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Artie Kempner, Fox Sports director and LI native, fights autism with help from NASCAR

NASCAR on Fox director Artie Kempner, left, hangs

NASCAR on Fox director Artie Kempner, left, hangs out with NASCAR drivers Jamie McMurray, center, and Elliott Sadler at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2004. Kempner credits McMurray and Sadler, who both have autistic nieces, with helping him turn the annual Drive for Autism golf tournament in Delaware into a success. Credit: Sherryl Creekmore / NASCAR

DOVER, Delaware - Artie Kempner whisked his golf cart toward a grandstand at Dover International Speedway in June, not for a moment overwhelmed at the prospect of waving the green flag to start the FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks, then having to rush back to a production truck for his day job.

“I have a great life,” a smiling Kempner scoffed at any notion of inconvenience.

Besides, the NASCAR on Fox director and 1977 Bellmore's John F. Kennedy High School graduate’s moment of awe had already come a few days before, when his favorite announcer took center stage and knocked it out of the park.

Kempner’s 19-year-old son Ethan, who is autistic, was in charge of announcing the rules for the annual Drive for Autism golf tournament, which for more than a decade has brought some of NASCAR’s top stars to Delaware the Thursday before the spring race to benefit Autism Delaware.

“He’s got a really good voice, much better than his father,” bragged Kempner, 55. 

It was a three-minute, two-page presentation. Kempner will never forget how Ethan didn’t skip a beat while flipping the page.

“Those little things…” Kempner said, pausing to enjoy the memory one more time.

Delaware resident Kempner shared this story in an enclosed Dover grandstand, not far from a pink bean bag chair, some board games and a TV playing cartoons. While Kempner was being honored for his work as the founding president of Autism Delaware, the unique environment for a race showed how the work his organization has done had spread wings.

For the third straight year, Dover International Speedway hosted “Autism Speaks Day at the Races” for the spring event, utilizing an indoor grandstand that usually serves as seating for the harness racing track inside Dover’s one-mile NASCAR racing surface. Dover’s director of communications, Gary Camp, started brainstorming the idea after reading about similar Autism Delaware events, like movie nights at theaters specifically for families with autistic children. 

As Kempner explains, children on the autism spectrum can be hypersensitive. So the enclosed environment with adjoining rooms away from view of the track works for kids who need a break from the action. 

But autism can also limit children’s ability to engage, and for that NASCAR has its benefits. Kempner received an explanation from a friend with Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning condition on the spectrum.

“There’s something about the symmetry of cars going around in a circle -- they’re going to come here and then they’re going to go around and be there -- that is very intriguing for folks that he knows and the way he thinks,” Kempner said. 

Kempner’s employer has shown its support, making Autism Speaks one of the charter beneficiaries when the Fox Sports Supports charitable campaign began in 2007. But large-scale accomplishments notwithstanding, Kempner always comes back to the successes he’s seen at home.

“Ethan has been the blessing for us,” said Kempner, whose wife Marcy is currently president of Autism Delaware. “As much as autism is a challenge, Ethan has put the perspective in my life, in our lives. My other boys [Jack and Matt] have grown up with an empathy and a perspective that I didn’t have until my 30s.”

As for Ethan, Kempner forecasts that his son is going to have “not just a job, but a career.”

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