Nigerian-American Jesse Iwuji’s morale lifting interview defines excellence

Legendary Jesse Iwuji has many titles to his name: Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy, former Division I athlete, esports owner, real estate investor, transportation company CEO, NASCAR Xfinity Series driver and fan favorite. The latter was confirmed when Iwuji won all four fan votes to compete in the 2021 eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, the driving circuit’s wildly successful and nationally televised simulated race series.

Iwuji, 33, grew up near Dallas before attending the Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he was both a free safety on the football team and a sprinter in track and field. He spent seven years in active duty as a surface warfare officer with two overseas deployments, before joining the Naval Reserves in 2017.

During his time in the service, Iwuji’s childhood interest in racing grew into a professional ambition. What started as time trial drives led to multi-car races after leaving the Navy. He worked his way through NASCAR’s lower circuits to reach the Xfinity Series—the top minor league competition—in 2020.

On winning his first eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series fan vote . . .

Speaking to SportTechie, Jesse had this to say:
I was actually in D.C., and I was shooting something for USAA. Literally while we’re shooting, I get a call from my agent. He’s like, ‘Hey, you won a fan vote.’ I’m like, ‘Wait, what? Like I actually won it?’ And he was like, ‘Yes, you beat out all the other guys.’ I’m thinking of all the other people that were competing in it, you know, Noah Gragson and some of the other Xfinity Series drivers and maybe a couple Cup drivers.

At that point, I was like, ‘OK, this is cool. But how am I going to actually race in this event?’ Because I’m all the way on the East Coast, there’s no way in the world I was going to get home in time to actually compete. So, we were able to make some calls to some people and thankfully, the folks at Sim Seats, they’re based out of Virginia, in the Richmond area, they were able to bring a sim over to Maryland, and I was trying to figure out where we were going to bring it. Do I need to call up some friends in Maryland, and be like, ‘Hey, can I bring this sim to your house?’ But then I was like, ‘Hey, we’re near the Naval Academy. Why don’t we just call the Naval Academy and ask for permission to bring the sim there and compete there?’ And they moved heaven and earth to make it happen. And boom, there we are, we got to race.

On the realism of racing simulators . . .

iRacing does a really good job of simulating the true dynamics of race cars and how racing occurs on a track. When you’re in the sim and you’re competing, it’s just like a real-life race at the end of the day. It is, to me, real racing. It’s not physically real racing, but it is real racing. Because if you look at what racing is, racing is trying to figure out who’s faster than the other person in whatever you’re doing, whether it’s a foot race, whether it’s a drag race, a circuit track, whatever it is: racing is racing, whether it’s in the virtual world or real life. You just don’t have the dangers of real-life racing.

So, competing against these folks, they all are good drivers even on the sim. They have a lot of skill, they have a lot of talent, they make good racing decisions, they use their experience from the real-life racetrack, and they apply it to what they do in the virtual world. So when I’m racing against them on there, I’m seeing different techniques, different tactics, different things they like to do, and I’m learning from it. To be able to run with these guys and do pretty good, I mean, when we ran, I believe the first one was Talladega and I finished top 20, in 19th. Then when we were in Darlington, I finished ninth. And then when we were in Chicago—the street course—I just finished 12th.

On whether he can apply lessons from the sim to real life . . .

Yeah, most definitely. And especially like a Darlington, a lot of these guys have been racing there forever. I’ve never run Darlington in real life, ever. And even on the sim, I had very little experience at Darlington—it’s typically one of the tracks on the sim I just skipped over. Finally, I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to learn this track, I’ve got to get good at it and I’ve got to get good at it now.’

On simulators as the link between the Navy and NASCAR . . .

This sim racing stuff, just simulators in general, that’s probably been the most helpful between military and racing. The reason I even got the idea to start jumping on a simulator to train for racing was because of what I learned in the military. For the ships, before we even get out to a real-life ship and start driving it, they teach us on a ship simulator back at base. So I learned how to drive a ship simulator, and I learned how to drive a ship very, very well through the simulator, and then got out to the fleet and drove well with the ships.

From there, when I was getting into the NASCAR world, I was like, ‘OK, if there’s ship simulators, flight simulators, and all that kind of stuff, there should be a racing simulator I can use to train to get ready for racing. And I went on Google, typed in, ’Are there racing simulators out there?’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s like a whole thing about this, this is a thing.’ And I quickly found some equipment, ordered it, found the software that I wanted to use, iRacing. This is back in 2015. I put it all together, I think I spent like $1,000 to get the seat, pedals, shifter, all that stuff and did it and started training myself how to drive a race car on a sim before I even got the chance to even jump wheel to wheel and race in a real-life race.

On piloting Naval vessels . . .

I was on a couple different ships. My first ship that I was on was a minesweeper. Minesweepers are smaller ships, 224 feet long, a lot easier to maneuver. Then, my second ship was an amphib. It was an LSD [landing ship, dock], the USS Comstock, that’s about 600-plus feet long, a little bit harder to maneuver, way bigger, way longer. It’s a little bit tougher to drive. But I still was able to drive both of those very well.

I learned a lot on the minesweeper because it’s a lot more maneuverable, you don’t have as much assistance from people or from other outside entities. When you’re pulling into port, it’s you alone to try to make it happen. Whereas on the amphib, you get to a certain point and the tugboats take over and they just push you in.

On driving ships and cars . . .

The biggest similarity is understanding rotation. For the ship on the water, you’re never fully still, you’re always moving. The ship is always rotating in some way when you’re turning. There’s always some type of rotational speed. Understanding that, feeling it through the ship, understanding with the ship moving at this speed forward then I’m turning using this amount of rudder, and I’m feeling the turn—you start understanding where it’s going to eventually stop turning, or when it’s going to slow down.

Understanding that rotation, that’s huge. Not everybody can do that well. Some people don’t, they just visually look, but you can’t drive a ship only using your eyes, you’ve got to drive using your body, feeling it, and that’s the same thing in a race car. You drive the race car feeling it because you understand, you know where the slip is, how much is slipping rotation, how much it is rotating, its rotational speeds, friction, all that stuff you feel through your body so you can understand what the race car is about to do and what it’s currently doing.

On NASCAR’s 2020 . . .

There’s been a really big evolution of NASCAR in the last year. NASCAR was the first to really jump back into bringing live sports back. Even though we couldn’t have fans at the track, they still did what they could to make it happen so that people could have something that they could watch on TV. Even before we brought live sports back, we were doing it in the sim racing world, and they were broadcasting multiple sim racing events in the March, April, May timeframe, which was cool, and no other sport can really do it like that. Even football, you’ve got video games like Madden, but those are just kind of arcade-type games—they don’t simulate anything.

Whereas a sim race world and in racing, a simulator literally simulates real-life racing and is about as close as you can get to real life-racing without being on a real track. It takes skill to actually drive at home, you’re using a steering wheel, you’re using a shifter, you’re using pedals and, and you’re analyzing the track, you’re driving it, you’re making moves or making decisions the whole time, just like you were in a real race car. So being able to use that to kind of push things forward last year was great for NASCAR.

Then with all the different social injustice stuff that we saw going on last year, NASCAR took a huge stand in letting people know that, hey, we’re an open sport. I know people have looked at NASCAR as a sport that was maybe one-sided for a long time, maybe that minorities really weren’t part of it. But we are in NASCAR. There are minorities in NASCAR. There aren’t a lot— we’re still trying to grow—but there definitely is. We’re here.

I think NASCAR did a great job of highlighting that and doing things to help bring more minorities in and make it feel more inclusive. Because at the end of day, for any sport to grow, you’ve got to be inclusive. You can’t just be one-sided. You’ll never truly grow. You’ll grow a little bit, but you’ll eventually fail. You’ve got to be able to include all.

On first driving a race car prior to the 2006 Meineke Car Care Bowl . . .

That was the first time I ever actually got to ride in a real race car. I had always liked racing since I was a little kid. I just never got the opportunity to do it or really be part of it or go to any races until way later in life. And even prior to that Meineke Car Care Bowl, I used to watch the show Speed Racer, I would watch a Night Rider, I would watch NASCAR on TV, Formula One—all that stuff really had me into cars and racing. But that was my first opportunity to actually jump in a real race car and get a ride around a track. I was like ‘This is cool.’ But even at that point, I had no clue that I ever wanted to go down a NASCAR route. I had no desire to do anything racing and NASCAR until 2014.

On his serious pursuit of racing . . .

In 2014, I met a guy who was racing late model stock cars. Those are kind of an entry-level stock car. It’s where you want to start if you want to work your way up to NASCAR ranks. So he’s racing those at Irwindale Speedway in Southern California. I had met him at a car show, and I had told him about all this stuff I was doing with my Corvette. I was taking it to track days and stuff like that. And he just made a wild offer. He’s like, ‘Man, you’re doing all these track days—why not try to jump into a real race car and try to wheel-to-wheel race?’ I was like, ‘That would be cool.’ And he’s like, ‘You should try testing our late model car, even though it’s oval tracks not road course, but you would like it.’

That’s what led me toward the stock car route. And that very same weekend that he made that offer to me, I also had gone and watched my first NASCAR race the next day. So, I met this guy, he gives me an opportunity to go test the stock car, he said I could go test it a couple months later in May. And then the same weekend I went to my first NASCAR race. So I just put two and two together. I’m like, ‘Something’s here. Maybe this is where I’m supposed to be going.’ And then that’s what led me down the route.

On owning an esports racing group . . .

eRacing Association is my esports company. We put on big sim racing events. Our goal is to put on events where people can win cash prizes. We’ve already put on three events over the last seven months now. We’ve given away over $20,000 in cash prizes to our competitors who have finished in the top five.

It’s been really cool being able to put on these tournaments, have people compete—any regular Joe Schmo can try to qualify their way in. It’s not a league where it’s just locked on these 40 drivers and that’s it. The 40 people that made the first event, it could be a completely different group of people who are jumping into the next, you never know. So, it just gives everyone the opportunity to fight their way in and, if they make it in, then you have a chance to go out there and compete and maybe go home with a bunch of money. I say ‘go home,’ but they’re already at home racing. [laughs]

On his other entrepreneurial interests . . .

I have a trucking company. We have a real estate investing company. I put on drag racing events—live events in real life. I have quite a few things I do. And I just kind of diversify where my entrepreneurship journey is going. I just continue to add things where I see opportunities that we continue to take advantage of what we see.

I don’t think I ever really dreamed about it or thought about it. It was just a necessity. When I was jumping into NASCAR, I quickly figured out that funding is a big part of it; you need to find some way to pay for the expenses. At the time, being active duty in the Navy, I made decent money but not enough to race. I had to find some way to make the extra money. And some people will say, ‘Oh, let’s go find sponsorship’ Well, it’s not that easy just to walk up to a company and say, ‘Hey, give me some money so I can go race.’ I had to figure out a way to do it for myself if I didn’t have the sponsorship. So I figured, let me start my own businesses and make money doing that and then I can use that to offset the cost of what it takes to race.

The goal is just to get to the Cup Series. That’s the number one goal: get to the cup series and race full time in the Cup Series. Whatever I have to do to make that happen, that’s what I’m working on. Nothing else matters. It’s just getting to the Cup Series so I can race there full time.

Jesse Iwuji has been a wonderful role model to other young ones out there, and it doesn’t look like he is stoping it.

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