Austin Riley is like almost every other racer in the competitive world of junior karting. Since the age of eight, Austin’s determination and raw performance has made him a rising star, thanks to support from his family, sponsors, and fans. With several karting club championships under his belt, the 15-year-old has a promising future on the track.
Yet you might not know it when you see him lined up for the start of a race. Offers of “Good luck, Austin,” are returned with the requisite “thank you” from the boy wearing Racing for Autism logos on his suit. Off the track, Austin’s life with autism is a never-ending fight for him and his family.
“Nobody gets to see all the things that he struggles with, all the anxiety he suffers from, and issues other kids just brush aside,” said Austin’s father, Jason Riley. “It’s an unbelievable strain on everybody, but it’s something we’re compelled to do because Austin loves it so much.”
[Austin Riley. Photo: RacingWithAutism.com]
Ever since Austin was old enough to drive Power Wheels around his home in Uxbridge, Ontario, Canada, his parents have tried to keep pace with his four-wheeled passion. In four years, Austin went through eight Power Wheels, and not because he was abusing them. Everyday after school, Austin would spend hours driving his Power Wheels, and having a battery go flat was not an option; even the tires would get worn out. Jason would have to order extra batteries for hot-swapping to keep Austin happy.
His focus on cars carried over to his sleeping habits: While other children his age were taking plush toys to bed, young Austin would bring his die-cast cars. “And each night it would be a different one,” Jason Riley said, “so his other cars wouldn’t feel left out.”
Yet Austin’s career in karting started by accident. His parents, at the suggestion of Austin’s doctor, sent him to soccer as a way to develop physical coordination.
“The first game he ever played, the ball came to him, right in front of the net. He kicked at it, happened to make contact, and the ball went to the back of the net. He scored.”
Jason thought his son had found something to focus on.
“He ran right over to me. I thought it was going to be a great father-son moment. But, the first words out of his mouth were, ‘Can we go home now?’ He didn’t want to stay for one second longer. His facial expression was as if I had just shot his dog when I told him there were 20 games in the season.”
His parents tried other physical activities, like skating, all of which resulted in the same outcome. Austin would get to a moment of success or failure, then call it a day.
[Photo: Austin Riley’s first race at Goodwood Kartways, 2007.]
The Goodwood Arrive and Drive program at Goodwood Kartways in Ontario, Canada, offers a simple and relatively inexpensive way to enter the karting world. Before the 2007 Canadian Rookie Karting Championship, Jason saw this as a final attempt to find a focus for Austin’s energy. Initially, the then 7-year-old boy was anxious, and afraid to give karting a try. But, after assurances from his father he could leave after the first lap if he didn’t like it, Austin reluctantly accepted.
With only the Power Wheels as a frame of reference, Austin jumped in a kart and treated the accelerator in exactly the same way — an electronic on/off switch. He tore out of the pits at full throttle, attacking the corners with reckless abandon, and spinning multiple times in the process
But Jason didn’t need to worry about bringing his son off the track early. After the checkered flag waved, Austin continued to do lap after lap — until his father stepped onto the track to scold him.
“When I looked through the visor, I saw a smile that I’d never seen before.” Jason said.
After finishing second to last in his first-ever karting race, young Austin would continue through the season to place 16th in the youth series out of 82 total racers. The track, the speed, the laps, became his focus.
Since 2009, Austin has racked up multiple class wins and club championships. Last year, he finished in second place overall at the end of Junior Rotax. He has become well-known within the Canadian karting community as a force to be reckoned with, and as a bit of a star amongst his autistic peers looking for hope.
As Austin gets faster, his father Jason sees him getting more comfortable, almost as if the karts — at speeds approaching 100 mph — are finally keeping up with the pace of Austin’s complex thoughts.
“It’s a bit hard to wrap your head around it,” says Jason. “He can’t tie his own shoes or cut chicken nuggets, but yet he can race a go-kart at 100 MPH. I can’t explain it. He looks like he’s sitting in a lawn chair as if everything around him is running at a normal pace.”
This year, as Austin graduates to shifter karts, it isn’t just racing on the minds of the Riley family. They’re trying to raise awareness for autism with a tour and a planned documentary, being put together by Canadian photographer Jon Blacker, detailing how Austin lives his life on and off the track.
To support Austin’s endeavors, you can purchase Racing with Autism swag from the team’s online shop or catch up with Austin during his next two stops at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., April 22-26 or Calspeed Karting Centre in Fontana, Calif., May 8-9. Offers for funding the documentary can be made by contacting Jon Blacker through his website.