Photo courtesy Jesse Iwuji

Ex-NFL star Shawne Merriman, racer Jesse Iwuji team up in NASCAR K&N effort

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On the football field and in business, former NFL star Shawne Merriman has had an astute eye for talent and opportunity.

So it’s not surprising that Merriman joined forces with NASCAR K&N Pro Series West driver Jesse Iwuji.

A chance meeting with Iwuji at a recent fashion show in Los Angeles promoting Merriman’s “Lights Out” clothing line led Merriman to becoming Iwuji’s car owner.

“Talk about unexpected, right?” Merriman, a three-time NFL Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection, told NBC Sports.

“I didn’t realize Shawne was going to be there,” Iwuji told NBC Sports. “I had never met him before, but I thought this would be a cool opportunity to introduce myself to him, tell him what I’m doing and see if there’s any interest in him to come on board.

Shawne Merriman
Shawne Merriman

“He told me to have a meeting the next week.”

Iwuji made the 10-hour round trip to Los Angeles to meet with Merriman.

“He saw how serious I was,” Iwuji said.

His drive and passion on and off the racetrack are evident. While Iwuji’s business proposal to Merriman was unique, it was his personality that sold Merriman.

“Jesse’s focused, just talking about ‘Lights Out,’ a future with him and what he has going on,” Merriman said. “At that point, I was so intrigued by his hunger, being focused. It gets me excited when other people get excited about being part of ‘Lights Out’ and the stuff we’re doing.”

The new driver-owner pairing kicks off with Sunday’s K&N Pro Series East opener at New Smyrna Speedway.

“Jesse is growing his notoriety and who he is in NASCAR,” Merriman said. “I love to start with people from the ground up. It’s so easy to come in and get a guy who’s already established and be a part of something, that’s easy. I like to be a part of the building stages, and that’s what Jesse is right now. He’s a tremendous talent coming up in NASCAR and I’m real happy to be part of it.”

After New Smyrna, Iwuji prepares for his second full 14-race season in K&N West. As a rookie in 2016, he finished 10th in the series, with his best race result a 10th-place effort.

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Photo courtesy Jesse Iwuji Racing

It’s not hard to understand why Merriman and Iwuji bonded so quickly. They’re both former football players: Merriman was a linebacker at the University of Maryland and then eight years in the NFL; Iwuji played cornerback and ran track at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Both also have a military lineage of sorts. Iwuji is an active-duty lieutenant in the Navy and serves as an administrator at the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterrey, California.

Merriman spent considerable time visiting military bases around San Diego during his five-plus years with the NFL’s Chargers.

The son of Nigerian parents who immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s, the 29-year-old Iwuji is a native of Carrollton, Texas, a Dallas suburb.

While he’s been a lifelong motorsports fan, Iwuji didn’t get into active NASCAR competition until 2014.

“I did drag racing and road course racing for four years before I decided to pursue a racing career,” he said. “NASCAR was the first door that opened for me for that and I decided to jump on board, and I’ve never looked back.”

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This will be Iwuji’s second season with Patriot Motorsports Group, an Eagle, Idaho firm owned by John Wood. The team fields cars for as many as nine different drivers over the course of a season.

But Iwuji plans to become principal owner of the team next year. His enlistment in the Navy, which began in 2010, ends in May, when he’ll transition to the Naval Reserves. Doing so will allow him even more time to pursue his racing dreams.

“I basically don’t have a life outside of racing and the Navy,” Iwuji laughed. “My normal Navy job, I’m at work from 8 to 4 p.m., and then I spend three hours at home on my racing simulator to keep myself sharp racing, and then I spend another 4-5 hours every night working on marketing and promoting myself and my team.”

The Navy may be in Iwuji’s future as a potential sponsor, as well.

“I am currently working it, trying my best to put it all together and get the Navy on board,” Iwuji said. “NASCAR has never had an active-duty armed forces member ever compete in NASCAR and I know the Navy used to be a sponsor of a car in NASCAR.

“So why not come back in, use what I’m doing as a recruiting tool and outreach tool for the Navy and become a sponsor? That will help propel me while also helping the Navy bring in recruits and promote the Navy in a positive way.”

Some branches of the military have scaled back sponsorship of sports, particularly motorsports, due to Congressional pressure. Example: the National Guard pulled its sponsorship of Dale Earnhardt Jr. after the 2015 season.

Still, the Air Force remains an associate sponsor of Richard Petty Motorsports, and also will serve as primary sponsor of  the No. 43 Ford Fusion for two races this season.

Iwuji and Merriman also like the idea of using their combined racing and business platform to expand NASCAR’s diversity reach.

“We’re all about giving opportunities to new types of people who never would have had the opportunity to be in this sport and in NASCAR and to be able to do some of the great things that a few are able to do in this sport,” Iwuji said.

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Jesse Iwuji — photo courtesy Jesse Iwuji Racing

Added Merriman, “Bringing diversity into any sport is really going to open up the eyes of people who wouldn’t necessarily have any other direct involvement with it.

“Imagine a 12-year-old Shawne Merriman gets a chance to go to a NASCAR race and sees the excitement of what goes on there. Shawne Merriman could have been a NASCAR driver if he hadn’t ended up being a football player.”

Iwuji hopes to start climbing the NASCAR ladder in the next year or two.

“I know I have a long way to go since I haven’t been racing my whole life,” Iwuji said.“I’m still trying to catch up to all the guys that have been racing since they were five years old.

“But I have had some good runs, some good races and I’ve shown myself that I have the ability, I just need more seat time to hone my skills and get better and fine-tune some things so that I’ll eventually get there.

“I’m patient enough to make it happen and do see myself one day getting to where I want to be.”

Merriman, 32, is a long-time racing fan. He’s friends with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and in 2008 was grand marshal for the NASCAR Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in California. If things go the way Iwuji hopes, Merriman will be right alongside on the climb up the NASCAR ladder.

“No question about it,” Merriman said. “It’s what I call the groundwork of getting from where you are to where you want to go because there’s no easy path there. He has great knowledge about cars and what he’s doing.

“It’s like watching a football film about how to get a sack, to get to the quarterback. You line up, get to a three-point stance and then look everything on both sides of the ball. You get very detailed about your passion and what you love doing. If you talk to Jesse about the same thing, he’ll break down everything from every tire, axle to piece of machinery. He gets deep with it.”

It’s all about passion, motivation and drive – both on and off the race track, says Iwuji.

“I’m just working hard, grinding every single day,” he said. “Eventually, I’ll get to where I want to be. I just have to keep my head down and keep pushing.”

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NASCAR America teaming up with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

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Wednesday will mark the beginning of a new relationship between NASCAR America and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Every Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. ET, a NASCAR on NBC personality will appear on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive,” which is hosted by Pete Pistone and Mike Bagley.

Analyst Steve Letarte will be the first guest.

Pistone will also make regular appearances on NASCAR America.

Pistone joined NASCAR America Tuesday night to preview the new relationship and the storylines heading into the second half of the NASCAR season.

The main theme of the discussion was the building frustration for Joe Gibbs Racing, which is winless through 16 races. Though the driver getting the most attention has been Kyle Busch, there’s three other drivers who are looking to win, including Denny Hamlin.

“We had his crew chief Mike Wheeler on the ‘Morning Drive’ last week and the frustration, you can feel it there,” Pistone said. “They also felt a bit optimistic, especially going to Sonoma because he runs so well there, he ran so well and almost won the race last year until Tony Stewart got him on the last lap. … I still think there’s optimism there in the 11 camp, they’re finding the speed they’ve been missing so far in the first half of the year. The next race at Daytona could be the place you see Denny Hamlin bust down the door to victory lane.”

Watch the above video for more from Pete Pistone.

NASCAR America: Sprint racing keeps Kyle Larson in shape for NASCAR

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Kyle Larson is in the midst of his best NASCAR Cup Season to date. He leads the points standings and has two wins, at Auto Club Speedway and Michigan Speedway.

You might be able to attribute his hot streak to another form of racing.

Larson, a product of the dirt racing circuit, told NASCAR America’s Marty Snider the 25 sprint car races he’s allowed to drive in each year by Chip Ganassi Racing keep him on his toes physically.

“I’ve gotten a little bit into working out this year, I’d rather race to get my exercise in,” Larson said. “Racing to me is fun, but also exercise and it keeps your mind in it. You’re putting yourself in more racing situations than everybody else in the field. I think it definitely benefits me.”

Larson maybe spent by this time next week. Following Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona (at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC), Larson will compete in four straight days of sprint cars race in Pennsylvania.

The Ganassi driver goes to Daytona looking to finish what he started in the Daytona 500. He was leading at the white flag before he ran out of gas in Turns 1 and 2.

“It’s difficult, it’s a long race,” Larson said. “There’s so much that goes on throughout the race, it’s hard to catch on TV. But we’re figuring it out all it in the car and learning who is good to work with and who is not. It’s interesting. It’s definitely a different style of racing I’m getting used to.”

Larson’s best finish in at Daytona was sixth place in last year’s July race.

Watch the above video for the full interview.

 

NASCAR America: Scan All: Anger and miscommunication at Sonoma Raceway

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Some people like to call road courses the new short tracks in NASCAR and at the end of Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma, many cars backed up that assessment.

When there’s beat up cars, that means tempers flared, which makes for an interesting edition of NASCAR America’s Scan All. This week’s version gives you some of the best scanner traffic from Kevin Harvick‘s win at the California track.

Highlights include:

  • Israeli-born driver Alon Day, making his Cup debut, telling crew chief Randy Cox he can’t understand his accent. “You have to talk a bit slower so I can understand every word.”
  • “I needed a lot more help on that. The spotter doesn’t tell me ****.” – Danica Patrick after her Lap 14 accident with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  • “We’ve got your in-car camera here. That was fun to watch. A little scary, but fun to watch.” – Crew chief Ernie Cope to AJ Allmendinger after he went from 11th to first in one lap on a restart.
  • “This year just could not get any better,” the sarcastic response of Kyle Busch to receiving a pit road speeding penalty.

Watch the above video for more from Scan All.

The Ragged Edge: ‘Days of Thunder’ celebrates 27 years

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Back in the yesteryear of 1986, Paramount Pictures released a little movie called Top Gun.

Directed by Tony Scott and starring a young actor named Tom Cruise, the movie depicted a hot-shot, hard-headed fighter pilot named Pete “Maverick” Mitchell who competed for supremacy at an aviation school against a rival nicknamed “Ice Man.”

Backed by the sounds of Kenny Loggins, the Righteous Brothers and Cheap Trick, the two rivals clashed in the skies and on volleyball courts, all while Maverick flirted with a his female instructor, ‎Kelly McGillis’ “Charlie.”

The movie made a lot of money.

Three years later, they made the same movie … sort of. This time, Cruise was piloting stock cars in the world of NASCAR.

Twenty-seven years ago today, Days of Thunder roared into theaters on matched perfect and staggered special tires.

Once again directed by Scott and with the same golden color palate from Top Gun, Cruise portrayed Cole Trickle as he faced off with Michael Rooker’s Rowdy Burns, clashed egos with Robert Duvall’s Harry Hogge and did some more flirting, this time with his doctor, played by Nicole Kidman.

It didn’t make a lot of money, grossing $82 million domestically to Top Gun‘s $176 million.

But who cares?

Almost 30 years later, it’s still the closest fictional representation of NASCAR that’s ever graced the silver screen (we don’t need to mention a certain Will Farrell movie).

Was it completely faithful to stock-car racing?

Of course not, especially since there’s nothin’ stock about a stock car.

Did it have a have bizarre editing that made it look like a race was taking place at Daytona, Darlington and another track at the same time?

You betcha’.

Did the late Bobby Hamilton make his first Cup start driving a car used in the movie?

It’s true! Hamilton qualified third at Phoenix in the No. 51 Chevrolet owned by Hendrick Motorsports and even led five laps.

As absurd as the move could get, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel gave the movie a positive review. Decades later, Days of Thunder had enough authenticity to have an impact on those in the sport today.

“Makes you feel old, doesn’t it?” Dale Earnhardt Jr. told the New York Times in 2010, the movie’s 20th anniversary. “It was interesting to see our sport be put into the mainstream and be a part of that. I think it did a lot for our sport to be honest with you even though the critics weren’t solid on the movie and lot of people had different opinions about it. It got our sport a lot of exposure. The movie was fun to watch, regardless of whether it’s good or not.”

 (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)

Four years ago, Kurt Busch paid tribute to the movie by racing one of the paint scheme’s from the movie in the July Xfinity race at Daytona.

Then there’s his brother, Kyle.

Kyle Busch goes by the nickname “Rowdy,” which was the name of Rooker’s character in the movie.

Two years ago, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, his crew chief Adam Stevens, Joe Gibbs and Busch’s wife, Samantha, put their best foot forward for a recreation of the Days of Thunder trailer to promote the Crispy line of M&M’s.

Though in this video, Busch assumed the Cole Trickle role.

He’s no Tom Cruise.

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