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Sports Saturday

NASCAR driver Jesse Iwuji gives fallen military hero places of honor on his vehicles

Iwuji races for a higher cause.

Jesse Iwuji and Pam Toppen, Army Pvt. Aaron Toppen’s mother, hold a picture of Aaron.
Jesse Iwuji and Pam Toppen, Army Pvt. Aaron Toppen’s mother, hold a picture of Aaron.
Pam Toppen

Jesse Iwuji represented more than himself and his sponsors during the 2019 NASCAR Ultimate Summer Festival weekend at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet.

To honor Army Pvt. Aaron Toppen, Iwuji had Toppen’s mom, Pam, serve as an honorary pit crew member during his race Friday.

Aaron was from Mokena and was one of five American soldiers killed in a friendly fire airstrike in southern Afghanistan in June 2014. He went to a NASCAR race as a fan before being deployed.

As an active duty member in the Navy from 2010-17 who currently in the reserves, Iwuji said honoring military members who are no longer alive is something he loves to do with his platform.

”It’s important to me because I have friends who I went to the Naval Academy with who aren’t with us anymore,” Iwuji said. “I have lost people who are very close to me in the service. So anytime I get a chance to get back in that way, I try to do it.”

Iwuji had “Our Fallen Hero Foundation in Memory of PFC Aaron Toppen” — a foundation Aaron’s family and friends of Aaron established in the spring of 2018 — on his car’s foundation deck lid during Friday’s NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series.

The foundation’s mission is to “honor and support our country by providing emotional and financial means to our veterans, active military personnel, their families, and the community.”

The race marked the second time Iwuji honored Aaron in the past year. During last year’s ARCA Racing Series — with the help of his major sponsor, BBMC Mortgage — Iwuji competed with Aaron’s and the foundation’s names on the hood of his car.

A friend of Pam’s joked after the races that Pam wanted the hood. Iwuji didn’t own the car, but he wrote a personal check for it as a gift to Pam in honor of her son.

Jesse Iwuji gives Pam Toppen the hood of his car after the 2018 ARCA Racing Series.
Jesse Iwuji gives Pam Toppen the hood of his car after the 2018 ARCA Racing Series.
Pam Toppen

Pam said she thought last year would be the end of her family working with Iwuji, leading to an even greater surprise for this year.

”It was a great feeling, but life goes on and he’s only out here like once a year for the military weekend,” Pam said. “I got a call from his manager and he said, ‘we want to be a platform for your foundation’ and that brought more tears to my eyes. This is going to be a friendship for life.”

Iwuji hasn’t won an event since starting his professional racing career in 2015. He said before Friday that winning his first race while honoring Aaron and the foundation would be “epic in a lot of different ways.”

Even though he didn’t pick up the victory on the track, Iwuji’s impact on the military, military families and the lives he touches will have a greater impact than his accomplishments on the track.

”Winning or not winning, it’s all good,” Pam said.