When Jesse Iwuji played free safety for the Naval Academy from 2006-2009, he'd get nervous before the first play. He had studied the opposing team, but there was that moment when he wasn't exactly sure what was coming. But once the game started and he made contact, he was fine.
Iwuji graduated from the Academy as a surface warfare officer, and with money saved from his deployments, he invested in his lifelong dream of becoming a professional race car driver.
As the only Nigerian NASCAR driver on the racing circuit, Iwuji now experiences the same pre-game jitters before a stock car race begins.
"I'm not afraid," said Iwuji, 30, whose parents immigrated from Nigeria in the 1980s. "I still get butterflies. It's the same rush of adrenaline -- very similar to football. I get a little nervous. Once the race begins, I'm fine."
Iwuji competed in drag races with a Chrysler 300 at Capitol Speedway in Crofton, Md., in 2010 before moving to California and upgrading his Dodge Challenger to 1,100 horsepower and participating in the Mohave Mile speed trial, where he hit 200 mph.
He attended a car show in 2014 and left with an offer to try stock car racing. He participated in a stock car test race for the Performance P-1 Group at Irwindale Speedway, and one year later, he competed in the Whelen All-American Series, finishing 15th in his debut.
He currently drives No. 36 for Patriot Motor Sports on the K&N Group West NASCAR circuit.
"You think twice before doing certain things when it's your car," Iwuji said. "I needed to learn how to take turns at speed. A racing budget is expensive. You want to bring the car home clean. You are a little more cautious."
After 40 races and practices on a race simulator in Ventura, Calif., Iwuji has worked his way up through the NASCAR levels
"Racing costs millions," he said. "Rising up in the ranks is expensive. You can't just show up at the track for practice unless you own the Walmart. I practice for hours and hours on my off days learning race craft. It's not something you can start at a young age like basketball or football."
Iwuji believes his college training helped him manage a career in the Navy and on the race track.
"I was working two jobs in college -- playing 13-14 football games and studying calculus, chemistry, electrical engineering and thermodynamics," he said. "I'd have 15 minutes for lunch. Most college kids just focus on school."
In 2016, Iwuji met former NFL linebacker and Maryland Terrapin Shawne Merriman at a fashion show in Los Angeles where Merriman was promoting his new clothing line. Iwuji is now the primary owner of Patriot Motor Sports, and Merriman owns the No. 36 race car, featuring on different occasions both a Toyota Camry and a Chevrolet Sports Sedan engine.
Iwuji's football and NASCAR career has already featured many highlights. In football, Iwuji said his most memorable moment came when Navy beat Notre Dame for the first time in 2007. In racing, he's gone against the likes of Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick, but his favorite moment occurred when he arranged for a young boy with a rare form of cancer to realize his dream of driving a race car from Las Vegas to Idaho.
"That was two years ago," Iwuji said, "and he's still alive. I wanted him to realize his dream."
Despite all he's accomplished, as one of only three African-Americans on the NASCAR circuit, Iwuji likes to keep it all in perspective.
"My friends thought I was crazy at first," he said. "I've always loved cars -- and there's not a lot of Nigerians out there."
Issue 239: November 2017