DARLINGTON, S.C. (Oct. 25, 2012) – After being told she was a finalist for the 2012 Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award, Lorri Unumb of Lexington, S.C., couldn’t help but think how the sport of NASCAR has again been a platform she has utilized to make a difference in people’s lives.
When she learned of her nomination, it brought back memories of when NASCAR and Darlington Raceway provided her opportunities many years ago to bring other issues important to her to light. She remembered the day of August 5, 1989, when she was named “Miss Southern 500.”
The Miss Southern 500 Pageant was a longtime preliminary event to the Miss South Carolina Pageant, in which she finished fourth. The local pageant had been a part of the Southern 500 tradition at Darlington Raceway since 1952.
“Winning the Miss Southern 500 Pageant was a tremendous accomplishment for me,” Unumb said. “I became a huge race fan at that point and have always enjoyed the sport since that time. It all began for me at Darlington Raceway, which is one of the best tracks on the circuit as far as I’m concerned!”
“Lorri was one of the best Miss Southern 500 winners we ever had,” said former chairman of the Miss Southern 500 Scholarship Pageant committee, Joey Saleeby Jr. “Lorri has a tremendous spirit and the energy and dedication she put forth as Miss Southern 500 was second to none. She has done tremendous things to support autism, and I’m hopeful that she wins the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award. She’s very deserving.”
Unumb, whose maiden name was Lorri Shealy when she won, used her title of Miss Southern 500 to provide positive awareness throughout South Carolina and the Pee Dee area on a variety of issues that were important to her throughout her reign. She also visited Darlington Raceway many times as Miss Southern 500 and presented the winning trophy to Dale Earnhardt when he won the Southern 500 in September of 1989.
“I truly enjoyed my time as Miss Southern 500,” Unumb said. “It was a big deal to win that pageant, and it gave me a great platform to do good things for the community and raise awareness for issues that were important to me back then. Who would have thought that many years later the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award nomination would allow me to again bring focus to another issue I find very important in helping children with autism.”
Unumb was nominated for The NASCAR Foundation’s Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award for her tireless efforts in raising awareness for autism, most notably for creating “Ryan’s Law,” a bill that mandates health insurance coverage for children diagnosed with autism by a physician.
“Ryan’s Law” is named after her 11-year-old son, Ryan Unumb, who was diagnosed with autism just before his second birthday. Since that time, Unumb and her husband, Dan, were fortunate in that they could afford the necessary care to provide Ryan with the therapy needed to assist him with a condition that affects 1 in 88 children in the United States today.
Unumb understood, however, that many people did not have the financial resources they themselves were blessed with to help their children with autism, and insurance providers did not cover expenses associated with autism; therefore, Unumb put pen to paper to create “Ryan’s Law,” which requires that health insurance companies cover treatment for children diagnosed with autism.
“I was fortunate in that my husband and I could afford and do the things necessary to provide Ryan with the care he needed,” she said. “It wasn’t always easy, and we’ve had to make some tough choices and sacrifices along the way, and it dawned on me that many people who were less fortunate than we are needed help with getting the necessary care for their kids with autism. That’s why I wrote Ryan’s Law. To give those children less fortunate the opportunity to access the treatment prescribed by their doctors.”
Unumb first worked on the law in South Carolina and has since tackled 31 other states with a goal of getting all 50 to pass the law that puts children with autism on an equal playing field with children affected by other health conditions.
It is a goal that she is destined to achieve with sheer grit and determination that made her a successful lawyer and advocate for autism in her now-current position as vice president of state government affairs for Autism Speaks.
Additionally, she co-founded the Autism Academy of South Carolina with her husband Dan in 2009, giving children with autism in her hometown of Lexington and the surrounding Columbia, S.C. area an opportunity to access high-quality therapy and therefore acquire the skills necessary to succeed and prosper in everyday life on their own.
Unumb is well on her way to achieving her goal of getting all 50 states to pass Ryan’s Law. Winning the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award would provide the necessary funding to continue her endeavors and grow the Autism Academy of South Carolina, which has increased its student attendance by 75 percent since it opened its doors in 2011.
“Just as the Miss Southern 500 platform gave me an opportunity to address important issues back then, The NASCAR Foundation, through the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award, has created a platform for autism awareness and offers the financial opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of South Carolinians who struggle with autism,” Unumb said. “And when it comes to autism insurance reform, my goal is to get all 50 states to pass Ryan’s Law, and I won’t stop until that is accomplished.”
Four finalists have been chosen for the 2012 Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award — an annual honor that recognizes philanthropic endeavors of passionate NASCAR fans who have made a profound impact in their local community. Ron Eby (Windham, Maine), Michael Jackson (Duluth, Minn.), Ali McDonough (Wilmington, Del.) and Lorri Shealy Unumb (Lexington, S.C.) are the national finalists who will receive a minimum of $25,000 from The NASCAR Foundation toward their respective charities. One overall winner, as determined by online voting on NASCAR.com/Award, will be awarded $100,000. The BJFHA honors the unwavering commitment that The NASCAR Foundation Chairwoman Betty Jane France has demonstrated with her philanthropic and community efforts.
Through November 29, 2012 (midnight ET), the NASCAR community can cast their vote for the most deserving candidate by logging onto NASCAR.com/Award. The finalist who receives the most votes during this period will be declared the national winner, and will be announced by France live on stage during the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony at the Wynn Las Vegas on November 30. The victor also will win a 2013 Toyota Camry Hybrid. Fans can join the conversation on Twitter using hashtag #BJFHAward.
Tickets to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles’ Southern 500 on May 11 and Nationwide Series 200 on Friday, May 10 will go on sale to the public on Friday, Nov. 16. Remember, kids 12 and under are half off for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 and FREE for the Nationwide Series 200 in general admission sections. For more information visit www.DarlingtonRaceway.com or call 866-459-7223.