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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Rick Ware Racing acquires NASCAR Cup charter for 2018, will also field ‘open’ car

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Rick Ware Racing (RWR) announced Friday that it has acquired a NASCAR Cup Series charter for the 2018 season.

However, RWR did not identify which Cup team it acquired the charter from.

As a result, RWR will be able to compete full-time in the Cup Series with the No. 51, beginning in the 60th Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018.

The team will also field an “open” team – one that will not have a charter and will have to qualify for every race it enters – sporting the No. 52 car number.

In addition to not identifying where it acquired the Cup charter, RWR is not identifying at this time what manufacturer it will field for either car in the upcoming season.

In a media statement, however, it did say that will be both be building and acquiring cars both during the off-season and in-season, including Chevrolet Camaros, Ford Fusions and Toyota Camrys.

The Thomasville, North Carolina-based organization is also increasing the amount of personnel, updating equipment, adding engineering support on and off the road, as well as upgrading its 20,000-square-foot shop.

The team said it will finalize its driver lineup for both the No. 51 and No. 52 “in the immediate future,” it said in a media release.

Six drivers drove a combined 29 races for RWR in the 2017 NASCAR Cup season: Timmy Hill (9 races), B.J. McLeod (8 races), Cody Ware (5), Ray Black Jr. (3), Kyle Weatherman (2) and Josh Bilicki (2).

The team’s two best finishes were both by Hill: a 28th-place showing at the spring race in Kansas, followed the next week by a 29th-place finish at Charlotte.

The team also entered three Camping World Truck races, with 2 starts by Jordan Anderson and one by Spencer Boyd. It also competed in one Xfinity race.

‘Old dog’ Matt Crafton preparing to make USAC Midget debut Saturday night

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Matt Crafton is proving it’s never too late for to try new things in auto racing.

Crafton, the 41-year-old driver for ThorSport Racing in the Camping World Truck Series, will break new ground Saturday night.

It all started a few months ago over dinner with Jack Irving, the director of team and support services at Toyota Racing Development.

“We were just sitting down, having dinner one night a couple of months ago and thought it would be a great idea for me to drive a midget,” Crafton said last Saturday during the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series awards banquet.

“I didn’t think it was too crazy when (Irving) brought it up,” Crafton said. “At that point, it was just casual conversation. I said ‘Yeah, let’s do it’ and he texted (Keith) Kunz to see if it was okay. Two days later, he told me, ‘Okay, pick where you want to go.’”

Crafton chose Saturday night’s USAC Indoor Junior Knepper 55 in DuQuoin, Illinois, as the place to make his midget debut.

He will make it in a car owned by Keith Kunz Motorsports.

On Dec. 6, the two-time Truck Series champion found himself sitting in a midget for the first time, getting fitted for the dirt car.

“About to find out if you can teach an old dog new tricks,” Crafton later tweeted.

But Crafton has already been fine tuning his dirt racing skills over the last five years. Since 2013, the Truck Series has visited Eldora Speedway, the Tony Stewart-owned dirt track in Rossburg, Ohio.

Crafton has been in every Eldora race, but before 2017 his best finish was eighth in the inaugural event.

Before this season, Crafton decided to really figure out dirt racing.

He and his father worked together to rebuild a Modified dirt car and in the downtime between Truck races, Crafton took it racing.

It worked out quickly, with Crafton coming in second in an event at Volusia Speedway Park in February.

Then in July, Crafton triumphed over Stewart Friesen to win the fifth Eldora Dirt Derby.

“It helped a lot,” Crafton said after the race. “Just learning what the track does. In the years past, I didn’t know what I was looking at to be totally honest. Just kept studying and kept studying.”

That Eldora win was the only victory for the No. 88 ThorSport Racing team in 2017, but it put Crafton in the Truck playoffs.

When the prospect of a midget race was raised to him by Irving, the pursuit of a third Truck title kept Crafton from it until the offseason.

“I wouldn’t say the Eldora win propelled any of this … but it’s definitely opened up some more doors,” Crafton said last weekend. “Now, everyone realizes how much I enjoy it and how much of a racer I am and that I love to race.

“I’ll say it again: I’m a racer. There’s a reason why I race dirt races and do everything that I do, and it’s because I want to go out and race anything and everything I possibly can. That’s why I got my own dirt modified, that’s why I got a go-kart … to be able to perfect road courses and that style of racing as well.”

One of Crafton’s teammates in Saturday’s race will be the defending Truck Series champion and dirt veteran Christopher Bell. Crafton’s also received advice from Chase Briscoe, who drove for Brad Keselowski Racing this season.

“(Briscoe) won’t be my teammate, but he sent me some in-car footage of him racing at DuQuoin and I’ve watched it 10 times, just to see what I can learn,” Crafton said. “I mean, you get about four laps, and then you try to race your way into the main event. There’s gonna be a lot of cars there, so it won’t be easy.”

“I talked to Bell this week, and he has a simulator with the midget on it, so I may go over to his house and run the simulator a little bit and see if I can figure out anything there.”

Crafton said he keeps getting pressured to take his dirt experience one step further and compete in January’s Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But Saturday’s 55-lap race comes first.

“I’d love to give (the Chili Bowl) a shot in the future. But we’ll see,” Crafton said. “I’m going out to DuQuoin to have fun; that’s the main goal.”

Four young Ford NASCAR drivers to compete in IMSA opening weekend at Daytona

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Four of NASCAR’s up-and-coming young stars – all Ford drivers – will get a nearly month’s head start of sorts for the 2018 season opener at Daytona.

A pair of 23-year-olds, Chase Briscoe and Ty Majeski, and 19-year-olds Austin Cindric and Cole Custer will all compete in the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge January 26, part of the Rolex 24 weekend (Jan. 25-28) at Daytona International Speedway.

The four drivers will be mentored by Scott Maxwell, who won the Continental series championship with co-driver Billy Johnson in 2016.

Maxwell will also compete in the event, which will feature the four young drivers being part of a two-car Mustang GT4 team in the GS class. The pairings of which drivers will drive with each other will be announced closer to the four-hour endurance event.

“We have an outstanding group of young drivers coming up and we feel putting them in this kind of environment with Scott Maxwell will benefit them for the rest of their careers,” Ford Performance Motorsports global director Mark Rushbrook said in a media release. “You have to be good on all types of tracks to compete for a NASCAR championship and this will give each of them valuable road course experience in our exciting Mustang GT4 with Multimatic Motorsports.”

Cindric, Briscoe and Majeski were recently named to share driving duties for the No. 60 Ford in the 2018 Xfinity Series for Roush Fenway Racing, in collaboration with Team Penske and Ford Performance.

Custer will enter his second full Xfinity season for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018.

The four drivers plus Maxwell will take part in a three-day test session at DIS from Jan. 5-7.

When asked about how much they’re looking forward to the opportunity, here’s what the five drivers had to say:

CUSTER: “I’m really excited about this opportunity. I’ve never done any endurance racing, but I’m looking forward to having some fun and learning what it’s all about. This is obviously a big race and great way to start the season. Being able to race with the other guys is going to be a lot of fun as well because we’re all pretty much the same age and have a lot in common. I never thought I would get the chance to do something like this, but road course racing has really grown on me. I think it’s fun to learn the different sides of things and this is going to be a chance for me to learn as a driver and make myself better.”

CINDRIC: “For me with my background some of my biggest moments in the early part of my career have been with Multimatic racing Mustangs in the Continental Tire Series, so for me I’m coming home. I come from a different background than the other guys and I think we’re going to have a lot of fun, learn a few things and hopefully bring home some hardware because I know those Mustangs are pretty strong around Daytona. Scott and I have become really good friends and he’s been a big help to me in my career and I look forward to being teammates with him again and having a little fun throughout the weekend.”

BRISCOE: “This is something I certainly never thought I would get an opportunity to do, but I’m super-excited for it. This will be something new and I’m going to do a lot of it this year, so I think it’s going to be a good learning curve. I’ve only run two road courses my entire life and even though we ran decent, I didn’t feel like I ever knew what I was doing. Hopefully, I can get to the point by the end of this year where I know what I’m doing on a road course. Even though I’ll be driving two different kind of race cars, the principals of how you drive and the technique it takes will be something I can learn. I’m also looking forward to having a teammate and competing in an event where both of you have an impact on how well you run.”

MAJESKI: “I have virtually no road course experience at all. I’ve been on one road course my entire life and that was this past summer when I was sent out to the Ford Performance Driving School in Utah. Outside of that, I have not been on a road course, so this will be great for me to get some experience and be around people who know a lot about it. I’m looking forward to working with Chase, Austin and Cole as well. They’re good guys and I’m excited for the opportunity Ford has put in front of us.”

MAXWELL: “The Ford Mustang GT4 has been a great project from the start, and I’m glad to get back in the seat in Daytona. It’s just a fun car to drive. I’m happy to work with the young NASCAR drivers Ford has signed up, too, to help these drivers get acclimated.”

Report: Two race attendees sue NASCAR, Daytona for 2015 Coke Zero 400 crash-related injuries

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Two additional persons have filed suit against NASCAR, International Speedway Corp. and Daytona International Speedway for injuries sustained in a July 2015 race crash, according to a report by ESPN.

Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was involved in a last lap crash that resulted with Dillon’s car flying into the catch fence during the July 2015 Coke Zero 400.

Debris and fluids from Dillon’s car got through the catch fence and impacted several fans in the seating area. One lawsuit has already been settled, and two other men – Florida residents John and Wayne Vanpatten – have now filed suit for injuries they claim they suffered as a result of the crash.

MORE: Austin Dillon talks about Daytona crash on Today show

MORE: 5 fans treated, one at hospital for injuries from Austin Dillon’s airborne crash at Daytona

 

According to the ESPN report, the Vanpatten’s claim they were hit by a toxic fluid from Dillon’s car that was ingested by John Vanpatten and which sprayed onto Wayne Vanpatten’s arm. The men claim they are still recovering from their injuries.

The Vanpatten’s lawsuit falls within the four-year statute of limitations to file such a claim per Florida state law.

According to ESPN, NASCAR, ISC, DIS officials and the Vanpatten’s attorney all did not comment on the suit.