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Jesse Iwuji has partnered with NFL Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith to form Jesse Iwuji Motorsports for the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series season.
But it‘s not just his on-track security that has Iwuji smiling from ear to ear.
With a focus on racial equality and improved inclusion in the sport, Iwuji and Smith will use esports and STEM-style initiatives to connect with lower-income communities in order to empower individuals to believe anything is possible in life. Their overarching goal is to be more than just a race team, but also to serve as a symbol of hope for those with less opportunity to achieve success.
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Using a newly developed platform to help those with less opportunities break into the sport means the world to Iwuji. Victories off the race track will be more rewarding than potential checkered flags on the track.
“We can all go out and try to compete for that, but what are we doing outside of that to create some type of long-lasting legacy, something that creates opportunity and a pathway,” Iwuji told NASCAR.com. “… A pipeline for people to get in the sport. Whether they want to drive, be part of the industry in general, crew chief, engineers … whatever it is, we want to figure out different ways to expose people to the sport and do it with having the assets on the race team.”
Iwuji‘s relationship with Smith originally blossomed with his agent, who has known Smith for roughly 20 years. One of Smith‘s companies, Notable Live, sponsored Iwuji‘s No. 99 car owned by B.J. McLeod in the Xfinity Series race at Texas Motor Speedway last October. Smith was also on hand to unveil the paint scheme for the race.
Iwuji was able to use that opportunity to persuade Smith to consider co-ownership with him.
“We started throwing it at (Smith), like hey, you should be a part of this thing that we‘re going to start, it‘s going to be big,” Iwuji said. “He was excited. He was like, you know what, yeah, I want to be part of that. Next thing you know, he‘s putting different ideas together and figuring out a way to have it a little bit different than other people do.”
Now in the U.S. Navy Reserves, Iwuji was active duty in the Navy from 2010-17. Since 2015, Iwuji has competed in five Xfinity Series races, including one start this season at Pocono Raceway for car owner Mike Harmon. The 34-year-old driver also has 14 Camping World Truck Series starts over four years, which includes three starts in 2021 with car owner Josh Reaume.
Shifting from the military to NASCAR national series racing isn‘t exactly conventional, but Iwuji was willing to put in the hard work to make it happen.
That‘s what caught Smith‘s attention.
“(Smith) saw me basically going from driving warships in 2014 to driving race cars in 2015,” Iwuji said. “He saw that grind and he knew; you know what, I want to associate myself with a grinder. Anybody can have all the ideas in the world, have everything written down on lists, but at the end of the day, it takes a special person to be a true grinder. Someone that makes things happen and he saw that in me. He knew no matter what, I was going to get this thing going in the right direction.
“We‘re all a group of people who fall in love with the process of getting better.”
When Smith first interacted with Iwuji at Texas, he was sold on supporting him.
“That‘s how I got a chance to meet Jesse, understand what his mission was, understand what his plans were and to try be involved in every which way I possibly could to enhance it,” Smith told NBCSN before Saturday‘s Xfinity Series race at Michigan. “Not only that, but to bring more attention and create those opportunities that Jesse talked about. Creating a legacy and a pipeline of people who don‘t know the pathway to get there. Our mission is two-to-threefold if you will. We obviously want to win, but we also want to create opportunities for others.”
Both Iwuji and Smith have deep Texas roots. Iwuji is a Carrollton native, located outside of Dallas. Smith played 13 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys on the way to setting the all-time NFL rushing record of 18,355 yards over the course of 15 seasons. Iwuji had played football since age 8, wearing the No. 22 to pay homage to Smith. He also played football while attending the United States Naval Academy at the free safety position.
Between Iwuji‘s experience with football and the intense discipline that comes with serving in the military, along with the dedication that came with Smith‘s highly successful professional football career, both are cut from the same cloth of having structure equal success.
That‘s a concept Iwuji wants to translate to his race team and helping others break into motorsports.
“This is the life we live,” Iwuji said. “We live it, people see it and they want to follow in it. That‘s something that we‘re going to bring to the table. We‘re going to be able to provide people with opportunity in places where they‘ve never seen it before or would have known that is even possible. There are some people out there that have always wanted to be a part of motorsports, a part of NASCAR. In their minds, they truly feel like they can‘t do it because of whatever barrier that is. We want to break those barriers to give these people opportunities.”
Now the proud owner of a trucking company and other real estate endeavors, Iwuji was never fit for a normal desk job — because he tried it. He wants to own the work that he puts in, which is why NASCAR ownership was so appealing with the proper backing from an influential person like Smith.
“I‘ve always been the type of person where I don‘t want to be a pawn in the game, I want to own the game so I can be able to have say-so in the game,” Iwuji said. “If you don‘t own the game, you‘re just a pawn in the game. I don‘t want to be a pawn.”
“I always wanted to be an owner,” he added. “I always wanted to run the thing because then I can have a say-so in how to build it and send it in the right direction. If I can see where it‘s going, I can send it there. Not everyone is capable of seeing where things are going. Why leave it in their hands? Let me take over and make it happen.”
No formal announcement regarding manufacturer, car number, team alliance, sponsors and crew chief has been released, but Iwuji intends to run a full-time schedule and compete for Rookie of the Year honors.
But Iwuji did leave a cliffhanger regarding the number selection. Honoring Smith with the No. 22 on the side of the car is a thought if they are able to snag it from Team Penske‘s current Xfinity Series effort.
“Wouldn‘t that be awesome,” Iwuji said with a grin. “I‘ve thought about it, yeah. … I would love to have that number, if possible. Obviously, we don‘t own that number. (Penske has) had it forever. Who knows what‘s going to happen over the next few months. But it‘d be awesome to that number.
“But if not, that‘s great. We can start our own thing. We don‘t have to use that number. We can keep going with something else and build that. It‘s not going to make or break it. It would be cool to have it because I‘ve had that number in football at one point in my life.”