Naval Academy graduates have been grabbing professional sports headlines left and right this year, from Major League Baseball pitching debuts to National Football League drafts, but one active-duty alum is blazing a trail in a completely different direction: Stock car racing.
A surface warfare officer with two deployments under his belt, 27-year-old Lt. Jesse Iwuji (ee-WOO-jee) is making the most of his shore duty by spending every spare minute working toward his NASCAR dream.
Assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, by day, the student services officer spends his weekend at racetracks, competing with a NASCAR team or taking his Corvette out for practice.
"I want to go pro in NASCAR," he said in an interview. "I love the sport, the fans, everything about it."
Growing up in Dallas, Iwuji's life was consumed by football, but he made sure to catch races in his spare time.
The Naval Academy came calling in his junior year of high school, so he signed up for one year at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Rhode Island before heading to Annapolis to play free safety.
"I felt like it was the best opportunity to play good college football for a winning team, and also have a career after that," he told Navy Times in the June 8 phone interview.
But racing is expensive, and a midshipman football player doesn't have time or money for more than watching.
Once he graduated in 2010, however, he bought himself a used Dodge Challenger and drag raced it in Maryland.
That winter he moved out to San Diego for mine countermeasures training, then a tour with Mine Countermeasures Crew Exultant. After a deployment to Bahrain in 2012, he decided to set a goal and go after it — with his car's souped-up 1,000 horsepower engine.
"I wanted to go 200 miles per hour in the Mojave Mile," he said, a speed trial event out in the California desert.
He made it into the club, one of a select group of racers to have broken that speed, and one of only five to do it with his car's modern Chrysler Hemi engine.
"That got a lot of exposure for me," he said, including a story in Hot Rod magazine.
The Navy has been cool with it, too.
"I've been pretty safe about it," he said, explaining the litany of safety equipment he wears when he races — pads, restraints, head and eye protection, and so on, all flame-retardant.
"There's a lot of things people do out there — like jumping out of planes — that are pretty dangerous."
'Blazing a new trail'
He decided to make a run at going pro in 2014, buying a Corvette and taking it out to raceways around Southern California. There he met a representative from Performance P-1 Motorsports, an amateur stock car team.
He tested with that team at the Irwindale Speedway, and though he didn't win his race, he's not slowing down.
He's driving in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series now, and he recently got approval to drive in the NASCAR K & N Pro Series this year. Both are regional series, NASCAR's version of the minor leagues, where up-and-coming drivers can prove their mettle.
"This is the most out-of-the-box-type thing I'm doing, and I'm going to make it happen," he said, pointing out that not only is he the first active-duty sailor to go for NASCAR, he would be one of the sport's exceptionally few black drivers.
His service obligation ends in 2017, but in the mean time, he's building a foundation for a NASCAR career. His path is unusual, he said, because he only started racing a few years ago.
Most drivers start out with go-karts as kids and then move up, he said, but he jumped right into late model cars. To make up for that accelerated timeline, he's putting in extra work to get his name out.
He has a race simulator at home, where he spends hours every day after work, racking up from 700 to 1,000 laps a week. And when that's over, he's on the phone and online networking, looking for contacts and sponsorships to keep things moving.
"The biggest thing is the money aspect of it," he said. "Racing is expensive."
He has some product sponsors and some discounts lined up, like Bulletproof energy drinks, Carven Exhaust and Porterfield brakes, he said.
But what he really needs is an organization, company or individual to sponsor his track time to get him through a season.
In the meantime, Iwuji is making do with his O-3 pay. His day job is a bonus, he said, because it sets him apart from other rising drivers.
"Being in the Navy does help a lot," he said. "It's helping me a lot because people are more supportive of what I'm doing, because I'm blazing a new trail."