Over the years I have had the opportunity to meet some remarkable people. Pioneers in their field, celebrities, change makers, but no one has stuck with me more than Austin Riley. It wasn’t just his story that had an impact on me. It was Austin.
Austin Riley is a race car driver. And yes, racing is thrilling sport, but Riley represents a lot more than that. He is breaking barriers, educating people around the world and giving families hope.
He has been drawing crowds to the race track for years. But his claim to fame isn’t just being fast on the speedway, he is breaking barriers on the track for those with disabilities. Riley has autism. Simple tasks like tying his shoes are extremely complicated for him, but when you put him in a race car – a complex, delicate piece of machinery – he will blow your mind.
I first met Riley and his father Jason back in 2014, in Uxbridge, Ont., at the local go-cart track. I still remember how excited Riley was to have me and my cameraman there filming his every move. He was a go-cart racer back then. He could barely talk to me, let alone look at me. In fact we had to put the mic on Jason in order to get any real chatter out of him. But despite how quiet and shy he was, I knew this kid was going to be something big.
The go-cart track is where Riley’s racing career began. His dad, Jason, just wanted to give him something to focus his energy on. Riley has always loved cars. He has literally been obsessed with them since he was a toddler. So why not try go-carts? The minute Riley hit the gas, he was hooked. Little did Riley and his father realize this go around the track was going to change their lives forever.
It all came down to Riley’s second love: speed. His first love, of course, was cars. Put the two together and Riley is in heaven.
“That’s how my mind works. My mind works at a very fast pace. So in a race car, my mind is moving the speed it’s normally moving. And when I’m not in the race car. It’s not moving very fast at all,” Riley tells me.
In his mind, everything moves fast. Slowing things down makes things difficult and frustrating. But the minute Riley would slide into that go-cart, everything felt in sync. He had found his calling and it put him on the podium so many times he would need a separate room just for his trophies.
“And it’s a beautiful thing. To see someone change like that, someone that went from, ‘why would I want to do that?’ to being able to race here or anywhere in the world and you know that you’re one of the best there is on that grid,” says Jason.
Riley’s journey on the track soon took him from fast go-carts to really fast cars. He became the first person with autism in Canada to get his race car licence. It opened up the track for Riley to drive in the big leagues — the Radical Motorsports circuit. Fast forward a few years and Riley was now racing across North America, making the podium almost every time. He was an impressive force on the track, but an even more impressive person off the track.
When Riley started winning race after race, people were impressed. They were coming up to Jason, wanting to know who this kid was. Many were shocked to find out Riley had autism. So Jason talked about it. He talked about Riley to anyone who would listen. The catch phrase, “Racing with autism,” became Riley’s motto and the name of an education campaign they would take from track to track, and then school to school across Ontario, to across Canada, the U.S. and around the world.
Families with children with autism felt if Riley could do what he was doing, their kids had a chance too. Riley and his father hosted hundreds of presentations telling kids, teachers and parents about his story. He became a game changer on and off the track.
In our recent interviews, he always tells me he wants to change the world (yes, Riley and I have had many one-on-one conversations. A testament to how much he has grown and achieved).
“I feel very happy and proud of what I’m doing … Because, yes, I’m a racer and yes, I love racing, but I’m doing it to change the world,” he says. “My heart is changing the world.”
His father Jason is in awe of what Riley has achieved at such a young age.
“The way he’s changed the perceptions of what someone with autism is capable of – somebody with a disability is capable of in the racing world – is staggering.”
In the Radical Motorsport Series, Riley is a champion. Drivers come from across the United States and Canada, not just to race in the series, but to race against Riley.
However, this journey on the track has not been an easy one for Riley and his family. Jason and his wife Jennifer have sacrificed a lot to keep Riley racing. It’s expensive. A weekend tournament can cost tens of thousands of dollars and that does not include travel, food and hotels. They get support from some sponsors, but the rest of the funding comes from donations, merchandise sales and podium wins. Recently, it has been a struggle.
But it’s not about the struggle for the Riley family, it’s about keeping their son happy and securing his future. Their relationship goes beyond a father-son bond. In Jason’s eyes, it has taught him a lot and made him a better person. Their relationship is inspiring and emotional. You can feel it.
“It’s a relationship that could never be broken, that’s for sure,” says Riley. “Because if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be in this position right now… changing the world and racing.
What lies next for the family is simple, keeping Riley on the track and keeping his dreams alive as he continues to change the world.