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Local Sports

Auto Racing: Iwuji took an unlikely path into racing

There are many compelling story lines at Chicagoland Speedway as it gets ready to kick off its new position on the NASCAR schedule during its big Stars and Stripes Weekend, which runs from June 28 to July 1.

One of the most interesting will be on display in the ARCA Series race on the first of the four days of racing in Joliet. It involves the unlikely tale of 30-year-old U.S. Naval Academy graduate and Navy officer, Jesse Iwuji, who has decided to see if he can become a successful NASCAR driver. This season Iwuji will be competing in the ARCA Racing Series in the No. 34 car, as well as in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series in the No. 36 car.

In a sport where most drivers have been competing since they were young, Iwuji is determined to overcome the odds and move up the NASCAR ladder. As the son of Nigerian immigrants who taught their children that they could achieve anything, he will give it his best shot, and he’s already built up a strong following, including NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. He also is the current two-time NASCAR Diversity Driver of the Year winner.

“It’s definitely been an interesting journey,” Iwuji said. “It all started when I was at the Naval Academy doing my offseason training for football. When I had some free time, I would always be so interested in doing research on motor sports and learning about cars. After I graduated from the Naval Academy and went to San Diego, I started doing some drag racing at the local drag strip and had some fun with that by learning how to go fast around corners, and then from there I kind of made the crazy decision that I wanted to professionally race.

“When I made that decision, I didn’t really know where to go or what to do, but once I made the decision, it’s crazy how different doors began opening up. And through a lot of grinding and networking and meeting the right people, I started at the lowest level of NASCAR and began working my way up. This year I’m racing in the ARCA Series and the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, and this year has been very much possible due to BBMC Mortgage (a national mortgage company based in Lombard) and Perfect Hydration, two of my sponsors. Without them, I couldn’t have made this year happen.”

Growing up in the Dallas suburb of Carrollton, Texas, Iwuji utilized his athletic and educational abilities to get an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he played football and competed in track and field. After his days there, he was a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy from 2010 to 2017 and still is an officer in the Navy Reserve, which he went into so that he could pursue his NASCAR dream full time.

“When I was growing up in Dallas, my main focus was football,” Iwuji said. “I wanted to get a scholarship and play college football at the highest level, and playing in Texas definitely helped launch me to do that. The big thing with my parents was that they always pushed us to excel in whatever we were doing, and they said that failure was never an option. When you instill that in your kids from an early age, you’re only going to succeed. So if you can see it and you want it, you can make it happen. But it’s not easy, so you have to grind.

“The big thing is to have faith and be ready to put in a lot of effort and a lot of focus seven days a week, and you have to be willing to sacrifice when you’re doing it. When you do that, you can take that level of focus and effort and you can make it happen, no matter how crazy or far-fetched it may seem. You will meet the right person at the right time if the energy that you’re putting toward whatever goal you’re going after is immense. If you’re really putting your mind into it every single day, you will meet the right person.”

On a recent visit to Chicago, Iwuji made the rounds as one of Chicagoland Speedway’s ambassadors of its Stars and Stripes Weekend, that begins with ARCA’s Scott 150 on June 28. Races over the next three days after that include the XFINITY Series, Camping World Truck Series and it’s highlighted by the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Overton’s 400 on July 1.

“It would be horrible if I was going through this whole thing and in it only for me,” Iwuji said. “I have a big platform to help promote a lot of positives. Recently I’ve been promoting BBMC Mortgage’s Patriot Charity Initiative. They’ve donated over $2 million dollars to different veterans organizations to support difference causes and fight against different issues that veterans are experiencing like homelessness and mental illness. So each year I’ve been fortunate to be a part of different organizations that have been doing great things for our vets.

“It’s always rewarding when you can help others to achieve their dreams. A lot of people reach out to me about how do they accomplish whatever goals and dreams they have, and I tell them that if they bring in the right concepts they can make it happen. I’ve learned over time that the sky literally is the limit, and that you can be anything and accomplish anything that you want to. I want to thank all of those who’ve been with me since day one or who are jumping in now to see this journey go on. Those folks are definitely important to me.”

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