By Charles Hallman
For nearly 15 years, NASCAR selects college students each summer for its diversity internship program, which intends “to expose multicultural college students to employment opportunities” in a sport that has historically struggled to attract more Blacks and other people of color.
Hakeem Onofowokan, Jr., a third-year University of Minnesota law student, was among 14 students selected for this year’s 10-week paid internships. A school professor encouraged him to apply for it, says Onofowokan in a recent phone interview. He worked in NASCAR’s public affairs office: “I thought it would be a good fit,” he noted.
According to NASCAR officials, the sport “[becoming] more reflective” of the country’s growing diversity is fundamental in order to “maintain the health of the sport.”
Vice-President and Chief Human Resources Officer Paula Miller told the MSR that the internship program is only one aspect of NASCAR’s mission to create “a multicultural pipeline” for Blacks and other people of color to the sport of racing. She added, “Our goal is to find talented folk — Hakeem is one of them — to bring into not only NASCAR but also into the industry, these bright young folk, in the hopes [of] not only developing them and having them contribute to NASCAR and grow while they are here during the summer, but [also for] the very purpose of hiring them” someday for future positions.
Miller says that from the pool of summer interns between three and seven are hired as permanent employees; there have been 250-plus participants since the program’s inception 15 years ago. The internship program “is a very important part of our diversity plan at NASCAR,” said Miller.
Among Onofowokan’s duties this summer were compiling weekly data for federal and state reports, working with active and retired military personnel at races, helping to organize a U.S. Congressional racing event in Washington, and doing legislative research.
“I feel like the day-to-day experience of just being here is a lot different, and I am learning a lot more than I am learning in the classroom at law school,” reported Onofowokan, who is in his final year
at the U of M.
“They [the public affairs department] are very appreciative of his skills and his capabilities and what he’s been able to deliver this summer for NASCAR,” said Miller of Onofowokan. “Our goal is [to] really put him [and his fellow interns] to work, let them experience, grow and develop. The heart of the internship program itself is the work, but there also is networking opportunities.”
Miller pointed out that the internship program’s orientation also included attending a race in Charlotte, N.C. “where [the interns] walk through many aspects of the sport, whether it’s spending time with one of the race team staff, going to our R&D [research and development] center— a great exposure opportunity for them…to really see the sport.”
Onofowokan, a Minneapolis native, says he wanted to combine sports, entertainment and law ever since he was in high school. “I interviewed a lot of executives from the NBA [and] the NFL and I realized some of them had law degrees, and they felt that was necessary for the day-to-day work that they do.”
He noted that today’s current sports landscape and the various issues associated with sports are ideal for him to pursue a sports and law career. His summer spent at NASCAR only enhanced his future career aspirations, he said. “This has given me a whole different perspective…which I can apply in the classroom [and] to future situations.”
The NASCAR Drive for Diversity and Drive for Diversity Crew Member Development programs are two other aspects of the company’s “on-track initiatives,” continued Miller. Darrell Wallace, Jr. last year at age 19 became the first Black to win a national race since Wendell Scott in 1963, and Kyle Larson, an Asian, was 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series rookie of the year. Both men are graduates of these programs. Also, over 10 Blacks and Latinos have been hired as full-time pit crew members after their participation in the diversity program.
“NASCAR is all about the talent,” said Miller, “whether it’s the on-track talent drivers [and] pit crews or inside our company. It’s being sure that we have the widest net to capture the best talent out there and to grow and develop it.”
Onofowokan, who earlier this year was named in the “30 under 30” feature in Sports Launch Magazine, says he’s fully aware of NASCAR’s struggle to attract more Blacks to the sport, but he thinks it’s improving. “I don’t know specifically if they are reaching out in places like Minnesota, but I know they are reaching out to places like St. Louis, which has a big minority population,” he pointed out.
“It’s important for us [at NASCAR] to ensure we reflect America out on the race track equally importantly as inside our company,” said Miller.
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