Following retirement from the National Football League (NFL), professional football players go in many different directions. They become analysts on television networks, coaches on the sidelines and entrepreneurs. Shawne Merriman, a former NFL Pro Bowl Linebacker, has chosen to take the entrepreneurial route and his latest adventure will see him serving as car owner for a NASCAR K&N Pro Series race team.
Merriman has joined forces with Patriot Motorsports Group driver Jesse Iwuji for his first venture into motorsports.
Iwuji, an active duty Naval Officer and former football player himself at the Naval Academy, is a favorite amongst fans in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West where, in 2016 he finished 10th in points while racing for PMG.
Iwuji explained that the deal with Merriman came together after a night of networking at a red-carpet fashion show in Los Angeles.
“I met Merriman and he was promoting his clothing brand ‘Lights Out.’ I told him about all the stuff I was doing in NASCAR and being active duty in the Navy and he thought it was cool and we wanted to link up and help get exposure for my racing and for Lights Out,” Iwuji told Speed51.com powered by JEGS.
“We got to talking and figured out it would be a great idea for him to become the car owner of my K&N car so he can be a fresh face in NASCAR. It’s great for him and great exposure for his brand and a great way for him to jump into NASCAR at a smaller level and work his way up, something we all have to do when we enter the sport. He won’t be the first NFL player in NASCAR but it’s always great to bring in fresh faces and get that exposure.”
Merriman says the thing that really attracted him to Iwuji was his drive.
“We spent a long time talking on the phone, but he would drive hours up to my office to talk about the possibilities with NASCAR and Lights Out, and that for me shows me how serious he is,” Merriman stated. “He drove four or five hours to my office, when you have someone dedicated like that it’s great. Jesse is serious about what he is doing, that’s what really attracted me to him and made me want to be a big part of what he is doing.”
Like Merriman had a deep passion for the game of football, Iwuji has a strong passion for stock car racing. That is something that Merriman noticed in his talks with Iwuji, and something that he greatly appreciated.
“When you are able to show me the dedication, love and passion for what you do and you also are willing to go out and work for it, even though you already have talent and skill level to be elite, I was sitting there looking in his eyes and just felt the intensity and how hard he was willing to work there. That’s when I knew he was right for Lights Out and our partnership with NASCAR.”
Merriman, a three-time NFL Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection, was an honorary starter at Auto Club Speedway (CA) during the track’s 2008 Auto Club 500 and that moment is what changed the way he looked at NASCAR.
“I’ve always been a huge fan, the time that really got me hooked was when I was honorary start at Fontana,” he explained. “I knew a few guys like Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon but I went there, about to wave the flag and I hear the engines and I’m standing over the track with a flag in my hand. I was so nervous and excited that I almost dropped the flag.”
Merriman, who earned the nickname “Lights Out” for the hard hits he laid on his opponents, went on to say, “The adrenaline rush for me, seeing how fast the cars go, and the crowd. After that, I was completely hooked, the fans are great.”
While Merriman does have that NASCAR experience, Iwuji says there is still a learning curve for the former NFL star.
“I think Shawne will be leaning on me a lot when it comes to the cars and how they are set up and the day-to-day behind the scenes stuff,” Iwuji said. “There is a steep learning curve but he is a smart guy and has a great business mind. He should be able to pick it up quick but it will be mine and my team’s job to get him up to speed, but it should only be a few races before he is up to speed.”
Merriman has been amazed by how much Iwuji knows and how much information about the cars he has been able to offer up so far.
“You hear him talking, and he gives you all this information. I am like a sponge when it comes to information but he gives you so many details and knows so much about these cars, it’s hard to grasp it the first time around,” Merriman commented. “I’m smart but sometimes he has to break it down for me because he just knows so much about these cars.”
Iwuji went on to say that his team would like to give Merriman the full NASCAR experience, including on pit road.
“We are going to have him on a radio, so he can hear what the crew chiefs are doing, being in the pits, we may even make him an honorary crew member for a few races this year so he can get his hands dirty, something I think he will be excited for.”
Iwuji also says that the football experience he and Merriman have is key to their relationship.
“I think we can relate on a lot of different levels, we both played football, both on defense and we can connect on an athlete level, when two football players sit down together, they have the same type of drive, goals and mindset when it comes to competing and being competitive. “
Merriman hopes to make it out to as many races as possible to support Iwuji, who kicks off his season February 19 in his first NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race, the Jet Tools 150 at New Smyrna Speedway (FL). From there, Iwuji will make his way back to the West Coast for the K&N Pro Series West season opener, March 18 at Tucson Speedway in Arizona.
For more on Lights Out, visit their website at https://www.lightsoutbrand.com/.
-By Reese Nobles, Speed51.com Mid-Atlantic Correspondent – Twitter: @RNoblesSpeed51