Driving To Inspire

US Navy | Aug. 24, 2022

By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amber Smalley

JACKSONVILLE, FL.:  Men and women in uniforms. American flag flying high in the sky. Fierce competitors with their game faces on. This is a description of what Lt. Cmdr. Jesse Iwuji sees both on the racetrack and on his Navy Reserve drill weekends. Iwuji is a surface warfare officer in the Navy Reserve, and when he’s not serving his country, he is an Xfinity Series NASCAR driver.

Navy Reserve Sailor and professional NASCAR driver, Lt. Cmdr. Jesse Iwuji, prepares to race at Talladega Superspeedway on Apr. 22, 2022.
Navy Reserve Sailor and professional NASCAR driver, Lt. Cmdr. Jesse Iwuji, prepares to race at Talladega Superspeedway on April 22, 2022.
Navy Reserve Sailor and professional NASCAR driver, Lt. Cmdr. Jesse Iwuji, prepares to race at Talladega Superspeedway on Apr. 22, 2022.
Jesse Iwuji in race car
Navy Reserve Sailor, Lt. Cmdr. Jesse Iwuji, prepares to race at Talladega Superspeedway on April 22, 2022.
Navy Reserve Sailor and professional NASCAR driver, Lt. Cmdr. Jesse Iwuji, prepares to race at Talladega Superspeedway on April 22, 2022.

Iwuji balances the unique demands of being a U.S. Navy Reserve Sailor and professional NASCAR driver every day. He served on active duty for seven years before deciding to follow his dreams and spend more time behind the wheel. Transferring from active duty to the Navy Reserve has given him the opportunity to pursue both of his passions.

“I wanted to have more time to work on my businesses and work up through the ranks of NASCAR,” said Iwuji. “Staying active duty would not have allowed me the amount of time necessary to do everything I wanted to do. I wanted to stay in the Reserve though, because it allowed me to keep one foot in the door and continue to serve and do my small part to keep our country free.”

Iwuji’s passion for cars and racing started in his childhood. While on active duty in San Diego California, he was finally able to afford his own race car. Chasing his passion, he took the car to drag strips and road courses throughout southern California, which inspired him to pursue professional racing, a family he officially entered in 2017.

“It's been great working up the ranks of NASCAR but it has not been easy,” said Iwuji. “I am still learning at every level I go up, which means I will have many good days and many bad days — and sometimes more bad days than good — but it it's all a learning process, and it's a blessing to just even have the opportunity to be on track with these great competitors.”

Most NASCAR drivers have been racing since adolescence. Iwuji has only been racing for six years, making his climb to the Xfinity series all the more impressive to those inside the sport. With steadfast dedication, Iwuji climbed the tiers and ranks of NASCAR just as he has done in the Navy, while inspiring and leading those around him in both arenas.

“The similarities between NASCAR and the military are the teamwork side, engineering side, process and procedures side, communication side and competition,” said Iwuji. “There are not a lot of differences, but maybe one of the biggest differences is that in the military you are not just working with your fellow members because it is your job, you were working with them because of you are protecting their life and they are doing the same for you as well.”

Iwuji takes pride in his position to inspire, educate and lead Sailors, as well as civilians, to follow their dreams. In his spare time, he is also committed to steer students and service members toward hands-on opportunities in Science, technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education.

“My best experiences in NASCAR have come from utilizing the platform I have as a team owner and driver to possibly affect people’s lives,” said Iwuji. “We have an opportunity to link STEM initiatives, and transitioning service member-based initiatives to help people advance their lives.”

Iwuji and his team recently hosted five Sailors from Navy Reserve Center (NRC) Birmingham to celebrate the achievements of Reserve Sailors around the fleet. Iwuji led the Sailors on a tour of the PIT, Paddock, and other intimate areas within the Talladega Superspeedway.

“It is always great hosting military personnel at the track to show them what life is like in NASCAR and to show them what possibilities are out there in the world outside of the military,” said Iwuji. “I want our service members to serve our country valiantly, but I also want them to know that there is a life outside of the military they can also be a part of simultaneously or once they transition out.”

NRC Birmingham Commanding Officer Lt. Cmdr. Christien Edwards has worked with Iwuji in the Navy and in his pit crew. He helped set up the opportunity for Iwuji to show his Sailors an up-close glimpse into the inner operations of NASCAR at the highest levels, to highlight translatable skills, gain insights and learn about teamwork.

“NASCAR is not too different than the Navy in terms of OPTEMPO and expected outcomes on tight schedules,” said Edwards. “The driver during the season is essentially like a mobilized Sailor. All items that went into the increased readiness and preparation of the drivers and teams, or units, are extremely congruent to what NRCs and operational units execute for mobilizations.”

The Sailors in attendance said they were inspired by Iwuji's kindness, passion and dedication.

“Getting to meet Jesse and experience even just a portion of what he has accomplished in racing was absolutely incredible,” said Master-at-Arms 2nd Class Peyton Maret, assigned to NRC Birmingham. “He opened my eyes to all of the opportunities there are for Sailors who are willing to put in the work and strive for something big. It was truly humbling for me to hear about his journey and I left that day feeling inspired to be bold with my hopes for the future.”

Iwuji’s background as a Navy Sailor has now contributed to his success on the track, while his success in racing and businesses has continues to inspire many people in both the racing and Navy communities. While has successfully followed his NASCAR dreams and keeps striving for more every day, even while staying faithful to his Navy Reserve commitments, he offered advice for those in the military actively trying to pursue outside goals while still serving.

"Figure out a way to divide up the time you have so you can maximize your days,” said Iwuji. “There are 24 hours in a day, and you only need six or seven of those hours to sleep, and typically only need around eight or nine of those hours working your normal day job in the military unless you are deployed. So those other hours should be spent on your mind, body and goals."

Iwuji said goal setting and time management are what set him up to become one of many Reserve Sailors who have propelled both their civilian and military careers, and he promised to continue to be an example to fellow Sailors on how to stay ready for whatever challenges lie over the horizon. 

"No one should ever make any excuse that they don't have any time," said Iwuji. "I was able to get the process started to go after my dreams and goals even while I was on deployment and I still do everything I need to do to make sure I'm good to go as a warfighter.”