highest levels. In August this year, he debuted in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, known as a proving ground for drivers searching to step up to the organization’s top level circuit, the NASCAR Cup Series.
“When you’re trying to do well in something and climb the ranks, you have to try to be extraordinary,” said Iwuji who adds the goal can’t be achieved solely as an individual.
“On the ships I learned that was necessary to become part of the team,” he said. “Because if I just kept doing my own thing, then the team doesn’t work. And if the team doesn’t work, equipment breaks — people get hurt. The people that are like-minded with you will push you to stay on course.”
He says his experiences in the Navy have shaped him into who he is today. “You start learning that you really have to surround yourself with great people,” he said. “You start feeding off of it and you start going places.”
The high stakes, high speed world of race cars has done more than meet Iwuji’s need for speed; it has also helped prepare him for the high-end fight if called to serve at sea.
Currently assigned to Commander, Naval Beach Group One, Iwuji’s unit trains detachments to embark aboard amphibious ships in support of missions from combat operations to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
“My experience on the race track and with the race teams I’ve been with has helped improve my communication skills — since the key to [race track] success is being able to verbalize what you need your team to tweak on a racecar to get it faster,” he said. “This has translated over to my Navy career and allowed me to improve my communication with my Sailors, helping bring our fighting team closer and execute our missions more effectively.”
Athlete Turned Officer
Iwuji’s path as a competitor began when the United States Naval Academy football team recruited him in 2006. After graduating in 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts in General Science and being commissioned as a SWO, Iwuji began his Navy career assigned to minesweeper USS Pioneer (MCM-9) and amphibious warfare ship USS Comstock (LSD 45) and completed two tours in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea.
While off duty, he would take his car to race during open track days in Southern California. But it was during his time at sea his passion for racing became a driving force. “I just kept on having this vision of racing in the cup series and walking out onto driver intro,” he said. “I made that decision there on deployment that NASCAR is where I was going to go.”
After returning from deployment in 2015, Iwuji started his professional racing career and began competing in races.
One day, Iwuji took a whiteboard in his house and outlined one big goal: become a professional racecar driver. From there he spent upwards of 16 hours a week in his driving simulator, practicing for races. He paid for time on actual racetracks to get the feel for racing on professional courses.
His ability to balance his time between being an active duty Sailor and pursuing a career in stock car racing tipped as he approached the end of Navy obligation in 2017. “I loved active duty, but I needed more time behind the wheel,” he said.
The Navy Reserve quickly became a clear answer to his desire to stay Navy but still pursue his passion. After successfully transitioning to the Navy Reserve, Iwuji applied many of the lessons he learned from his Navy service to climb the ranks of the NASCAR circuits.
A year after leaving active duty, he made his debut in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck series, which is the entry point into national divisions of NASCAR. Just two years later, he had proven himself and made his first start in the NASCAR Xfinity Series — one step away from the primetime NASCAR Cup Series.
As his Navy and NASCAR careers progress, he often reflects on his experiences, lessons learned, and how he can use them to benefit others — considering himself as an unofficial ambassador for the military, and especially the Navy, on the race track.
Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class Matt Perry, assigned to South West Regional Maintenance Center (SWRMC), and fellow professional NASCAR driver, was introduced to racing by Iwuji. Perry is just one of many service members Iwuji has worked with and inspired to never give up on personal goals.
“He helped me get to know the marketing side and connections on the national-level events of NASCAR,” said Perry. “He told me if that’s something you want to do, you’ll find a way. That gave me a mindset to set my goals and make it happen.”
Iwuji says it’s a challenge to balance personal, professional and military demands, but that his story can serve to inspire any Sailor, regardless if their passion is on the uniformed or civilian side. He learned to not be swayed by others who had differing opinions saying that continuing to serve the nation as a Reserve Sailor could hamper his civilian career.
Ten years ago if you saw him aboard the ship in the Arabian Gulf, Iwuji says you would have never thought that he would one day be sitting here at Daytona.
“This takes a lot of effort, a lot of grind, and never quitting,” he said. “If you have the vision and it was put in your head, it can definitely be attainable. Go after it. Go attain it. Never let someone’s opinion of you become your reality.”