By Chris Shelton
Three-time Super Bowl champion and serial record-breaker Emmitt Smith recently reentered the competitive world, albeit in a different category and capacity. He partnered with an old college friend who manages an up-and-coming driver in the NASCAR circuit. Jesse Iwuji Motorsports--the organization’s most recently formed team—runs the number 34 Chevrolet Camaro in the Xfinity series.
Some may call this an unlikely pairing, but consider the possibilities it opens up. For starters, the organization is looking to boost its fan base. At the heart of the matter is NASCAR's desire to attract and retain the most-valuable 18-49 demographic. This is not a monolithic issue, and NASCAR has signaled it’s looking at numerous ways to welcome a new generation of motorsports enthusiasts.
Football legend turned NASCAR team owner Emmitt Smith (left) shared his vision for broadening opportunities in motorsports during a 2022 SEMA Show keynote event hosted by "Overhaulin's" Chris Jacobs.
Among them is a greater drive toward inclusion. Only two Black drivers in NASCAR history have ever won a Cup-series event. In fact, the organization can claim only 19 Black drivers in its 75-year history. Five of those are current contenders. And Iwuji is among them.
Moreover, last year NASCAR announced that Black enthusiasts make up only 3.3% of its followers--a figure that’s actually just a little up from a prior 2.7%. In real numbers, 3.3% of NASCAR's fan base translates to 129,000 enthusiasts. If NASCAR could bring that 3.3% up to the national average of 13.6%, it could benefit from another 402,000 pairs of eyeballs. Diversity isn't just good for people; it's good for business.
But Smith isn't in it for any kind of financial gain. (As the joke goes, the surefire way to end up with a $1 million in motorsports is to start with $2 million.) He's in it to break new ground and show enthusiasts that there is a place at the table for everyone. You could call it Smith's stock in trade: Even while still actively playing, he co-founded the Pat and Emmitt Smith Foundation. Over a five-year period, it gave kids from similar upbringings the ability to thrive in a culture that can be hostile.
"I believe limitations are placed upon certain communities," he said during a keynote SEMA Education event hosted by "Overhaulin's" Chris Jacobs at the 2022 SEMA Show in Las Vegas. Smith evoked experiences from his youth, explaining how he and his boyhood pals had to improvise to create what some consider basic resources. "I mean, if you didn't have a basketball hoop, you took the tire off a 20-in. bicycle wheel and knocked the spokes out of it," he recalled. "You nailed it to a tree, and the tree was the backboard. If you wanted to play golf, you hit a tennis ball with a 2x4 into a hole that you dug."
Upon retirement, the master reprised the role of student, soliciting business advice from second-act greats Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. A partnership with Roger Staubach's development connections led to E Smith Communities, a commercial development firm that transforms underserved urban spaces to thriving communities.
"I see [these limitations] a lot more now because I'm in a real-estate space," he says. "I'm also in the technology space. I'm in the construction space. And I see now how certain things have been developed. I see the landscape of America a little bit differently."
This opportunity to be the change he wanted to see in motorsports presented itself in 2021 when Matt Castro--an old college alum that he knew through fellow football pro Reggie Johnson--came calling. "There [was] a race going on at Texas Motor Speedway and they wanted to know if we wanted to sponsor Jesse [Iwuji]," he says. The prospect of giving a Black driver a chance in a historically not-so-diverse field was almost all that Smith needed to hear. That Iwuji wore Smith’s number in high school probably didn't hurt, either.
"He's driven to race cars," Smith says. "Some of the things that were limitations for me that I mentioned earlier, how we improvised with basketball hoops and 2x4s and things like that--Jesse's family couldn’t have afforded to get him into a kart series. Some of these kids are home schooled just so they can drive cars. That was not in the cards for him."
Iwuji and Castro returned after the race. As they explained, NASCAR was looking for diversity partners, and they wanted to know if Smith wanted to play a role. "To see someone [who] has the passion break through this clutter and become a part of a [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)] program for NASCAR is what motivated me," Smith says. "It’s the same thing that motivates me to knock down walls and create opportunities for those who might not have those opportunities or might not [know] that these opportunities even exist.
"Because I'm a firm believer, if you can't see it, you don't even believe that it's achievable," he continues. "Oftentimes, we see people achieving things which sparks interest in us. And oftentimes, we're looking for people that look like us. But if you don’t have representation of that anywhere, you're like, 'Oh, shoot, that's not for me.'
"How many kids know that Bubba Wallace and Jesse Iwuji and others are in NASCAR? A lot of kids may not even know who [Formula 1 phenom] Lewis Hamilton is. But when you know who he is, it becomes, 'Oh, I have the opportunity to do that?' Isn't that the American Dream? It's being able to see something and say, 'I can do it.' If a person says, 'I can,' now that person wants to know how.
"And that's what DEI needs. It represents an opportunity for cross-pollination, and it opens the doors for communication and [the] exchange of information to make you better, to make me better, to make us better as people. That's what collaboration brings: an opportunity for us all to get better. And if we embrace that opportunity, we will get better. We will break down the limitations of fear. Oftentimes, it's the fear of not knowing that holds us back. And fear is one of those things that can paralyze any man or woman.
"The one thing I learned is that no one becomes successful by themselves," he says. [There's] always someone there to help prepare you, to give you the information that you absolutely need when you need it, but also to help you open doors to places that you cannot get into. And if you have a quality person there with you, they might even help mentor you through the process. And so success is there for those who are willing to seek information in various places, but also to seek people who are humble enough to share that information. Because not everybody's willing to share information. There are a lot of proprietary things, and I understand when it comes down to technology and so forth. But some information is free to give, like the information that I’m sharing right now, the thought process, the work ethic, the things that make me who I am.
SEMA President and CEO Mike Spagnola (left) thanked Smith (center) for his keynote presentation at the 2022 SEMA Show, while underscoring SEMA's commitment to fostering an industry marked by diversity and opportunity. Also on stage is Jacobs (right).
"When you start to see how all that stuff works, then you start to believe in something that's greater than you," he says. "Because you put it in the atmosphere that this is what I want to accomplish. So, you're reminded every day, that if you want to accomplish something, you have to get up with the proper attitude, with the proper work ethic and the proper motives, and go out there and make it happen every day and push yourself further than you ever thought you could.
"Today, we call it vision boarding," he says. "You got a vision for this old raggedy car. It starts with how you see that car. And then you put the things in place to make that car turn from this piece of junk to Bumblebee on Transformers. It's that kind of thought process that I used as an athlete to become a professional athlete. And along the way, you meet quality people to help you go beyond just talent.
"For me, I'm putting Jesse there. It's not about me: it's me supporting Jesse and uplifting Jesse and pushing Jesse and being a good partner to Jesse because this is his time. This is his vision that I’m able to attach myself to, to expand selflessly. I want him to be in that car week in and week out. I want to see him go from 34th place down to 15th and down into the Top 10. If he's successful, then the organization becomes successful, regardless of whether I'm in it or not. Because that's what's important: helping him do the things because he has a vision that he wants to see.
"Life itself continues to evolve, no matter who you are," he says. "The question is, when they put you in the ground, what have you accomplished? How have you impacted your community? How have you impacted your industry? How have you impacted people's lives? All of that becomes part of who we are.
"I'm talking about these connections--these spiritual connections. I'm talking about the drive and determination wrapped around purpose. As difficult and challenging as NASCAR is, we have to stay diligent, continue to persevere through challenges that we all face. To get on that track and continue to improve as Jesse Iwuji Motorsports. The organization must continue to improve because [it] can be around a lot longer than Jesse or me.
"And so therefore, taking that leadership role, owning our place, respecting where we are and giving respect where respect is due, and earning the right to be there is really what we're after. And this is just part of that process."
See the Full Presentation
Emmitt Smith's complete interview at the 2022 SEMA Show has been released as a SEMA Education on-demand video series. You can view it at https://bit.ly/Emmitt-Smith-Leadership-Series.