BY ANDREAS BUTLER
One of the country’s few Black professional racecar drivers spent time Tuesday with kids in Daytona Beach’s Black community.
Jesse Iwuji, a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West driver, stopped by the Boys and Girls Club at the John H. Dickerson Center and chatted with students about motorsports, education, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers.
“I just came here to give the kids some inspiring and motivating words. I also want to let them know that they can be what they want to be,” said Iwuji, who also is an active-duty lieutenant in the U.S. Navy serving as a surface warfare officer since 2010.
NASCAR and diversity
Iwuji is one of three African-American drivers in NASCAR. The other two are Jay Beasley, who competes in the K&N Pro Series East, and Darrell Wallace, Jr. who competes in Xfinity series.
Iwuji hails from Texas and his parents have Igbo Nigerian roots.
“I am a little unique being African-American and of African decent. NASCAR is a sport that is predominantly and historically Caucasian. There are some unique opportunities in the sport for minorities,” he remarked.
On Tuesday, Iwuji also gave the youngsters a Black history lesson and the importance of diversity.
“Wendell Scott was the first Black NASCAR driver. He was the pioneer. NASCAR is big on diversity.
It is an inclusion sport and looking for diversity. It was open to me when I decided to get into it. It is also open to girls who can be drivers, pit crew members and other areas of the sport,” he commented.
Iwuji races for Patriot Motor Sports Group. Racing since 2015, he has one top-five finish under his belt.
“I am pretty new to the sport. I haven’t won anything big or gotten to the Daytona 500 yet, but I am getting better and learning each and every day,” he said.
Officer and an athlete
Iwuji said he decided to get into racing after two deployments in the Navy. “I decided that I wanted to pursue motorsports. I always had a passion for cars and motorsports.”
He also was participated in multiple sports before taking up racing. Iwuji played college football as a defensive back and on special teams for the midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy. He ran track and competed in the 60-meter run, 100-yard dash, 200-yard dash and 4×100 relay teams in the Navy.
“I got to play football against big schools like Notre Dame, Ohio State, Army and others. It was fun.”
‘Believe in yourself’
During his visit, Iwuji spoke to the kids on five points. They included: Make a decision; believe in yourself; push forward and activate; never quit and a quote – “Talent gets you in the door but character will keep you there.’’
“Believe in yourself. There will be people that will tell you no, but it doesn’t matter. You must believe in yourself that is when doors will open,” commented Iwuji, who earned his bachelor’s degree in 2010.
He added, “Never let people bring you down. People will always have opinions of you and where you should be.”
“Do something each and every day that will get you closer to your goal,” he continued.
Following his speech, he took the kids outside and showed them his No. 36 purple racing car. He also posed with them and gave away some signed memorabilia.
The kids who attended said they enjoyed Iwuji’s visit.
Kaleb Burton simply said, “It’s cool. He said some encouraging things to us.”
Added Angel Burgess, 9, “It’s cool what he told us. He told us that we can be what we want to be and it’s good to hear grownups tell us things like that.’
‘A great fit’
NASCAR’s Multicultural Development Senior Account Executive Lauren Houston said it was fitting that Iwuji would visit the center during Black History Month.
“We definitely like to promote Black History Month. We also want to promote diversity. We have so many programs that are dedicated toward diversity inclusion, especially in the African-American community,” she said. “With Jessie being here, we definitely want to promote him on the East Coast. He races on the West Coast a lot. It’s a great opportunity for him.’’
She told that Iwuji participated in the News Smyrna Beach Speedway on Feb. 19.
“He wants to get more involved with the Daytona Beach community. We thought that the Boys and Girls Club would be a great fit.”