NASCAR and Monster Mile Give Voice to Autism SpeaksBy Mary Jo Buchanan
There is no doubt that one of NASCAR’s greatest charitable partnerships has been with Dover International Speedway and Autism Speaks, an organization devoted to helping those impacted by autism. But with the diagnosis on the rise, including one in 88 children affected, NASCAR and the Monster Mile have helped Autism Speaks find an even stronger voice.
Although Dover International Speedway forged the partnership with Autism Speaks seven years ago, this year marked the third straight year FedEx joined the effort to team up with the speedway and Autism Speaks. The track hosted multiple charity auctions and a track walk to benefit the NASCAR Foundation and Autism Speaks, which raised money for the cause.
The Monster Mile even created a program that has all of the race participants sporting the Autism Speaks decal, which has brought huge awareness to the cause.
But even more important has been the awareness raised by the NASCAR community and Dover International Speedway over the years of the partnership with Autism Speaks. And for many in the NASCAR community, that awareness has been very personal.
“I have an 18 year old son with autism who talks about NASCAR all the time,” Artie Kempner, Coordinating Director of NASCAR on Fox, said. “This partnership between NASCAR, Dover International Speedway and Autism Speaks came together in 2007.”
“When FedEx came on board, it’s just grown,” Kempner continued. “The awareness is that much greater.”
“Autism is not a foreign word to them,” Kempner said. “Families know autism is not a hopeless situation.”
“To be involved with NASCAR is phenomenal because this community gets behind these types of causes,” Kempner continued. “There is no better sport for community involvement like this than NASCAR.”
For NASCAR driver Jamie McMurray, increasing awareness using his NASCAR celebrity is also critical. In fact, McMurray currently stars in an Autism Speaks and Ad Council Public Service Announcement campaign for the cause.
“My niece is 15 years old now and is affected by autism,” McMurray said. “My Foundation has done what we can to create awareness and I will continue work hard for the cause.”
One of the most significant impacts that NASCAR has made in partnership with Autism Speaks is in the area of advocacy. In fact, the organization is currently working on new laws throughout the country thanks to a NASCAR connection with Lori Unumb, who was the 2012 Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award winner and now serves as the VP of State Government Affairs for Autism Speaks
“My oldest child Ryan, who is twelve, is severely affected by autism,” Unumb said. “To help his situation, I wrote a law, called Ryan’s law, to require health insurance coverage for children with autism.”
“The law was passed in South Carolina and Autism Speaks brought me on board to help replicate that law in all fifty states,” Unumb continued. So, that’s what I do now in trying to pass that law.”
Unumb credits her work and the partnership with NASCAR as being able to open many more legislative doors.
“When you go into a state legislature for a new law, years ago you had to start with what is autism,” Unumb said. “These days, when I go into the state legislature, everyone knows what autism is.”
“That makes it easier to focus on what do we need to do to remedy this problem,” Unumb continued. “NASCAR has done so much autism awareness and that has been immensely helpful in my advocacy work.”
Unumb is also most appreciative of not only the exposure that her NASCAR award has brought but also for the financial impact it has had on her work.
“It’s hard to express the impact of the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award on my life,” Unumb said. “My husband and I founded an autism academy which was the recipient of a $100,000 charitable donation from the NASCAR Foundation.”
“The financial impact alone has been incredible but more than that, I’ve had a continuing relationship with NASCAR,” Unumb continued. “The platform the sport has raised for autism awareness has been incredible.”
“I encourage others to apply for this award.”
But perhaps the best part of the partnership with Autism Speaks is the model program developed by Dover International Speedway at track that is now being used in many other sports venues. The Monster Mile has pioneered a quiet zone where children and young adults can come and enjoy the race without having sensory overload.
“The great thing for Ethan is that he will be in an environment where he will be able to handle all the stimulus at the track,” Kempner said. “A lot of kids with autism have issues with sensory situations so this is an environment that is created for them and their families.”
“This environment is so welcoming,” Kempner continued. “This really worked last year and we doubled the number of families that have participated.”
Lisa Goring, VP of Family Services for Autism Speaks, agreed that the special area developed by the speedway for the group makes all the difference as to whether or not kids and families can attend events like this.
“NASCAR and Dover are so welcoming to our families,” Goring said. “The sensory friendly room at the track made the race accessible to the whole family and to kids with autism.”
“It is a personal issue for me too as my youngest Andrew, who is 16 years old, has autism,” Goring continued. “NASCAR is a sport that is so inviting and inclusive of families.”
“So, to have that opportunity to enjoy the sport here at the Monster Mile with my family is really what it is all about.”
The initiative at the speedway has been so innovative and inclusive of those with autism that other sports have begun to replicate their efforts.
“This model of the quiet zones has worked well with other leagues,” Alec Elbert, Chief Strategy and Development Officer for Autism Speaks, said. “We used the model in major league baseball where we had a quiet area for Autism Speaks in each of the thirty parks and that is still ongoing.”
“It really helps to give the families a way to come out and see the event.”
“We have the opportunity to change the landscape for millions of families around the world,” Elbert continued. “This is an amazing program with the entire NASCAR community.”
“It’s a once in a lifetime partnership between Autism Speaks, Dover International Speedway and NASCAR,” Elbert said. “It’s unparalleled.”
“When they see the needs and then the pure joy of the kids who love NASCAR racing, everyone involved is so committed,” Elbert continued. “The looks on these kids’ faces are priceless.”
“NASCAR, the Monster Mile, and Autism Speaks working together is a real gift.”