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NASCAR driver, servicemember Jesse Iwuji helps family escape minivan fire

NASCAR driver and U.S. Navy Lt. Jesse Iwuji really didn’t think twice. He saw a small flame and a family that might need help, so he instinctively turned onto the shoulder of the interstate and took action.

Minutes later, that small flame had turned into a full-fledged inferno, with the fire department needed to put the flames out of the charred, melted minivan. The family of four that had been inside when Iwuji pulled over? Totally safe, a good distance away, thanks to Iwjui’s direction.

“I was just doing what I think was the right thing to do,” Iwuji told NASCAR.com by phone.

The incident happened Sunday, with Iwuji near the end of his six-hour drive home from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Sonoma Raceway.

THROWBACK: Iwuji on GarageCam

He was cruising through the Grapevine, California, area on Interstate 5 and noticed a minivan stopped on the side of the road. He noticed the family. He noticed a “small little fire, like a couple of candles or so” coming from underneath.

Something seemed ominous, especially when Iwuji noticed the slight smoke starting to rise. And Iwuji, with 38 combined starts in the K&N Pro Series East and West, has been around race cars enough to know about combustibility.

“As I was walking toward them I noticed that fire underneath was getting just a little bit bigger,” Iwuji said. “Just being around race cars and things that can catch on fire, I knew that something like this just doesn’t slowly become a big fire.

“It can quickly ignite and become a bad situation really quick.”

Iwuji ushered the family – parents, and two children – away from the van. He said he had to practically pull the father out, who was trying to get every item out of the vehicle that he could.

“We got away and just right after that, the engine just burst into flames,” Iwuji said. “From there, it then went into the front seat, then into the back seat, then it got to the fuel cell area and the whole thing erupted.”

You can see video of that eruption on a video Iwuji posted to his Twitter handle. It’s an unsettling scene, but one Iwuji thought was important to broadcast to his followers for a couple of reasons.

One, it shows how quickly things can get bad when fire is involved. Iwuji lives less than eight miles from the origin point of the 2017 Ventura wildfires, which burned more than 200,000 acres, so he’s seen firsthand how fire can spread quickly in dry and dusty California.

The second reason stemmed from Iwuji’s cognizance that he was the only one who stopped when he noticed a potentially dangerous situation.

“Don’t be a passerby,” Iwuji said. “Go help if you see something wrong. Don’t just drive by with your cell phone and record it; stop and help. That was the main reason, to really show people that you can do your small part. It has nothing to do with trying to be a hero or anything like that. You just do the right thing.

“The whole thing was pretty crazy. I’m just glad I was able to stop and help them out, and help them get away and just doing my little part.”

It’s perhaps fitting that Iwuji’s act occurred during NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Cola, a collective expression of reverence, respect and gratitude for those who served and continue to defend America today.

RELATED: More on NASCAR Salutes

Iwuji continues to serve in the U.S. Navy while he pursues his driving career. His time as a servicemember created the foundation of his desire to help in such situations.

“I think (being in the service) has a lot to do with it,” Iwuji said, explaining why he stopped. “It just becomes second nature. I’ve noticed any time there’s ever any situation on the side of the road that could be a dangerous situation, I don’t even have to think twice. I just stop and see what I can do to help. I just try to do my part.”