From team owners like Michael Jordan and Pitbull to investors and personnel like Alvin Kamara, the NASCAR world has seen a rise in industry newcomers with decorated backgrounds in their respective as the 2020s were ushered in. For the 2022 Xfinity Series season, Emmitt Smith will be the newest such figure to dip his feet into the stock car racing world. On Saturday, Jesse Iwuji announced the formation of Jesse Iwuji Motorsports with Smith, and the namesake will be owner/driver for the full season in 2022.
Details about the operation such as a number and manufacturer were not immediately revealed. NBC Sports reported the team will be run by four owners; besides Iwuji and Smith, the former’s agent Matt Castro is also in the group.
In October 2020, Iwuji’s Xfinity car at Texas was sponsored by Notable.Live, a company founded by Smith that helps fans connect with celebrities. Smith, who holds the National Football League‘s all-time rushing yards record, and Iwuji are intertwined via their ties to Texas as Smith spent much of his Pro Football Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys while Iwuji is a native of nearby Carrollton. Iwuji also played football growing up, including at the United States Naval Academy, though on the opposite side of the ball as a safety.
Smith is not the first Cowboys great to try his hand at NASCAR ownership. In 2006, quarterbacks Roger Staubach (a Naval Academy alumnus) and Troy Aikman (who won three Super Bowls alongside Smith) formed Hall of Fame Racing which raced in the Cup Series until 2009, though the two sold off their stakes after two years. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones expressed interest in running a Cup team in the early 2000s and even wanted to hire Jeff Gordon as driver prior to him signing a lifetime contract with Hendrick Motorsports.
Iwuji has five career Xfinity starts dating back to 2020, with his lone run in 2021 so far being a thirty-first at Pocono in June for Mike Harmon Racing. His best finish in the series is twenty-third at the aforementioned Texas race. He has also made fourteen runs in the Camping World Truck Series with a highest finish of seventeen at Texas in 2019. During his stint in what is now the ARCA Menards Series East and West between 2015 and 2018, his car owner was former NFL linebacker Shawne Merriman.
While his results have not produced much success, especially as he has been in inferior equipment for much of his career, Iwuji has established himself as a strong marketer and bridge between the NASCAR and military worlds. An active duty officer in the Navy from 2010 to 2017 now serving in the Navy Reserve, he is often tasked with spearheading NASCAR’s military-related programmes. In April, he participated in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series‘ Talladega race with a simulator situated at the Naval Academy’s Dahlgren Hall, which was originally the school’s armory and has since served numerous other purposes.
Iwuji also hopes to turn his team into an opportunity for disadvantaged communities to enter the motorsports world. Speaking with NBC Sports, he explained the operation also plans to provide gateways for such groups such as esports and STEM.
“We know not everyone wants to be a driver. Some want to be crew chiefs, some just want to be on the marketing side, some people want to be on the HR side,” said Iwuji. “Whatever it is, we want to create that pipeline that allows people to at least get a taste because we have the assets to make it happen.”
Developing a pipeline for marginalised populations through STEM education is a concept also championed by Trackhouse Racing Team, a Cup stable co-owned by Pitbull. Pitbull and Smith, along with Jordan of 23XI Racing, are minorities and within a trend of increasing racial diversity in the NASCAR world. Kamara, an NFL running back like Smith, is employed by NASCAR as Growth and Engagement Advisor and has sponsored Xfinity driver Ryan Vargas, while fellow back Antonio Williams is an advisor to Xfinity racer Joe Graf Jr. Although NASCAR has aimed to push inclusiveness for decades with efforts like the Drive for Diversity, recent developments such as the Confederate flag ban in the wake of racial justice protests last year and the sanctioning body’s partnership with the LGBTQ+ organisation Trevor Project have enabled for especially strong progress to be made.
“Now that the opportunity has presented itself, whether NASCAR or the NFL or any other sport or Corporate America, the opportunity to engage with minority entities and minority companies is vast,” Smith told NBC.
“[A]ll people are asking for is an opportunity to even prove themselves. That’s all Jesse is asking for is an opportunity to prove himself and prove he belongs at this level. So this is another way to continue to expand and penetrate communities through an individual like Jesse and the team we’ve assembled together to really spread awareness and create hope for others.”