A day at the races for Autism Speaks

NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader Kevin Harvick’s crew watches over his No.  4 Chevrplet with its Autism Speaks sticker, far right, on his driver’s side door. (Delaware State News photo by Dave Chambers)

NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader Kevin Harvick’s crew watches over his No. 4 Chevrplet with its Autism Speaks sticker, far right, on his driver’s side door. (Delaware State News photo by Dave Chambers)

DOVER — For the fifth year, Dover International Speedway is partnering with FedEx and Autism Speaks for the “FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.

A decade and a half ago, Dover Motorsports President and CEO Denis McGlynn, Mark Rossi, speedway vice president of sales and marketing, and Artie Kempner, coordinating producer for NASCAR on Fox, began working together for the biannual NASCAR races at Dover.

It was Mr. Kempner’s involvement in another organization — Autism Delaware — that piqued Dover’s interest.

“Denis and Mark first approached me in 2005 about doing something with Autism Delaware to spread awareness so nine years ago we started working together just to spread awareness and raise a little money,” Mr. Kempner said.

“But I never thought we’d get here, with Autism Speaks as the beneficiary of the race.”

Mr. Kempner is the founder of Autism Delaware and a board member of Autism Speaks. The speedway officially added Autism Speaks as the beneficiary of the first of its two annual Sprint Cup races in 2011.

The FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks begins at 1 p.m. Sunday. Pre-race activities start at 11:15 a.m. Visit www.doverspeedway.com for ticket information.

“When our partnership started, it was the first of its kind,” Mr. Kempner said. “Before we teamed up, there wasn’t a charity initiative from NASCAR like it.”

The Furniture Row No. 78, driven by Martin Truex Jr., is also one of the cars with an Autism Speaks sticker.

The Furniture Row No. 78, driven by Martin Truex Jr., is also one of the cars with an Autism Speaks sticker.

Mr. Kempner credits Mr. Rossi with solidifying the partnership.

“He’s a guy that likes to support the community and he brings that to the speedway,” Mr. Kempner said. “He was the driving force behind this and it’s remarkable how far he’s been able to get us.”

“About a decade ago, I just got into a conversation with Artie about autism,” Mr. Rossi said. “I had heard about it before but didn’t know what it was or how it worked but I wanted to learn more because I knew an employee had a son with it.

“After what I learned, I realized we needed to find an opportunity to get out not only awareness about autism but also the services and opportunities available to those with autism or a family member with it,” he said.

The partnership with Autism Speaks doesn’t only increase awareness and raise money, it also gives families and individuals on the autism spectrum the chance to enjoy a NASCAR race in ways never available to them before.

A special ticket package called Autism Speaks Day at the Races is available to these families. This is the package’s fourth year.

It includes opportunities to meet drivers and NASCAR personalities, food and drinks, educational programs and access to a sensory-friendly environment to view the race.

The sensory-friendly area is air-conditioned with low lighting and sound, with a live stream of the race, toys and games.

“The Day at the Races is a great way for families and kids who usually wouldn’t be able to enjoy an event like this to come and have the real fan experience,” Mr. Kempner said. “And it’s an environment where everyone will be understanding of the family’s circumstances so it’s also very welcoming.”

This year, 500 tickets were available for purchase for the Day at the Races and all were sold out weeks before the race weekend. The program started with 127 participants the first year but has grown in size every year since.

“Kids and adults on the spectrum really like racing of any kind because of the structure of it and the patterns to watch and now they have a way to come to a NASCAR race and have their own quiet space where they can be at ease,” Mr. Kempner said.

Throughout race weekend, donation booths for Autism Speaks will be scattered across the grounds and a track walk will take place after today’s XFINITY race with Sprint Cup driver Denny Hamlin and his No. 11 team participating.

Also, many of the drivers in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race will support autism awareness by sporting the autism puzzle piece logo on their cars.

NASCAR’s support of Autism Speaks isn’t confined to the track; more than 20 drivers participated in the 14th annual Drive for Autism, a golf tournament held Friday at DuPont Country Club in Wilmington. More than 275 golfers played in the tournament, all raising money for autism awareness.

“It’s hard to meet someone like Artie who is so passionate about something and not be effected by it,” Mr. Rossi said.

“It just made me realize it’s important to get involved, spread awareness, educate people about autism and put an end to the fallacies.”

Reach staff writer Ashton Brown at abrown@newszap.com. Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

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