Story by Max Preston // Photos by Jason Riley.
Karting drivers face a difficult problem, year in and year out; it seems our beloved, prestigious, adrenaline fueled sport is often the subject of scrutiny from the uninformed. Time and time again, Kart drivers and enthusiasts find themselves in a position of having to explain and defend the merits of the sport, since onlookers, often unaware of the physical demands of Karting, quickly assume that these small, suspension-less racers are nothing more than glorified go-karts. Most people are unaware of the physical and emotional demands of operating these machines, and the level of athleticism required to become a skilled driver.
Since sponsorship in karting is key, having a positive public persona is essential in order for teams to get the funding they need; hence, raising awareness remains one of the fundamental issues that exist in the sport, today. One team in particular has been very successful at doing this while also raising awareness for another unexpected and seemingly, unrelated cause.
For those in the industry, Racing with Autism needs no introduction. The sheer size of their large fifth wheel RV/trailer is easily recognizable and its unique decal job sporting the teams branded logo make it easy to identify. The entire team is not only dedicated to educating North America about karting, it is also committed to raising public awareness of Autism. Both Karting and Autism have found an unlikely hero in young Austin Riley, a national competitor who was diagnosed with the condition when he was just shy of 13 years old.
The story begins with a simple idea that was born out of the love for a child. After successfully wrangling the Western Karting Championships in Regina in 2014. And finishing 3rd in Jr Rotax, the young racer received praise from the other competitors for his charge through the field; he was also the subject of much curiosity. Following the event, families, enthusiasts, and competitors flooded the large colourful trailer that was home to the Racing for Autism team in order to learn more about the Riley family and the cause they promote. After spending a great deal of time celebrating the win and discussing Autism, a disorder that often hinders communication and social interaction, with the post-race spectators, Austin’s dad Jason and the team’s mechanic, Curtis Fox, began to discuss an idea that would eventually lead the team to journey almost 23,000km in just 85 days.
The idea consisted of a tour that would see the team stop at over 22 different schools and camps, in order to educate people about Austin’s story and how he uses karting to deal with many of his unique struggles. The presentations set at destinations throughout Canada and the US, would also allow the team to compete at local events along their epic journey.
Planning this daunting task quickly revealed it to be exceptionally difficult. The presentation format, content, fuel budget and locations all proved to be an undertaking that would force the team do something that no other team in North America has attempted.
“The hardest part of the planning was contacting the schools and clubs and setting up the presentations,” explains Jason Riley. “Just getting a hold of the right contact person to make a booking was a challenge…especially in the U.S.” Nonetheless, the planning and logistics were completed, and the team set out to a few schools in Uxbridge for some trial runs before setting off. The initial reaction was strong, many kids could relate to Austin and his struggles. Whether it be bullying or just trying to fit in, Austin’s story resonated with his audiences who responded to stories of his early struggles. However, after each presentation, Austin’s story left his audience inspired. It advocated for tolerance and inclusion, and urged listeners to celebrate human differences, and perhaps most meaningfully, this young racer stood as testament to the importance of never giving up on a dream.
Racing with Autism Tour Stats:
– 22952 kilometres travelled requiring 54 tanks of diesel fuel
– 85 days away from home
– Travelled through 16 US states and 5 Canadian provinces
– 22 Presentations in 19 different locations
– Raced at 9 different race tracks, plus the Skip Barber Racing School
– Over 10,000 Elementary, Junior and High school students listened to Austin’s story
– 2700 Racing with Autism hero cards printed, signed and handed out by Austin Riley
– 420 Racing with Autism T-Shirts sold to help fund the journey
– Countless number of new friends and supporters for Racing with Autism
Before discussing his many celebrated and varied accomplishments, Austin’s team began each presentation with stories that illustrated the many challenges he had to face, each chronicling the tenacity and perseverance that it took in order for him to realize his dream to drive. Audiences sat gripped to stories of how Austin was all too often teased and bullied, and many could relate to the stories about trying to fit in a world that was often confusing and foreign. After showing videos and photographs of his many successes in his racing life, the team committed to answering questions that bombarded them at the conclusion of each session.
“This is my favorite part,” exclaims Jason. ”At some schools, we were staying behind over an hour for autographs and pictures! Our social media platforms would blow up for hours with messages about how inspiring the presentation was.”
One such moment, near the end of the tour, showed just how much Austin had grown since entering the sport. At a school in Calgary, Austin requested to speak during the presentation to the entire school (over 600 students). To many, this simple request may not mean much, but to a child born with Autism, this change in behaviour proved just how confident Austin had become; despite his reticence to engage in social situations and his communication difficulties, Austin isn’t letting his condition get in the way of inspiring kids of all ages. In Calgary that day, Austin stood and confidently delivered a two-paragraph speech before an audience of more than 600. The audience repaid his efforts with a tearful and heartfelt standing ovation.
For Austin and the entire team, the exhausting and demanding tour not only inspired children, but it had the unprecedented side effect of educating the public about karting. Helping new kids get introduced into kart racing and what it is all about has always been an issue for the sport and Racing with Autism successfully championed the cause, introducing this segment of the population to an entirely new form of competition, which focuses on sport, racing, family and camaraderie.
For Austin, the tour was not all presentations and traveling. Along the way, he realized his dream of driving the legendary circuit Laguna Seca in a Skip Barber race car, as well as competing in countless karting races all over North America. But above all, he enjoyed the celebrity and being an inspiration to other kids; getting his picture taken and signing autographs was an exciting bonus. In these moments, the fact that Austin had ASD was an afterthought, and took a back seat as Austin connected with each student as if they were longtime friends. He admits, “At first this was very hard for me to do, but by the end it was the most enjoyable part.”
Of course, enjoyment is the most important part of any sport a child participates in. Austin has thoroughly enjoyed traveling the continent at a young age, and racing against some of the world’s best at the larger international races. This kind of tour was exactly what Austin needed; his new found confidence and pride allowed him to push past a diagnosis that is often socially limiting and emotionally draining. In short, Karting has allowed Austin to push past the limitations typically imposed with a diagnosis of this kind. Both ASD and karting have provided him with opportunities and an incredible support system that have allowed him to flourish. Not only has he challenged a diagnosis, he has also nurtured a talent and fed a passion that have allowed him to grow, both as a young man, and as a driver.
Racing with Autism’s mechanic, Curtis Fox notes that “Austin has grown an incredible amount over the course of this tour. He has made incredible strides as both a driver, and as a person.” Fox credits Austin’s newfound confidence as the reason for breaking his own speed records. This improved skill level has also allowed him to switch from Sr Rotax to DD2 seamlessly; this was originally a concern for Fox, but upon seeing Austin’s improvements in both skill and and confidence, he knew the young driver would be able to negotiate the fast and heavy DD2. He has more than proven his fearless mettle since he has become a lot more aggressive when competing with international talent, and he has been continually honing his ability to make late passes with ease.
It is easy to see how proud Fox is of the young driver when he talks, and the mechanic has also stepped up on the speaking circuit, as well; when it came to the presentations, Fox took up the role of ensuring all of the equipment was pristine and finely tuned, and he also undertook the role of answering technical questions from inquisitive audience members.
After arriving safely back home, the Racing With Autism team reflected back on what they had just accomplished. They all felt incredible pride in all that has been done for both Karting and Autism awareness. They firmly believe that they have made a difference and accordingly, feel a strong sense of pride in what they were able to accomplish. But perhaps the biggest difference was realized by Austin himself. Not only have people been made more aware of these two important topics, Austin has likewise realized that passion and confidence both act as fuel to achieve greatness and shatter both barriers and records.
As Fox prepares for the kart for the next event, and another whirlwind schedule of presentations, Austin is readying himself to enter the racing circuit, once again. It is certain that the karting industry has benefited greatly having this inspirational young driver educating other young people about the benefits of the sport, and Racing with Autism has proven to be a worthy champion for the cause.
To learn more about Racing with Autism and see more incredible video and photos from their journey, click the link to visit their Facebook page.