Though he is entering NASCAR with a much larger purpose, Emmitt Smith also wants it known that he has the bona fides of a fan.
The NFL’s all-time leading rusher has attended races at Texas and Bristol and counts “Days of Thunder” as one of his favorite movies. His father was “a big NASCAR guy” who collected racing memorabilia.
“Of course, of course, of course,” the Pro Football Hall of Fame running back told NBC Sports with a chuckle when asked if he knew much about stock cars before becoming a partner in the newly formed Jesse Iwuji Motorsports. “I’m from Florida, and I know all about Daytona Beach. I know you call Dale ‘The Man.’ I know a lot about NASCAR.
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“NASCAR is one of those things that obviously is a pastime for a lot of folks, and a lot of folks that don’t look like Jesse and myself.”
Smith is hoping to change that through helping field Iwuji in the Xfinity Series next year. Iwuji, who will become a driver-owner, said Jesse Iwuji Motorsports also will be an “opportunity generating system” intended to bring new faces from untapped areas into NASCAR through team or industry employment.
Iwuji began exploring team ownership two years ago after recognizing the limits of diversifying NASCAR as a driver while also realizing “the sky is the limit” with ownership. He intends to leverage Smith’s brand and fame to spread awareness and attract sponsorship.
One of two Black drivers regularly competing in NASCAR’s national series (along with Bubba Wallace in Cup), Iwuji told NBC Sports that the team planned to make inroads into lower-income communities with eSports and STEM-style initiatives.
“With the assets that we’ll have by being just basically a NASCAR team, we’ll be able to go into those communities and help them get into the sport through some new ways that are emerging right now,” said Iwuji, a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy Reserve who also wants to help service members make the transition to everyday life. “Everyone knows eSports is booming and here to stay. We want to use that as a way to help bring in some folks who are maybe less fortunate and don’t have enough money to train on a go-kart track and buy tires.
“But what if we are able to bring simulators to these folks to have them train on iRacing? Or have schools get involved by being able to use the STEM engineering side of motorsports and have this be an educational thing with kids?
“These are all the ideas we’re working on implementing so that we can create programs for people to get into motorsports. 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. 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.”
Smith said the team’s dual objectives are about Iwuji “fulfilling his dreams and goals but then creating opportunity for others to follow.”
Similar to other high-profile celebrities and sports stars who recently have entered NASCAR team ownership such as NBA legend Michael Jordan, Cuban-American recording artist Pitbull and New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara, Smith credited his involvement in part to a more welcoming environment that spawned from the country’s social justice movement last year.
In moving to diversify its fan base, NASCAR has taken steps such as banning the Confederate flag to make the grandstands of its races more inclusive.
Those moves have dovetailed with other professional sports putting an emphasis on recognizing gender and racial equality.
“It’s funny that it takes something as catastrophic as things we’ve experienced the last couple of years to really wake people up and really have people to analyze the positions they’re in and what they have the capabilities of truly doing in terms of creating opportunities for others,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, it has taken some unfortunate deaths to even bring that to the surface. And when people have been screaming all along that these are barriers and challenges that we all face. So 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.
“And all 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.”
The son of Nigerian immigrants, Iwuji is a native of Carrollton, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, where Smith starred for the Cowboys from 1990-2002 on the way to rushing for 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns over 15 seasons.
They met last year through a company, Notable Live, that was co-founded by Smith and sponsored Iwuji’s Xfinity car at Texas Motor Speedway last October (where Smith also gave the command to start engines with son Elijah).
Iwuji, 34, played free safety for the United States Naval Academy after he began playing football at 8 and wore the No. 22 in honor of Smith.
Welcome to @nascar Mr @EmmittSmith22 🏁 #NotableLive #emmittsmith #Cowboys #NASCAR #NewFaces @TeamBJMcLeod @TXMotorSpeedway pic.twitter.com/R7lN5QNoQP
— Jesse Iwuji (@Jesse_Iwuji) October 22, 2020
“I’ve been following Emmitt since I was a kid, and football was my thing,” said Iwuji, who didn’t start racing until 26. “As a kid living in Dallas, following the Cowboys winning three Super Bowls in the ‘90s, I started playing and told my dad that my position is going to be running back. He told me to watch the Cowboys, watch Emmitt Smith, that’s his position, and that I’m going to be like Emmitt
“Fast forward 26 years, and me and Emmitt are now partnering up to get this NASCAR team going. It’s been such a crazy, interesting circle. When we first met last year, it just clicked, and everything just made sense. Nothing was weird or awkward. It all made sense. We needed to do something big. That’s where we decided starting a team together would be the way to do something big and really make an impact on NASCAR.”
Smith said he was impressed by Iwuji’s ideas, and “it’s my job to help enhance his vision and try to help and assist in making his dreams become a reality.
Did y’all ever think I’d be in NASCAR?! Everyone welcome our newest partner to @notable_live, US Navy Officer & @NASCAR driver @Jesse_iwuji who represents so much in this country. See y’all at @TXMotorSpeedway as I’m giving the “start your engines” command Saturday! pic.twitter.com/YxdHdjHsya
— Emmitt Smith (@EmmittSmith22) October 22, 2020
“It’s the way I look at Roger Staubach, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Jerry Jones,” Emmitt Smith said about his NASCAR partner’s aspirations. “People who have come before you inspire other folks, and when you have the opportunity to align yourself with a young fellow like Jesse and what he’s trying to get accomplished in NASCAR and also penetrate the community through various channels, that’s what motivates me. That’s one reason I want to support him. I want to see him live the best version of his life and maximize his potential in terms of where God has placed him. His calling is different than mine because it’s in NASCAR. But our calling as a society is linked up and aligned, and to watch him grow and be a part of that growth and help build his team to something incredible, I’m ecstatic for what the opportunities are out there for him.
“When you meet a young man that has ambition and goals of breaking through barriers and limitations that we all have faced, and he’s as passionate about what he does as well as I am about what I do, you can’t help but get behind him, and not to mention this is a man that has actually fought for the country and protected our rights.
“And so, quite naturally when it comes to creating opportunities for himself but also understanding the responsibility behind that, creating a legacy for others to follow and giving others an opportunity to fulfill their natural calling, it’s a beautiful thing, a great match in heaven.”
Smith is the son of a bus driver who grew up in a housing project in Pensacola, Florida, and made his way to NFL superstardom despite having limited means in a family of seven who lived in a small apartment.
He is concerned by the dwindling chances for youth to follow a similar path because money and specialization have overrun the road to being a top-caliber athlete.
“Sports has become more commercialized all the way to the youth level to where it has outpriced itself from a public standpoint,” Smith said. “So back in the day of public recreation and YMCA facilities, they were around to serve the public and for the benefit of children who didn’t have places to go. Now it’s become more commercialized to where everything is specialized. You’ve got to get a specialized coach to teach you how to throw a baseball, hit a golf ball or swing a baseball bat. You’ve even got to start in NASCAR with a $100,000 doggone machine, and most people from our culture, the African-American culture, can’t afford a lot of those things. My parents couldn’t afford to have me get skills training from some professional athlete or some guy who understood the ins and outs of how to train.
“The barrier to entry is extremely high when you start thinking about sports these days. The way Jesse described is a complete illustration of having the opportunity for a career path. Some folks might not have the skillset and talent and be the driver. Some folks may have the skillset to be the running back or quarterback or the wide receiver, or the head coach or assistant coach or an equipment manager or trainer. So the pathway to a career is really what people are looking for, and if you’re talking about communities being left behind trying to figure out their career path, having only the streets to find what that might be, and often times, that’s not in the right places.
“So this right here is a gateway to transformative thinking and opportunity for people in the NASCAR space. There are some talented people that may have the same passion and drive as Jesse or myself but don’t know the pathway to get there. What we’re doing from a partnership standpoint creates the opportunity not only for that to happen at the community level but also from a corporate standpoint.”
Iwuji and Smith will be two of four partners with a stake in Jesse Iwuji Motorsports. NASCAR officials confirmed to NBC Sports that there have been recent discussions with the team about obtaining licenses for competition to enter the Xfinity Series in 2022.
The Sports Agency’s Matt Casto, who represents Iwuji and is another of the team’s co-owners, said the team was in “deep talks” with multiple manufacturers and would be announcing its manufacturer, sponsors and a possible team alliance at a later date.
Smith and Iwuji, who worked as an NBC Sports pit reporter last year, discussed the new team (which also has launched a website at jesseiwujimotorsports.com) with NASCAR on NBC analyst and Cup team co-owner Brad Daugherty during the Xfinity prerace show from Michigan International Speedway.
Welcome to @NASCAR, @dallascowboys LEGEND @EmmittSmith22!
Smith talked about the recent partnership with @USNavy Officer @Jesse_Iwuji. pic.twitter.com/qCpvEWIXb9
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) August 21, 2021
“Stay tuned, it’s coming,” Iwuji said when asked about the timeframe for announcing the sponsorship and team structure.
Iwuji plans to be heavily involved with the team’s business affairs but also would have day-to-day help with running Jesse Iwuji Motorsports while he is driving.
“We have different options as far as partnering up with other folks who are going to help,” he said. “I definitely don’t want to do everything. I can only do so much with the other stuff outside the team. Most drivers focus on driving only. I still have four businesses outside this and still am climbing the ranks in the Navy. There’s a lot going on.
“(The team) is going to go in the right direction. I’m excited about it. There definitely are a lot of risks being taken, but I like it. You can’t grow unless you stretch.”
Casto is spearheading sponsorship efforts for Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, and Emmitt Smith said he would be helping the NASCAR team with his corporate connections.
“I will be as involved as the team needs to be,” Smith said. “I know my lane. I know what my responsibilities can be. I know the doors that I may be able to help open up and the opportunities that can be presented to Jesse and the team. I don’t know jack about cars in terms of fixing them.
“I know my role, and I’m proud of it. I’m not trying to take over. I’m trying to enhance it however that may look, whether it’s through relationships or the enhancement of what he and I are trying to do for this team and our respective communities.”
Iwuji served on active duty in the U.S. Navy from 2010-17 and has been driving in NASCAR since 2015. He made 39 starts in the K&N East and West series with a best finish of 10th at Orange Show Speedway in 2016.
He has five starts in the Xfinity Series the past two seasons (most recently a 31st at Pocono Raceway in his lone series start of 2021 to date). Iwuji has 14 starts in the Camping World Truck Series from 2018-21 (with a best of 17th at Texas Motor Speedway in 2019).
He said the team is aiming to make its debut at Daytona next February and run a full season.
“We’re not thinking of anything less,” Iwuji said. “There’s a lot of stuff to put together between now and then, so anything can happen, but we have to set our mind on a full season. If we don’t, we’ll be selling ourselves short.”