Inspiration At Speed: The Language of Speed – Austin Riley

Austin and Jason Riley - Brooke Legacy, Photo Credit

Inspiration At Speed: The Language of Speed – Austin Riley

Colene Evans-Allen

“Just because you have Autism it doesn’t mean you can’t do great things.”  – Austin Riley

Cambridge, ON – August 23, 2013
Photo Credit - Brooke Legacy, Photographer, In The Pits Media

Author’s Note:  I struggled with writing this article for one simple reason.  Austin Riley is a “high-functioning autistic”.  Labelling Austin as autistic is completely wrong, simply because autistic is not who Austin is.  His race team is named Racing With Autism and that name is far more reflective of the young man I met.  Austin does not race in spite of being autistic.  He takes the strengths and deficits that Autism has brought into his life and makes use of both to be an exceptional racer and a very captivating and inspiring young man.  Austin Riley may have a medical condition called Autism, but he is not an autistic.  He is a racer.

Speed and skill have a language that is uniquely their own.  At age fourteen, Austin Riley struggles every day to be understood by people, and when he has a steering wheel in his hands and a kart underneath him, Austin speaks eloquently and clearly.

Struggle has been a daily challenge for the Riley family.  Austin was identified with behavioural and fine motor skills challenges early.  For Austin and his family, this resulted in years of ineffective treatments and battles over various medications.  The Rileys never gave up and continued to try and find a solution to the puzzle that their son is.  As Austin’s fine motor skills deficits meant finding an activity that would improve those skills and socialization issues, Jason and Jennifer Riley tried soccer and power skating.  Those attempts to involve Austin in organized sport left the Rileys standing helpless as Austin sat in the middle of the pitch and rink and did nothing.  School was of limited assistance and it seemed as if the family would not find what was needed to help Austin mature and develop. 

Then one day, a random flyer in the mail caught Jason Riley’s attention.

Jason has been taking Austin with him to car shows around Southwestern Ontario since Austin was three years old.  Austin has an encyclopedia of facts and information about street cars from sub-compacts to exotic sports cars stored in his brain.  Taking advantage of Austin’s interest in cars, the Rileys bought a little toy electric car for him.  Austin would come home from school, jump in the little car, and drive it up and down the neighbourhood sidewalks until bedtime.  Austin was so enamoured with the little electric car that he would go through two to three batteries each night.  It was that little electric car combined with a flyer for an ‘Arrive & Drive’ karting program at Goodwood Kartways in Uxbridge, Ontario that sparked the idea that perhaps Austin could drive a go-kart.

Austin fought against racing the kart, but was finally convinced to give it a try.  At the age of seven, Austin made his racing debut at Goodwood Kartways in what can only be described as an unusual way to enter the sport of racing.  Austin began his first session on the track by keeping the gas pedal jammed to the floor, rarely using the brake, and not stopping after the checkered flag that ended the session.  The owners of the track could easily have banned Austin but instead showed patience and gave Austin the opportunity to learn about racing.  In that first year racing at Goodwood, Austin won his first race.  He moved on from there over the next five years to win three Championships in three different classes of organized karting, as well as put himself in the position of being ranked second for karters in Eastern Canada and third nationally. 

Austin is now in his first season in the ‘Junior’ class.  He is competing against other teenagers two years older than he is with a more developed race craft.  Austin’s race history shows that his first year in a new class is a bit of a struggle for him as he learns and refines his race craft to suit the new competition level.  If the pattern that has existed so far holds true, sometime in the next two seasons Austin will take the most podiums and/or victories in the class and walk away a Champion for the fourth time.  From that Championship, Austin can move over to something a bit bigger like a Formula 1200 in road course racing, a Baby-Grand stock car on a paved oval, or even a Sprint car on dirt.  He could also move up to the ‘Senior’ class in karting and shoot for one more Championship.  The future depends on several factors, all of which are influenced by Austin’s performance and outside considerations.

Fine motor skills are the skills that most of us take for granted.  They represent simple tasks such as using a fork and knife to cut up food, tying shoes, or doing up buttons.  In racing a kart, fine motor skills are an important part of a driver’s skill set.  A driver needs to be able to make the minute steering adjustments to keep the kart on track, interpret the input from the ‘road feel’ of the kart’s steering wheel and chassis, and have excellent hand/eye coordination and reaction times.  Austin’s fine motor skills deficits mean that he has trouble cutting up food on his plate, tying his shoes, and putting on his helmet.  Despite those challenges, Austin’s hands are so fast at turning a steering wheel that the handling of his kart is setup to make the steering input sluggish.  What would feel terribly slow and difficult for an average driver is more suitable for how Austin drives.  In addition, his reaction times when he’s out on track and his driving style don’t fit the deficits in his motor skills.  Austin is methodical, precise, able to improvise, fast, aggressive on the track but not aggressive with his fellow competitors, and demonstrates a thinking process to how he races that is sophisticated and strategic.  Doctors cannot explain how Austin is able to race a kart.  Somehow, Austin’s brain is wired for and understands the requirements of racing a kart, and he excels at the challenge.  As Austin himself puts it “I don’t like corners.  I like to go fast!”

At a recent media event leading up the Honda Indy Toronto, Austin had the chance to meet and chat with IndyCar drivers James Hinchcliffe and Alex Tagliani.  Near the end of his conversation with Austin, Alex Tagliani wished Austin luck in his next kart race.  Austin’s reply was blunt, unfiltered, and left the popular French-Canadian driver at a loss for words.

“I don’t need luck, but you do.”

It is that lack of what we call a ‘filter’ for Austin’s comments at times that shows some of the social challenges he faces.  In the two hours I spent with Austin, he responded to about five of the comments I made to him.  Austin is quiet, shy, hesitant with people he doesn’t know well, and reluctant to engage in conversation.  With his family, and in particular his father, he is expressive, affectionate, charming, and talkative.  He has made friends in the karting circles and one of the most important of those is his fellow competitor Marco Signoretti.  Friendship, caring, and love in Austin’s world mean something very different than they do for most of us.  As a result, Austin is reluctant to pass his new friends out on the track during a race because they won’t want to be his friends anymore.  He has no aggressive tendencies when he is racing and this means that he doesn’t bump his fellow competitors in an attempt to loosen them up for a pass.  Austin loathes accidents and worries about them frequently.  He was involved in a shunt earlier this season that affected him significantly.  In a multi-kart accident at Goodwood, Austin was banged up and bruised a little and his kart’s chassis was bent beyond repair.  While that was upsetting enough, Austin also knew that his friend Marco suffered a broken wrist in that multi-kart shunt.  The idea of him hurting his friend in any way deeply upsets him to the point where he rather quietly but bluntly told me “I don’t want to talk about that.”

Several weeks ago, a seven year old boy named Jayden showed up at a Practice Day at Goodwood.  Jayden’s parents had been struggling to find a way to reach their son and give him a chance to develop.  They had read and heard about Austin, and decided that perhaps go-kart racing could do for their son what it has done for Austin.  What Jayden’s parents didn’t know was that Austin would be at the Practice Day.  After a brief introduction, Austin spent time with Jayden showing him how to race a kart, how to get around Goodwood fast, and encouraging the young boy.  Jayden’s parents got the chance to see something they never thought they would – their son interacting with someone else with joy, abandon, and intensity.  It is the small opportunities to make a difference in the attitudes and lives of others that Austin excels at.  He does not realize how significant what he is doing truly is.

From changing the way the Jim Russell Academy teaches young karters to impressing three-time World Karting Champion Ben Cooper and Grand-AM Sports Car driver David Empringham, there is no shortage of people that believe in Austin’s ability to race.  There is also no shortage of people that have learned from Austin’s story, including parents that currently struggle with finding the right formula for their children with Autism.  Racing is therapy for Austin, pure and simple.  Through his racing, Austin promotes awareness for Autism and is connected with Autism Speaks Canada.

During my visit with the Rileys and Austin, Jason and Jennifer apologized to me because Austin wasn’t able to sit down and do a regular interview.  My response was very simple.

“No apology necessary.  Austin spoke to me quite well.  All I had to do was watch him out on the track.”

In The Pits Media’s goal is to put ‘Faces to the Racers’.  We’re here to give you a sense of who the people in motorsport are, not just what they accomplish.   We’re bringing you some incredible stories and insight into the people that have lived those stories.  Our next profile in the series is Captain Tony Harris of Race2Recovery.  Having lost his left leg in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan, Tony and his mates founded Race2Recovery and made history at the 2013 Dakar Rally-Raid.

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