Updated: Aug 31
In sports, athletes are identified by a number, whether it is on their jersey or their vehicle. In most cases, the athletes can choose their numbers, and the number choice has sentimental value. It can be a number you have worn since childhood or a number of your sports hero. In cases where another teammate wears the desired number, players have paid teammates to switch their numbers so the desired one can be worn.
Enter Ernie Francis Jr. and Jesse Iwuji. To the untrained eye, the numbers on their racecar look like regular numbers. However, their numbers are significant to the history of motorsports.
Ernie Francis Jr is an accomplished record-breaking driver. He is a 7x Trans-Am Champion who currently competes in the Indy Lights Championship, driving for the Force Indy Race Team. His car displays the number "99," which holds significant value to motorsports and is why the Force Indy Race Team was created. #99 represents Rajo Jack.
Rajo Jack is one of America's first African American race car drivers. In 1920 he began racing at fairgrounds across the country; he won races up and down the United States West Coast in stock cars, midgets, and motorcycles. However, unfortunately, he was barred from racing in sanctioned American Automobile Association (AAA) events, including the Indy 500, because he was black. His first car wore the number 33, but he raced in a car with #99 in the latter part of his career.
Force Indy Principal Rod Reid stated, "Its important to know where we've come from…African Americans have been in motorsports since the beginning of the car" He continues, "I thought it would be fitting for us to take on that heritage and use the number 99…."
Enter Jesse Iwuji.
Jesse is a former D-1 football player with the Naval Academy, then rose to the ranks of the military as a Lieutenant Commander. He is now the only current driver in all of NASCAR at the national level that actively serves his country as a US Military member. Today he is one of two African Americans competing at NASCAR's national level of racing.
Jesse's racecar has the number 34 on it; this number pays homage to the legendary Wendell Scott. Wendell served in the military during World War II and was one of the first African-American drivers in NASCAR. He was also the first African-American to win a race in the Grand National Series, which was NASCAR's highest level. Wendell Scott endured so much, but he paved the way so racers like Jessie would have the opportunity to compete in professional motorsports. Jesse honors that legacy and continues Wendell's race by being a great role model for youth and adults.
"A decade from now, success for me would be to have this Jesse Iwuji Motor Sports Team a full go in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the NASCAR Cup Series and hopefully even having a full-time truck series, too," Jesse told The American Legion Magazine in an interview. "And bringing this to folks who have never been exposed to it on TV. We want to bring different drivers, different races, different genders. We want to bring in crew members who are from different backgrounds. We want to bring in all different folks, give them the opportunity and see where they take it from there."
Representation matters, and the future of the sport is in good hands with Jesse Iwuji, Ernie Francis Jr & the Force Indy Race Team.