The image of cars in a showroom
Austin Riley needs a hand. But not behind the wheel. The kid’s just fine behind the wheel.
Austin races in the Roto Mini Max category of the Eastern Canadian Karting Championship. At age 13, he shows signs of real talent for the sport. Talk to him, and his love for it is palpable. Talk to other drivers, other parents, and his abilities behind the wheel are well-known and lauded.
Spend a day watching him on the racetrack, and you’d never know that Austin Riley is autistic.
“At first, it was described as fine-motor-skill issues,” says Austin’s dad and crew chief, Jason. “He had difficulty holding a pencil — a big accomplishment this year was Austin learning to strap on his own helmet.”
His accomplishments on the track see him introduced as just another driver, but limitations off of it mean a lifetime of minor struggles.
At school, he struggles to make friends. In his hometown of Uxbridge, his social life is with his family, and those close enough to them to understand.
But in the pits, he’s just one of the kids — everything is normal. Now, mom and dad have to figure out a way to keep him there in the face of growing financial demands.
Austin’s behaviour problems began early in school. He wasn’t violent; he simply had no filter and would say whatever he wanted, whatever he felt. During his Grade 2 year, he was assessed, and received a diagnosis of moderate to severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This year, that diagnosis evolved to high-functioning autism.
“The doctor’s suggestion was to help him develop fine motor skills through some sort of activity,” explains his mom, Jennifer. “Anything with running, skating, catching.”
The family tried soccer, but Austin kicked the ball once and wanted to leave, it wasn’t for him. “He actually sat on the field and started playing with clovers,” Jason says.
Hockey, football, basketball, how many sports are there? The Riley’s tried them all, but nothing stuck until a flyer appeared on their windshield about Goodwood’s rookie series. Kids just show up with a helmet and gloves and race in small karts against other kids close to their age and size.
It took some convincing. The experimenting with sports had taken its toll, and Austin kept telling his parents he wouldn’t like it.
“He had a lot of apprehension because he was convinced he’d been crap at everything else,” Jason says. “At first, we couldn’t make him think otherwise.”
But one lap around the track and “he had the biggest smile on his face I’ve ever seen.”
It was the speed. His parents had seen it before. Jason’s brother took Austin for a ride once in his Porsche. He tried to scare him. He tried to go too fast.
“All he did was laugh,” Jennifer recalls.
In a race car, he feels something he doesn’t in most aspects of his life: confidence and control.
“At the track, he’s a rock star,” Jason says.
Just look at the results:
In his first race in the Rookie Series, Austin finished eighth. The rest of the year, he didn’t miss the podium and finished third overall. The boys who beat him were 11 and 12. Austin was 7.
Last year, he finished fifth overall at Goodwood and second in the micro division at Mosport. This year, he is leading or close to the top of all standings in his series.
After his impressive start in the rookie series, his parents used a racing scholarship to purchase his first kart. But there haven’t been any scholarships since.
But as the costs rise for the bigger classes, the Rileys don’t know how much longer they can keep it up.
“The arrive-and-drive thing is $50 a week,” Jason says. “Maybe you bring your own gloves and helmet, maybe you buy your kid an expensive helmet but, for us, it was manageable.”
Competing in the novice division meant a four-stroke kart.
“You get the scholarship, but you have to buy a kart — that’s $3,000 to $4,000,” Jason explains. “An engine: that can be a couple grand. You just have no idea what you’re in for.”
Austin’s parents have sold their retirement savings, a couple of vehicles (including Jason’s prized Camaro) and more to keep funding his hobby.
After a year in novice, Goodwood track owners Daniel and Marco Di Leo noticed Austin’s ability — both with speed and driving in difficult conditions (he’s unbeatable in the rain). They offered him a chance to move up to the faster two-stroke karts.
Jason lauds the Di Leos for allowing his family to run on credit during the season, which he pays off by doing extra work in the offseason.
“We don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to keep going, but we know we have to try,” says Jennifer. “We can’t take it away from him.”
Austin will need a sponsor for his career to continue. His dad hopes he can be as inspiration for other kids with behavioural issues.
“He’s at a constant disadvantage, and all he does is succeed,” he says. “He’s an inspiration to us, and I think he can be to other kids as well.”