Racing with Autism – and Constantly Improving

Autistic racer Austin Riley scores a top-10 in points in his second Nissan Micra Cup season

By Stephanie Wallcraft Wheels.ca

Oct 3, 2018 7 min. read

Article was updated 5 years ago

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Every race weekend seems to bring a new challenge for Jason Riley.

This August at the Grand Prix de Trois-Rivières, his racer son Austin had an anxiety-fueled emotional meltdown so severe that Jason packed up the No. 20 Nissan Micra and hauled it home without it ever turning a race lap.

In September, determined to give Austin the best possible finish to the year, Jason took out another credit card just to pay for a fresh set of tires for the Nissan Micra Cup season finale.

Jason perseveres now for same reason he has for the last 10 years: Austin is autistic, and every day Jason sees what a difference participating in motorsport makes in Austin’s life.

I’ve seen it, too. When I first met the now 19-year-old from Uxbridge, Ont., about three years ago, he struggled to sit still and take part in a conversation, answering even the simplest questions with, at best, single-word responses.

When I caught up with the Rileys again after the conclusion of the 2018 Nissan Micra Cup season, Austin was able to describe in vivid detail how his world changes when he’s in a race car.

Austin Riley

“Excitement, and freedom,” he said. “Everything that’s outside the car goes away. All the noise goes away. All the people go away. It’s just me and the car, doing my own thing.”

“The belts, the seat, the helmet,” Jason prompted. “How does all of that make you feel?”


Austin still needs help to lace up his race boots, but each time he climbs into the car, his skills and results improve.

“He certainly took a major step this year from where he was last year,” Jason said. “Last year his goal was to finish a race in the top 10, which he didn’t achieve. At the first two races (at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ont., this May), he finished 10th and 9th. At Calabogie (Motorsports Park in Eastern Ontario) two weeks later, he finished 6th and 5th.

Austin finished the season 9th overall in points out of 34 entrants, and that’s in spite of missing the two races at Trois-Rivières. Not bad at all, given that two years ago Jason wasn’t even sure whether Austin would be able to adapt well enough to make the transition from shifter karts to a car with a full manual transmission.

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Jason sold nearly all of Austin’s karting equipment at the start of this year so that the family could purchase a race-spec Micra of their own, part of an effort to create an environment more conducive to Austin’s growth. In motorsport, the goal is typically to be part of a larger team with multiple teammates who can pool their resources and observations to help each other go faster. Such was the environment that Austin raced in last year for his first Micra Cup season, but Jason found that it wasn’t working.

“He was with the biggest team on the circuit, so they had about six cars under the tent and a lot of activity,” Jason said. “All of the people who were under our tent were fairly wealthy, so they had a whole entourage with them.”

“It was really hard for Austin. He had a lot of anxiety. Being by ourselves under our own tent with our own trailer is really helping him focus.”

That separation, as helpful as it is for Austin’s mental state, means that the Rileys are on their own in every way, including in budget and engineering – they can’t afford to hire someone, so Jason and his nephew Shane have been preparing the car themselves.

But it also means that they aren’t beholden to anyone’s needs but their own, which gives them the freedom to come and, when necessary, go – a necessity that arose at the halfway point in the season at the Grand Prix de Trois-Rivières.

Nissan Micra Cup an Example of Brand Activation at its Finest

“We had karted at GP3R probably three times, and every time we went something bad happened,” Jason explained. “It wasn’t necessarily to Austin – it was to his friends or somebody else, some pretty graphic stuff.

“Austin has a very long memory. I realized last year that his anxiety was through the roof. He still brought the car home in one piece, but there was a lot of anxiety off the track. Because of that, his behavior struggled a bit.

“We were hopeful (this year) because of the changes we’d made, to be by ourselves. He was in a better mind frame going there. But when we got there, things started to slide.”

The track layout at GP3R is very tight to begin with, and several rookie drivers were on track taking their first laps in a race car during Friday’s practice sessions. Austin had a couple of close calls.

“Austin is aware that if something bad happens to that car, like if it gets written off, that's it for our season,” Jason said.

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When they returned to the hotel that night, Austin’s anxiety came to a head in what Jason describes as a meltdown, one of the worst he can remember.

“Everything that’s coming out of his mouth, his actions, is him trying to deal with that (anxiety),” Jason explained. “A lot of people have never been put in that position where you just can't control what's happening or how you're acting. You instantly regret it, but there's nothing you can do to control it.

“We've been able in the past to reel it back in, but we couldn't stop the train that night. So, at 12:30 at night, we packed up and drove home.”

It was an expensive decision for Jason, and a difficult outcome for Austin – getting out and racing is probably exactly what Austin needed most, but with his behaviour his father felt backed up against a wall.

“As a parent, I drew a line in the sand,” Jason explained. “It’s not that I wasn't trying to help him. But I couldn't endorse the way he was acting because of what was happening.

Racing Can Be A Cruel Mistress

“It's got to be the most expensive lesson I've ever taught anybody.”

But some good came out of it: another Nissan Micra Cup competitor, Jake Exton, has become one of Austin’s closest friends on the circuit, a bond that was cemented when Exton dedicated his first-ever podium finish at GP3R to Austin as an understanding hat-tip to his struggles that weekend.

When Exton’s name comes up, Austin nearly bursts with enthusiasm.

“Jake’s from England,” Austin explained. “He owns his own restaurant in Lakefield, the Canoe and Paddle. I go up and see him.”

This friendship demonstrates another benefit that Austin gains from racing, that of true acceptance within the Nissan Micra Cup paddock.

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“He’s more comfortable with himself and the people around him,” Jason said. “At the end of last season, they really started to understand. His results were getting better and better. He gained a lot more respect. It didn't look like it was just a publicity thing. He actually has some skill.

“On the Sunday (of the Calabogie race weekend), it started to rain. On slicks, it was pretty slippery out there. Austin was the fastest car on track for the final five laps, and he was running nose to tail with 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th.

“After the checkered flag, all the guys in front of him slowed down and gave him a thumbs up out the window. That was the best moment for me of the season.”

Now, with another season of positive growth under their belts, the Rileys turn their attention to raising funds to race again next year by selling puzzle-piece graphics on the No. 20 car as a form of crowd-funded sponsorship.

They’ll also spend the winter promoting the Autism Reality Experience, a simulation program that helps bridge the gap between autistic and neuro-typical people to demonstrate what it’s like to live with autism. The initiative is gaining interest quickly from local teachers’ colleges and police forces as a unique and direct form of sensitivity training.

And while setbacks like the ones they experienced this year are inevitable – some of them are just part of life in racing, while others are part of life with autism – the Rileys will keep pushing as long as the results they’re truly looking for keep coming.

“Are you pretty proud of yourself?” Jason asked.

Austin responded simply: “Yeah.”

Austin Riley

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