Autistic racer Austin Riley inspires others while breaking barriers

Racing with Autism

An up-and-coming racer by the name of Austin Riley will be competing for the opportunity of a lifetime this weekend in Las Vegas.

Should Riley, 20, win the inaugural Saleen Cup Young Driver’s class championship at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, he will secure a paid seat in Saleen’s GT4 entry for the entire 2020 GT4 America championship.

Riley enters the weekend at the top of the Young Driver’s class points standings with a six-point lead over his nearest competitor, and remains a favorite for the title having not finished worse than second over the course of the four races contested so far – an amazing feat in its own right.

But while Riley’s on-track success is unquestioned, his impact on the racing world has been defined by overcoming off-track challenges to become an accomplished driver. Riley has achieved an important milestone when he became North America’s first race car driver with autism.

According to the CDC, one in every 59 children in the United States is diagnosed with some form of autism, a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication. 

Riley was first diagnosed with the disorder when he was 12, but despite his diagnosis, he has enjoyed success in every form of racing that he has competed in, winning multiple karting championships before moving up to cars when he was 18.

For Riley, as a massive motorsports enthusiast, the opportunity to race has been a dream come true. 

“I’ve always had a passion for cars and motorsports,” Riley said. “I’ve watched Formula One for years. I’ve watched IndyCar, NASCAR. I’ve watched pretty much every kind of racing there is around the world.”

Riley’s first taste of racing came just two weeks shy of his eighth birthday, when his father, Jason, took him to a go-kart track near their hometown of New York, Ontario. Jason received a flyer from the track in the mail and figured his son would enjoy a trip to the track.

“Basically at that point in our lives, Austin was struggling pretty badly in school,” Jason Riley said. “He hadn’t at that point been diagnosed with autism. We were trying to find things that he enjoyed doing to get him out of his room.

“All he wanted to do was stay in his room and play with his cars or play racing games because that was really the only place in the world where he wasn’t bullied and picked on for being different.

“I figured that his love for cars would transcend into a love for driving, so I showed him the flyer and he looked at me and then looked at the flyer and looked back again and said, ‘Dad, why would I want to do that? I suck at everything. If I go, I won’t be any good. People will make fun of me’.”

But Jason did not give up. Still confident that karting would be an activity his son would enjoy, he continued to ask Austin if he’d give it a shot.

“Every day, I’d come home from work, grab the same flyer, go back up to his room and say ‘Come on, buddy. Give it a try’,” Jason said. “After about four weeks went by, I was coming up the stairs with the flyer on a Friday afternoon and he stopped me and said, ‘Dad, stop asking me the question. I’m tired of hearing it. I’ll go to the track. I’m going to do one lap just to make you happy, and then I’m coming off and we’re never coming back’.”

Figuring that was the best offer he’d get, Jason agreed to the deal and took his son to the track the following week. Austin took off and made a lap, just as promised. But then he didn’t pit. In fact, he didn’t stop at all. 

Even after the checkered flag flew, Austin continued to make laps around the track as the marshals tried to stop him. Eventually, Jason came out onto the track to help. Once Austin stopped in front of him, Jason realized why his son did not want to stop turning laps.

“He stopped about five feet away from me, and even with his helmet on and a head sock, I could see the biggest smile that I’d ever seen,” Jason said. “It was at that moment that I knew we had found something.”

Austin and Jason Riley. Photo: Racing with Autism.

Austin’s racing career had begun, and for the next several years, he successfully raced go-karts, winning three titles. His story began to make headlines, and Austin and his father toured across North America and around the world to share his story. Austin’s story helped inspire other people with autism and their families to follow their dreams, including many in Canada.

“At our home karting track where Austin’s career started, he was the first,” Jason said. “There were no other kids with autism. There were no other kids with disabilities.

“Now you go there on any weeknight, they arrive and drive. They have at least 30 kids per week with autism that are racing.”

As Austin progressed in karts, his desire to race cars became larger. He graduated from the Skip Barber Racing School in 2014, becoming the first person with autism to do so. 

But like so many other families with sons and daughters who aspired to race, the Riley’s did not have the significant amount of money needed to continue funding Austin past karts. It appeared that his racing career would eventually end there.

But that changed one day when Jason met a man inspired by Austin’s story. 

“We were racing at a go-kart track in Quebec and we had a knock on the trailer door in between sessions, and it was this man that I had never met before,” Jason said. “His name was Metod Topolink and he wanted to meet Austin. 

“What he told us in that short meeting was that he had a son with his wife Marie that was autistic as well, and in a very emotional plug, he said Austin gave them hope because they had seen what he had been able to accomplish.

“They wanted to kind of give back to Austin, so they wanted to see if he could race a car.”

A successful businessman, as well as a racer himself, Topolink wanted to fund a ride for Austin in the Nissan Micra Cup Series, a spec series that races Nissan hatchbacks across Ontario and Quebec. 

Topolink rented out a track and provided a car for Austin to test. After a successful session, Topolink provided funding for Austin to race the entire 2017 Micra Cup season.  

Though the first Micra Cup season proved to be a tough one for Austin, he returned in 2018 and improved immensely, scoring his first top-five in the second race of a doubleheader at Calabogie Motorsports Park in Ontario. He finished his sophomore season ninth in the overall points standings after finishing 17th in the season prior.

“It’s a very competitive series,” Austin said of the Mirca Cup. “You’ve got like 24 cars on the track at one time. To be the best in that series, it all comes down to who’s driving the car.”

Austin’s improved performance in Micra Cup competition caught the attention of Jeff Lail, the Race Series Manager for the Saleen Cup. 

Having previously witnessed Austin’s test at Skip Barber, Lail, who was in charge of recruiting drivers for the series, knew he had talent.

Austin following a victory at Watkins Glen. Photo: Saleen Cup.

Ironically enough, Jason reached out to Lail earlier this year for more information on the series. The two then put together a deal for Austin to race in the Young Driver’s class during the series’ inaugural race at Portland International Raceway in July.

“I was very impressed with the way Austin held himself and performed,” Lail said of Austin’s first Saleen Cup race. “He was teamed up with a driver, Carter Fartuch, so they shared the car in Portland and they did very well.

“[They] stayed out of trouble, stayed clean, never had any off-track excursions, and they were able to win the first race in Portland. Steve Saleen was very impressed with his [Austin’s] skill level and supported him, so now he’s running the full season.”

Now with a second victory at Watkins Glen, and a pair of second-place finishes at Road America, Austin looks to score more podium finishes at this weekend’s tripleheader at LVMS en route to becoming the first Young Driver’s champion in series history.

Should he score the GT4 ride for next year, he will have the opportunity to add yet another chapter to his already lengthy story. 

But for Austin, winning the championship isn’t something he wants to do selfishly for himself. Like everything else, he hopes that winning the championship will help inspire even more people with autism to follow their dreams.

“It’s a really big deal because we want everyone to find the dream that they have, and we want everyone to achieve it,” Austin said. “That’s what’s important in life. To find something you love to do and to do it.”

More information on Austin’s racing efforts can be found on his website and Facebook page.

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Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The Red Flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500