The world of motor racing was recently buoyed by the story of Race2Recovery. A group of injured former servicemen took on the challenge of the Dakar Rally and reached the finish line. The remarkable ongoing career of Alessandro Zanardi and Robert Kubica’s awesome speed behind the wheel of a rally car, are proving that physical disability should be no barrier to success for the truly dedicated and talented in motor racing.
Perhaps less well-publicised are the troubles facing those wishing to succeed in motor racing, but who suffer with mental, rather than physical disability. Austin Riley is a 13-year old karter from Ontario, Canada who is breaking down boundaries as he chases his dreams of being a racing driver. Austin, however, suffers from Autism, a condition which makes everyday life a battle and racing a struggle.
Austin first sat in a kart aged just seven, with his father Jason searching for an activity to help introduce some happiness into his son’s life. Having suffered socially and with his motor skills, Austin immediately found sanctuary in karting and the automotive world. Not only did he enjoy it, but he proved himself extremely talented, with his performances winning a scholarship at his local circuit, where he honed his craft. Within a couple of seasons he was given the opportunity to try a fearsome two-stroke kart, in which he seemed even more comfortable. He stepped up into racing two-stroke Rotax karts regularly and last season took second overall in the Eastern Canadian Karting Championship.
It is saddening to learn that Austin suffers ridicule at school for his condition, but he has found peace at the race circuits, as his father explains, “Karting is Austin’s therapy. All of his friends in life are from the world of karting. I think the reason for this is his friends at the track are not able to see the struggles he has in day to day life and they just accept him as a great driving kid with a great sense of humour.”
While the tracks might provide the sense of belonging which he needs. Austin suffers far more than his peers in performing at his best, Jason explains, “The biggest problem we have with his Autism while he races is his anxiety. A lot of Autistic kids have extremely high anxiety levels and Austin is one of them. He races best when he is in a comfortable place mentally. The smallest thing can affect this. Anything from being late, mechanical failure, unfamiliar surroundings can cause issues.
“It is very important for him to be successful that we get him as comfortable as possible. We try and follow the same routine every time we race. We leave at the same time. We park in the same place. When he is on track I stand in the same place. These small things are very important for him to be able to function behind the wheel. Mechanically I replace chains, gears, bolts way before anyone else would think to replace them. Austin has not had a mechanically failure in the last 3 years.”
It is clear that cars, karts and racing are everything to Austin. He lists Top Gear as his favourite TV show, and the McLaren MP4-12C as his favourite car. He dreams of one day seeing the Le Mans 24 Hours in person. Austin is an enthusiast, just like the rest of us, but, unlike most of us, he has the talent to back it up. Even if he doesn’t realise his ambition of racing professionally he claims he’d happily drive a race team transporter to enable him to be around the sport he loves.
The sting in this heart-warming tale is that enduring motor racing elephant in the room: funding. Austin’s parents have sacrificed everything they have in order to help Austin pursue his dreams and they desperately need funding to help him progress. They are immensely grateful to their two sponsors Terra Glo Lighting and Lincoln Electrical, but are always on the look-out for further help. Even regional karting is now a terrifyingly expensive sport.
Hopefully Austin’s success can help inspire other Autistic children to succeed in motor racing, whether behind the wheel or behind the scenes. For more information about Austin, head to: www.racingwithautism.com and for more information about Autism generally: www.autism.org.uk. Photos published courtesy of George Michaels and Minimax.