KAWARTHA LAKES-22-year-old Lindsay resident Austin Riley is the first person in the world with autism to win a race car championship.
There have been many firsts over the years but his road to success was not paved in gold. As a young child, Austin was bullied at school and picked on for being different according to his father Jason Riley. He was later diagnosed with Autism.
“We tried all kinds of kids sports trying to get him accepted in life,” said Jason, Then we got a flyer in the mail for go-karting when he was 7. It took a year of convincing but once he tried it he loved it.”
At 8 years old Austin hit the track and hasn’t looked back.
“It makes me feel free,” Austin told Kawartha 411. He won three karting championships and became the first person with autism to graduate from the Skip Barber Racing School.
“It’s there where he finds acceptance”, says Jason “Because it’s based on his abilities on the track not his disabilities off the track.”
Over the weekend Austin took to the track at Candian Tire Motorsport Park, formerly Mosport in Bowmanville, hitting speeds of up to 220 km per hour. Dad Jason says he doesn’t worry in the least about his son racing around the track.
“I worry about him everywhere else in life but not on a race track. Very simple tasks he struggles with but on a racetrack, he can do things that very few people can do. He’s made to race, it’s where he finds happiness, it’s more than just a hobby.” says Jason.
A former racer and fan named Metod Topolnik also thought Austin was made to race. After seeing Austin race in Quebec he funded the entire 2017 Micra Cup season racing Nissan hatchbacks across Ontario and Quebec. Topolnik, a successful businessman, became an advocate for autism after his son was diagnosed.
During the 2018 Micra Cup competition Austin caught the attention of Jeff Lail, the Race Series Manager for the Saleen Cup. Lail signed Austin to race in the Young Driver’s class during the series’ inaugural race at Portland International Raceway in July of 2019 which he won.
Jason decided to share Austin’s racing exploits by visiting schools between races in 2015. They did 20 presentations to over 20,000 students that the first year sharing Austin’s story in hopes of inspiring others. Jason says it also inspired Austin.
“The first presentation was in New Orleans, he wouldn’t even go in the gym,” Jason explained. “8 weeks later he was standing in the gym in Calgary Alberta and he spoke to everyone. It showed me how far he had progressed it was like a light switch turned on in his mind. He was trying new foods, going new places.”
And the “Racing With Autism” program was born.
“When you see the way the kids—whether they have disabilities or not—respond to Austin’s life story, it’s really inspiring,” Jason told Hagerty Media. “You can actually tangibly make a difference in these kids’ lives because they can see what Austin’s had to face and the struggles he’s had to go through. They realize it’s not like they’re the only ones being picked on or bullied. It gives those kids hope and belief in themselves—if Austin can do it, so can they.”
Austin says the goal of Racing with Autism is to “raise awareness for autism by harnessing the power of storytelling. By sharing Austin’s story with the world, we aim to educate, inspire, and as a result empower each and every person we come in contact with.”
Austin has travelled the world sharing his story, inspiring thousands of people to take up racing.
In 2020 Austin moved up to the Radical Canada East championship series with the kind of car that’s capable of accelerating from 0 to 100 km/h in the low 3-second range. Austin had no problem adapting to the speed according to Jason.
“His brain functions at an incredible rate so the speed is calming to him,” Jason explains.
Austin won 10 of 14 races that season and made it to the podium in all 14 races, winning the championship. The first major championship to be won by any driver with autism.
“If you want something bad enough and work hard enough, anything is possible,” says Jason.
Austin’s next goal is the hit the professional circuit.
“It has always been his goal to be a professional racer and garner a grander stage for his abilities, to inspire others with or whiteout disabilities to work for their dreams.”
October is Autism Awareness Month in Canada and a documentary about Austin’s life is being released on October 30th.
For more information on Austin and Racing With Autism go to:https://www.racingwithautism.com