Racing with Autism

Autistic racer Austin Riley inspires others while breaking barriers

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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 it’s 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 racer 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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Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500