A Legal Career on the Fast Track
With a lot of drive and determination, Hakeem Onafowokan ’15 landed an internship as a student that put him on the road to be corporate counsel at NASCAR
As corporate counsel for NASCAR, Hakeem Onafowokan ’15 negotiates, drafts, and assists with contracts and agreements on behalf of stock car racing’s sanctioning body—and in that role he relies daily on the problem-solving skills and foundational knowledge he gained at the University of Minnesota Law School.
“Practicing law is a lot of bringing practical solutions to your client,” Onafowokan says. “Working in-house, you have to identify business issues and risks while also identifying the legal issues and then providing pragmatic advice based on your research and understanding of the situation.”
Onafowokan is one of a dozen attorneys in NASCAR’s legal department. He works in NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida, near the iconic Daytona International Speedway, site of the sport’s signature event, the Daytona 500. The Minneapolis native grew up in the northwest Twin Cities suburbs of Brooklyn Park and Maple Grove and graduated from Osseo Senior High.
“Everyone works in specialty fields, but wherever I can help out I’m a team player,” Onafowokan says of his role at NASCAR. “I’m more on the competition-related side— contracts dealing with our various sanctioning bodies.”
That now includes helping to enforce NASCAR’s ban on the Confederate battle flag, which was announced in June. While Onafowokan had no direct involvement in the decision to impose the ban, he says he appreciates the move both professionally and personally.
“Like many across the country, I was extremely excited that NASCAR decided to ban the Confederate flag at its events and our properties,” says Onafowokan, adding that he got calls and messages from relatives and friends who also were happy with the decision. “The ban isn’t closing doors on anyone. We’re making it clear that we’re opening the doors for everyone to be a part of the NASCAR family and experience.”
The Road To NASCAR
Seeking to combine his love of sports and his desire to work in the legal field, Onafowokan went to law school immediately after earning a bachelor of science degree in sports management at the University of Minnesota. He interned in NASCAR’s public and government affairs department after his second year at Minnesota Law and was a law clerk in the company’s legal department after his third year, while studying for the bar exam. He joined NASCAR as corporate counsel in May 2018.
At the Law School, Onafowokan was an engaged student, taking part in the Black Law Students Association and the Sports Law Association, among other activities. The people he met during his Law School experience made a deep impression on him.
“Having great professors and great mentors and great classmates that helped push me to be the best version of myself that I could be, and helped push me to seek opportunities in the areas where I wanted to go—those are some of my fondest memories,” Onafowokan says.
With contracts taking up much of his workday, Onafowokan still relies on material he learned in his 1L Contracts class with former professor Ruth Okediji, who now teaches at Harvard Law School. “The curriculum was challenging, but it’s made me a better lawyer,” he says. “That foundation helps me today.”
Rather than focusing on individual grades and performance, Onafowokan advises law students to learn how to work with others so they can collaborate productively with colleagues, clients, and even opposing counsel when a deal needs to get done.
Motoring Through The Pandemic
The best part of his work at NASCAR, Onafowokan says, is that every day tends to be different. That’s been the case even more since the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to NASCAR’s racing season in March.
The pandemic cut short Onafowokan’s legal work related to one of NASCAR’S major projects—development of its Next Gen race car. The new model was to debut next year, but challenges related to the pandemic have pushed that back to 2022.
Onafowokan’s attention instead has turned to dealing with issues related to races postponed or canceled because of the pandemic at some of the NASCAR-owned tracks that he works with, including renegotiating agreements with sponsors, event services providers, and vendors.
Since NASCAR resumed its race schedule in May, Onafowokan has assisted in making sure events can operate safely during the pandemic.
Reflecting on Racial Justice
Onafowokan, who was born in Minneapolis, found the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of the city’s police “extremely sad, disturbing, and devastating.” He watched the video of the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights, which occurred in 2016 while Onafowokan was working in the Twin Cities. Though he’s heard people speak of Floyd’s cries for his mother and pleas for his life, Onafowokan won’t watch the widely seen video of Floyd’s death.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” he says. “We’re in a special moment in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement. I think right now there’s a national awakening with regards to systemic racism against Black people and people of color…. Hopefully something positive will come from this in Minneapolis and across the country.”