From 2014 to 2015, former Navy Midshipmen football safety Jesse Iwuji went from conducting mine countermeasures on the USS Comstock in the Persian Gulf to driving stock cars for Performance P-1 Motorsports in the NASCAR touring series. It was this combination of dedication and dexterity that convinced Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith to first sponsor Iwuji in 2020 and, as of August 2021, become a full-on Xfinity series team owner for the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series season.
“Anybody can have all the ideas in the world, but at the end of the day, it takes a special person to be a true grinder. Someone that makes things happen and (Smith) saw that in me,” Iwuji said to NASCAR. “He knew no matter what, I was going to get this thing going in the right direction.”
That route involves opening doors for people who may not enjoy equal access or exposure to participation in an overwhelmingly white profession. With a focus on racial equality and improved inclusion in stock car racing, Iwuji and Smith will use esports and STEM-style initiatives to connect and empower low-income folks and communities of color. Their overarching goal is to create a winning race team that serves as a symbol of hope that inspires a culture of achievement and success.
“We can all go out and try to compete, but what are we doing outside of that (is) to create some type of long-lasting legacy,” Iwuji told NASCAR.com. “Whether they want to drive (or) be part of the industry in general, we want to figure out different ways to expose people to the sport.”
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 in October 2020. There, Iwuji was able to use the face-to-face time to persuade Smith to consider co-ownership. Nearly a year later, Smith is all in to establish an impact across asphalt tracks.
“Our mission is two-to-threefold, if you will. We obviously want to win, but we also want to create a legacy and a pipeline of people who don’t know the pathway to get there,” Smith said. “To bring more attention and create those opportunities that Jesse talked about.”
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Not only do the pair share a love of the sport (Smith grew up with a NASCAR-loving father, has attended races at Texas and Bristol, and counts Days of Thunder as one of his favorite movies), Iwuji and Smith share deep Texas roots. Iwuji is a Carrollton native, a Dallas suburb adjacent to where Smith played 13 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, eventually setting the all-time NFL rushing record of 18,355 yards over the course of 15 seasons. Iwuji played football since age 8, wearing the No. 22 in homage to Smith.
No formal announcement regarding the manufacturer, car number, team alliance, sponsors, or crew chief has been released, but Iwuji did leave a cliffhanger, announcing his intention to honor Smith with car number 22 if they are able to snag it from Team Penske.
Read more: What It’s Like to Drive a NASCAR Race Car