Perhaps the Navy’s most potent ground offensive is a former defensive back now lining up on the NASCAR junior circuit. Jesse Iwuji, may just be a NASCAR rookie, but his career resume is already more extensive and impressive than most seasoned veterans he’s lining up against. The 30-year-old former safety on Navy’s football team is currently a Naval lieutenant in addition to launching his career on NASCAR’s ARCA circuit.
So far on the track, it’s been a bit of a learning experience so far for Iwuji and his No. 36 Perfect Hydration car in 2018. Iwuji’s debut at Daytona was cut short when a ruptured oil cooler forced him to exit after 44 laps. Then in March’s K&N Bakersfield 175, a crash cut short his race after the 78th lap. It’s still early on the ARCA schedule for win No. 1, but his presence is already being recognized as Iwuji was named ambassador for Chicagoland Speedway’s military-themed Stars & Stripes NASCAR weekend June 28.
Iwuji talks with BSG about racing, training, and style.
You’re a Naval lieutenant, a former safety for Navy’s football team, and now working your way up the NASCAR ranks. What’s the one common thread that ties all three disciplines together?
Mental toughness. It’s huge because your body is always going through a lot, it’s going to be uncomfortable for long periods of time while at the same time you’re asking it to perform at a high level. You’re also asking your brain to perform at a high level to make good decisions. Your brain will want to slow down a little bit so it can chill, but you can never let that happen. You’ve always got to stay mentally tough, push through, and perform and focus and hit all your marks when you’re driving.
As one of just a handful of African-Americans on the circuit, how and why did racing interest you?
I actually started drag racing with my Dodge Challenger, and I was taking my Corvette to different road course tracks in California, like Auto Club Speedway and Buttonwillow Raceway Park. I was having fun, then after a while I wanted to take it to the next level. I met someone at a car show who was doing some late-model stock car racing, and he asked me if I wanted to do a test with the team, which I did. That was my first intro to stock car. From there I progressed to NASCAR’s K&N series and started racing in that series in 2016.
Later, I met [former NFL linebacker] Shawne Merriman at a fashion show where he was promoting his Lights Out brand, and introduced myself. We started talking about NASCAR and I asked him if he wanted to get involved. We figured out a way to really get him involved, and that was by making him a car owner. When we did that, that kind of blossomed from there. Now I’m also racing in the ARCA series which is basically the same car but run on bigger tracks.
Is there any added pressure to perform and set an example as a role model?
It’s cool, but I don’t think about it that way. For me, just being the only Naval officer racing is as much of an honor, if not more. The military has been very supportive because racing is different and it’s a big goal and dream.
The big goal, though, is lining up on the Monster Energy circuit? When do you see that happening?
Making it all the way to the top of the NASCAR circuit is the main goal. There’s no set date yet, but in the next few years I expect to be there.
With three different physical regimens, does that require three different training styles?
For me, it’s all the same. My training never changes. My training is a mixture between football-type lifting and track and field-type running for sprinters. I like doing sprints—lots of sprints–not long-distance running. I do those together, and for me it works for everything I’m doing. I’m still able to be in shape for my Navy physical fitness test. I’m also in shape for racing, as well as anything else.
What is your normal workout regimen?
The lifting part of my training is pretty much the same. I’ll do six lifts, but they’re always supersets. It’ll be like, biceps and triceps, then switch [the next workout] to tri’s then bi’s. I’ll squat just once a week. That’s about the extent of what I do with legs, because I don’t like wearing out my legs since I’ll be wearing them out doing sprints. Too much leg work for me makes my legs too tight—then my lower back starts tightening up. which makes it harder for 1 ½-mile Navy physical fitness test run. If they’re too tight, it makes it really painful. So, I don’t do a lot of lower-body stuff because my sprints typically work out my legs the way I need them to work them out.
What are your best numbers for the Navy physical fitness test.
On a good day, I’ve run the mile and a half in about nine minutes. Normally it’s about 9 ½ to 10 minutes. You also have two minutes to do as many situps and pushups. I usually hit around 100 for each.
Besides crashes, what are some of the physical requirements for racing people may not normally recognize?
Cramping, just because there’s so much heat stress during the race, you lose so much water and electrolytes. You drink water, but it’s just not always enough with the amount of electrolytes you’re losing being in that really super hot race car. I’ll drink Perfect Hydration, and then I also will have some Pedialyte too, because that helps with all the other electrolytes that you need. But you have to make sure you can manage heat stress inside the car—it’s about 100-120 degrees inside and you’re inside for about two hours or more. The car is hard enough to drive—it’s a lot of physical stress on your arms and legs, gas-brakes-gas-brakes. You know how some people complain about their legs hurting from being in traffic because they got to be on the gas, brake, gas, brake, all the time? Well imagine doing that in a race for two straight hours and being on the edge the whole time and having the battle with the heat.
With your nonstop schedule, far as being on the road, are there any gym bag necessities?
I carry around my backpack everywhere—it’s really my lifeline. It has pretty much everything I need in it. The main thing for me is having a pair of shorts and a shirt and deodorant. I’ll have lotion as well, if I need it—every once in a while if I don’t work out till the evenings, I’ll need to rub some on—you don’t want to go in the gym all ashy.
What type of fashion style to you adhere to?
I’m really simple with all my stuff. A lot of times I’ll wear a V-neck shirt. I’m still pretty much in my same football shape, so I’ll go with just a form-fitting shirt, long sleeves. Nothing too crazy, or crazy tight, but just form fitting that highlights my body. As for pants, I wouldn’t say skinny jeans, but a little bit more room, more like slim-fitting. That’s kind of my style, nothing too crazy fancy. I just kind of keep it simple—if it fits good, it looks good. It pays to be in shape.