CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – There was a poignant interruption during a Monday unveiling of the Xfinity Series Chevrolet co-owned by Jesse Iwuji and Emmitt Smith that will carry a Wendell Scott tribute.
After being acknowledged by moderator and Chevrolet Motorsports vice president Jim Campbell during a news conference at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Wendell Scott’s son Franklin rose and politely asked for a word.
Stepping to the mic, he singled out one of two No. 34 cars that were parked in the museum’s “Great Hall” atrium – and not the black and green Camaro wrapped with the sponsors that Iwuji also will represent as a driver in 2022.
COFFEE WITH KYLE: The life and times of Wendell Scott
Scott instead gestured behind a stage backdrop to an unmarked blue car, which sat below the Glory Road ramp of brightly colored championship cars covered with corporate logos.
This No. 34 was driven by Wendell Scott, who overcame pervasive racism and a persistent lack of funding to enter the NASCAR Hall of Fame as the first African-American driver to win a Cup Series race.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say this sitting there, looking at all the cars in this hall,” said Franklin, one of many family members on his father’s crew. “The only car in here that doesn’t have a sponsor on it is that 34. The only car. My father never had sponsorship, but he reached the pinnacle of his career off determination and guts and perseverance and humility. These are words he taught us to use.
“Jesse, you have an opportunity. Just think what Wendell Scott could have done if he had any of the sponsors on (your) car. Everything we earned went back into the race team and family. He was a great man. So you are following in the footsteps of one of the vanguards of the sport and a giant in the racing world. I just want to encourage you to give yourself patience to learn because you’re not going to learn it all in one year.”
Scott then encouraged an audience that included NASCAR fans to support Iwuji’s rookie season.
“Give him an opportunity because there are going to be detractors,” Scott said. “There are going to be critics. So you have to ignore them and don’t ever let quitting be in the plan.”
Iwuji and his team, which is co-owned by Pro Football Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, vowed they were committed for the long term. They also preached patience in revealing details Monday of their first-year effort that still is ramping up since its assembly began five months ago.
With eventual plans to relocate to the Charlotte or Mooresville area, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports currently is working out of Johnny Davis Motorsports’ shop in Gaffney, South Carolina, and obtaining parts from a few Xfinity teams.
Iwuji said his team has acquired points from JDM to help ensure he makes the Feb. 19 season opener at Daytona International Speedway. The No. 34 that was rolled Monday into the NASCAR Hall of Fame was the car that Iwuji will race on the 2.5-mile oval in less than two weeks. A backup car still was being built.
“We fully expect to be in the race,” said Iwuji, who has made five career Xfinity starts (with a best finish of 23rd) and 15 in the truck series (with a best of 17th). “It’ll be nerve-wracking running Daytona the first time for me in the Xfinity Series. To be in the draft with highly experienced drivers and competing, we’ll be finding our way, figuring out where we fit. It’s going to be tough and won’t be easy, but it’s going to be fun.”
Crew chief Jason Houghtaling said the new team will have the points from the JDM Chevy that finished 26th in the 2021 car owner standings. Engines will be supplied by Hendrick Motorsports.
“I’m not going to say we’ll be a top 10 or top 15 team,” said Houghtaling, a veteran of Cup and Xfinity teams owned by Rick Ware, B.J. McLeod, Carl Long and Mike Harmon. “We’ll finish every race and make every race. We won’t be anything if Jesse doesn’t get experience. His experience is very limited, so our goals and aspirations are to make him better. That’s first and foremost.
“I’ve had to do a lot with a little. I’m very proud of where I came from, and I can help lead these guys and teach them a few things. The Hendrick engine and cars and things they’ve given are a cherry on top for me. It’s going to pay off. My past is definitely going to help me get where we’re trying to go.”
Asked about the team’s expectations in Year 1, Smith immediately replied “Finish,” which Iwuji reaffirmed.
“In order to finish first, you must first finish, so our goal is to finish every race, but as we’re finishing each race, work on slowly progressing to get faster, get better and be more consistent,” said Iwuji, a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy Reserve who is juggling a racing career with his duties in the armed services (he took a redeye from Los Angeles to Monday’s announcement after Navy drills last weekend). “Because we want to find our way into the top 20 consistently. We’re working hard to get that experience. The second time we go to tracks, we’ll be better.”
Said Smith: “We got a late start, but we’re here. As Jesse gets more comfortable around the car and the crew get comfortable with him, then we’ll see where we are. I’m sure if there’s an opportunity to fly to the top, we’ll fly to the top. I’m excited about where we are.”
Dr. Eric Warren, director of NASCAR Programs for General Motors, told NBC Sports that the team would be supported by GM’s new Charlotte Technical Center, which will employ more than 100 engineers when it opens in May. “Us writing a check isn’t going to help a young team like this, but our experience — and I’ve got hundreds of people that have won championships and races on the Chevrolet side — really that’s where our strength is going to be,” Warren told NBC Sports.
Campbell told NBC Sports that Chevrolet wanted “to give a small startup team an opportunity to grow quickly and get their feet underneath them” by helping Iwuji and Smith, who met when Smith was part of a company sponsoring Iwuji’s Xfinity debut at Texas Motor Speedway. Playing youth football in the Dallas suburbs during the late 1990s, Iwuji, 34, wore a No. 22 jersey in honor of the star Cowboys running back.
“Their partnership is amazing,” Campbell said. “It’s going to be a journey. I think it’s going to be Jesse learning a lot about having a consistent car at many tracks he hasn’t been to with a crew that’s supporting him. Previous to this, he had races here and there but didn’t the repetition and consistent support. Emmitt loves performance, but his expectation is that the team’s progression will go up over time. It’s a long season, and they’ll learn a lot and have some ups and downs.”
Houghtaling said he intentionally chose a crew of team members who are eager to learn and “to help push our message.
“We are a bunch of younger guys what want to make people proud,” he said. “We want to do the best we can for our partners and manufacturer, but more importantly, we want to do the best we can for Wendell Scott and his heritage. It’ll be a whole lot different than taking just a number to the track. Now I get to take that number to Daytona, and I’m glad to be a part of it.
This will be the Iwuji’s second affiliation with the number. His ARCA debut at Daytona in 2018 also was in the No. 34, which he raced in four more races.
“With everything Wendell did to pave the way for African-Americans in the future, we just felt it would be fitting,” Iwuji said. “Jumping into Xfinity, we just thought it would be a great opportunity on a bigger stage. Now we have more support and people rooting for us and trying to help us succeed. Why not use this opportunity to inspire others and continue to motivate and bring diversity to the sport with the No. 34, which has had so much meaning with Wendell and everything he’s done for the sport.”
The Scott family has remained active in the NASCAR industry, particularly since Wendell’s 2014 election to the Hall of Fame.
They celebrated Bubba Wallace becoming the first Black driver to win in a NASCAR national series on October 2013 at Martinsville Speedway (just west of the family’s roots in Danville). When Wallace won at Talladega last October to become the first Black winner in the Cup series since Scott, he shared the moment with Frank Scott in a celebratory phone call.
But having an African-American driver behind the wheel of the No. 34 will establish an even stronger connection.
“It is a proper homage to Scott Racing and not just the sacrifices my grandfather put in, but my father as well,” Warrick Scott, Frank’s son and CEO of the Wendell Scott Foundation, told NBC Sports after also attending the Monday announcement. “He’d been working in the pits from such a young age. With what we do at the Wendell Scott Foundation with STEM education, this is what helps push it forward. This is very important to us.”
In honor of Black History Month, the Wendell Scott Foundation will hold its annual legacy gala Feb. 12 at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, awarding scholarships and presenting driver Rajah Carruth with a trailblazer award to highlight increased minority involvement in racing.
Iwuji and Smith also have ambitious plans for their team to be an “opportunity generating system” for diversity by partnering with lower-income communities on eSports and initiatives to further youth interest in science, technology engineering and math (STEM). Campbell said Chevrolet also would be working with Iwuji’s team on hosting STEM events at the track (as the manufacturer has for two decades with the Urban Youth Racing School and more recently with Rev Racing).
“We share that common interest” with the team,” Warrick said. “These things are exactly what it takes to further integrate my grandfather’s legacy into pop culture. It adds an additional layer of connectivity for any driver who’s a minority who comes after him. As Bubba has experienced that, other drivers will experience that oomph to it. A rising tide floats all boats.”
It also could help solve the sponsorship problem that dogged Wendell Scott’s career.
“The world has changed a lot from when we couldn’t get any sponsorship,” Franklin Scott told NBC Sports as he held his left thumb and index finger 6 inches apart. “We’ve got a book at home that thick. We call it the ‘Book of Disappointments.’ It’s filled with letters and interviews from when my father went to Detroit and begged them, ‘Just give me some help.’ Couldn’t get it. Signs of the time.
“We’re living in a different era now. Hopefully, things are better in a lot of ways. And things haven’t changed a lot, too. But we’re just here to encourage (Iwuji) and hope he’s going to do well. I told him don’t expect success overnight. It doesn’t happen like that. Just to be there and participate means a lot.”
The face of NASCAR ownership has begun to change over the past year with Michael Jordan and Pit Bull entering the Cup Series, and Smith said their presence impacted his involvement.
“Of course it did,” he said. “When you know people you can hitch your wagon to and help support, it makes a big difference. Jesse created an opportunity for me to come in and be part of it, and here I am. So I’m excited that NASCAR really has taken a leap of faith as well as creating opportunities for others.
“I think by them doing that, there’s going to be some folks out there that may not agree with it. But that’s OK. They don’t want to change. They want things to stay the same. If you want things to stay the same, you’re going to regress. If you want them to progress, you have to change. Change is something most people are scared about, but in this particular case, change creates opportunities for us to get better. Embrace change, and you can grow, we can grow.
“NASCAR is supporting what we’re doing. I think the country will, too, as well because it’s a sport. You’ve just got a different driver going around the track and trying to compete like any other driver. You’re going to have your favorites. Hopefully, someday we become your favorite. It’s just that simple.”