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Autism Speaks takes the checkered flag at the Monster Mile

Hey race fans, happened to catch NASCAR this past weekend? In case you missed it, Autism Speaks roared onto the famed "Monster Mile" at Dover International Speedway for three days of fundraising and awareness at the second annual "FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks" NASCAR race weekend.

The weekend kicked off Friday afternoon prior to the start of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race with a visit to our good friends Tom DeLoach and Terry Cook at the Red Horse Racing garage. Both Tom and Terry are proud advocates and supporters of the autism community. On Saturday, Autism Speaks President Mark Roithmayr was presented a check for $713,336 by drivers Joey Logano and Brian Scott on behalf Autism Speaks partner Dollar General from its April fundraising campaign. Logano would go on to win that day's Nationwide Series race with a little luck from the Autism Speaks puzzle piece pin given to him by Mark.

Following the Nationwide race, fans gathered in support of the autism community and took part in a track Walk and 5K benefiting the NASCAR Foundation and Autism Speaks, and were treated to an appearance by Denny Hamlin, driver of the number 11 FedEx Toyota Sprint Cup car. Hamlin, whose car featured an Autism Speaks puzzle piece paint scheme, discussed the importance of raising awareness and made it a point to sign an autograph for every fan.

Sunday marked the main event for fans and Autism Speaks: "The FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks" Sprint Cup race. In the spirit of our ever growing partnership with Dover International Speedway, FedEx and NASCAR, the inaugural "Autism Speaks Day at the Races" was held the morning of the race. It marked the first-ever sensory friendly NASCAR race, giving families an opportunity to experience the FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks in an environment designed for the enjoyment of children with autism. Autism Speaks Day at the Races was held in Dover's air-conditioned indoor grandstand, offering a great view of the Monster Mile from the backstretch, and featured presentations by Autism Speaks experts on the latest research and services available to families. In addition, the area offered a dedicated quiet zone, set inside special rooms within the grandstands, where parents could bring their kids to get away from the crowd if necessary.

Autism Speaks Day at the Races also featured a special surprise for the young fans in attendance. Unbeknownst to them, NASCAR superstar Jimmie Johnson paid a visit to the grandstand along with driver and autism advocate Jamie McMurray, and football coaching legend and NASCAR team owner Job Gibbs, who discussed NASCAR's community mindedness and support for charities. Immediately following the event, the families kicked back and enjoyed the Sprint Cup race in an atmosphere designed specifically for their needs.

The fun doesn't stop there. It was simply amazing to cruise through pit row and see almost every car outfitted with an Autism Speaks puzzle piece decal. In addition to Denny Hamlin's car, driver David Gilliland's number #38 car featured an Autism Speaks paint scheme courtesy of his team at Front Row Motorsports. Altogether, 15 drivers from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, 16 from the NASCAR Nationwide Series and 13 from the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series adorned the puzzle piece logo in support of Autism Speaks - a heartfelt show of support from the NASCAR community to ours.

In another amazing display of support, the Dover team made one fan's dreams come true. In the weeks leading up the race, the mom of a young man named Brandon, who is on the autism spectrum, emailed Dover about how Autism Speaks Day at the Races gave him the opportunity to witness a NASCAR race in person for the first time and that meeting a NASCAR flagman had always been a wish of his. Thanks to Dover's efforts, Brandon met Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray, and was treated to a special trackside visit where he was greeted by flagman Rodney Wise. In one of the most compassionate moments of the entire weekend, Rodney toured Brandon throughout the trackside and introduced the young fan to his favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. To read more about Brandon's once-in-a-lifetime NASCAR experience, check out this great story on Delawareonline.com.

During the prerace ceremonies Mark Roithmayr was joined by FedEx representative Laurie Tucker and Dover International Speedway President Denis McGlynn for a check presentation of $50,000 to Autism Speaks on behalf of FedEx and Dover. Funding we are truly grateful to receive for our research and advocacy efforts. After the green flag waved, there was one last surprise - this time for the guests of Autism Speaks. American Idol season eight winner Kris Allen, who performed the Nation Anthem, visited the suite donated to Autism Speaks by Dover and graciously took pictures and signed autographs for all of the excited young fans. Although neither Denny or David were able to take home the checkered flag in their Autism Speaks cars, we're nonetheless proud of them and grateful to their teams for helping to spread awareness on the racetrack.

We do wish to congratulate winner Jimmie Johnson for taking time out of his busy schedule to meet our families that morning --- and it's no coincidence that the Autism Speaks puzzle piece pin Mark gave Jimmie added a little luck to his victory. It was a fitting end to a weekend full of surprises, compassion and support for the one in 88 children and families affected by autism.

Missed action at the Monster Mile? Check out the photos below and click the following links for press coverage on the weekend's festivities:

http://www.doverpost.com/news/x492298958/NASCAR-helps-fulfill-dreams-of-autistic-children

http://www.speedwaymedia.com/?p=26101

Also be sure to read an op-ed that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Autism Speaks Board Member Artie Kempner on the need for more programs like Autism Speaks Day at the Races:  http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/inquirer/20120603_NASCAR_revs_up_autism-friendly_event.html