Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of four feature stories on this year’s Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award Presented by Nationwide finalists.
Julian Maha’s story is interesting and inspiring — and quite unique.
A Malaysian who became an Alabaman with an evolving affinity for NASCAR as part of the deal, Maha is one of four finalists for The NASCAR Foundation’s Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award Presented by Nationwide. The award honors NASCAR fans who are also accomplished volunteers working for children’s causes in their communities throughout the United States. It also honors the memory and the philanthropic legacy of the foundation’s late founder, Betty Jane France, who passed away last August.
On Thursday, Nov. 30, the award winner will be announced during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards at Wynn Las Vegas. The winner will be determined by online voting at NASCAR.com/Award; voting ends on Nov. 29 at 5 p.m. (ET). The NASCAR Foundation donates $100,000 to the charity the winner represents and $25,000 to the other finalists’ charities.
• Tammy Richardon’s story
Maha’s charity is “KultureCity,” which he founded in 2013 with the mission to improve the lives of children with autism while also educating society about the inclusion of autistic individuals. Maha, an emergency room physician in Birmingham, Alabama — he lives in nearby Vestavia Hills — has a vested emotional interest in the mission. He has a non-verbal autistic son.
But let’s not get ahead of “the story.”
Maha came to Montgomery, Alabama as a teenager to live with his sister, who attended Auburn University on a tennis scholarship. Living near Talladega Superspeedway in true “NASCAR country,” he inevitably gravitated to NASCAR and now, at the age of 40, considers 2016 Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin his favorite driver.
“My initial exposure to the United States in Montgomery was pretty much in terms of through sports,” Maha says. “That was the biggest thing that helped me connect with my classmates. Coming to U.S. from Malaysia was a culture shock, everything was different. The unifying aspect for me was sports, and it was largely basketball and NASCAR.”
Maha left Alabama to attend the University of Calgary but would return and become immersed in his community. He also became committed to helping autistic children like his own son; in 2013 Maha founded KultureCity, which seeks to improve and save the lives of those with autism, while also educating society about inclusion.
Now serving as the volunteer president of KultureCity, Maha has led the development of the innovative Sensory Initiative, which addresses sensory inclusivity in locations such as arenas, stadiums and other public settings. The Sensory Initiative program has been utilized at the Birmingham Zoo and Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, and by 12 NBA teams and two NFL teams.
KultureCity also has developed the lifeBOKS program to help families monitor the movements of their children — autistic children can be prone to wandering — through GPS and Bluetooth tracking devices.
The Sensory Initiative and the lifeBOKS program — which would be the main beneficiaries if Maha wins the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award — are high-profile achievements, but they rest on a platform of good, important work. Under Maha’s leadership, KultureCity estimates that it has impacted the lives of more than 50,000 autistic children.
This has been noticed. Maha is a past recipient of the Alabama Distinguished Citizen Award; he was named “Top Southerner” by Southern Living Magazine and was a Top 40 under 40 Influencer in 2016; and KultureCity has been named a Top-10 Non-Profit by Microsoft and the Top Non-Profit in Alabama.
Maha will be at Talladega Superspeedway this weekend, amid the excitement of Sunday’s Alabama 500, the crucial high-banked challenge that’s part of the Monster Energy Series’ playoffs. And he’ll be remembering the first time he visited the 2.66-mile track when he interviewed for the position of infield care center physician. The place was empty; the enormity of the facility blew him away.
“That was my ‘ah-ha’ moment for NASCAR,” he says.
There have been other moments that have collectively cemented his love of the sport.
“For me, the biggest thing about NASCAR, is that everyone gets together and they create what is almost a community over a race weekend,” he says. “It’s an amazing display of enjoyment of a singular event and an amazing display of unity. People from different backgrounds, different demographics. It’s everything that’s great about America.”