Austin Varco, 24, loves driving race cars. That is not surprising. After all, his mom and dad raced cars.
“Most of my core memories as a child were at racetracks,” said Varco, who raced go-carts at age 7 and set Southern California youth track records at 10.
However, he’s not a typical race-car driver. He’s autistic. And he is on a mission.
Born and raised in Chula Vista where he lives today, he learned of his autism at age 20.
“My whole adolescence I knew I was different,” he said. “I didn’t know why, but I always felt outcasted, struggling to make friends. I just didn’t share the same interests as other kids.
“Around 12, I remember suggesting we play ‘ring-around-the-rosy’, but the other kids wanted to play soccer.”
By middle school, he faced bullying. “I was the common enemy. They spit on me, bumped me and even threw a chair at me. I had no friends.”
His environment significantly improved when he switched middle schools, made some friends and took up filmmaking.
“Filmmaking was a coping mechanism,” he said.
He made about 100 short films and a 90-minute feature over two years.
“I was good at it, attended film festivals and built up a network in the film industry.”
Although he could have pursued a career in filmmaking, he chose race-car driving while attending University of Southern California and racing with the school’s team.
However, his life changed in 2019 when he was diagnosed with autism.
Autism is a developmental disability that affects social interaction, communication skills, and cognitive functions in about 1 out of 36 children in the U.S.
“My reaction was 50/50 shock and relief,” he said. “This was the missing piece to explain my life.”
He says autism explains his all-consuming focus on activities, such as filmmaking and race-car driving. “A unique trait of autism that sets me apart is the ability to channel an intense laser-like focus on specific things,” he said.
“Normal people can do many different things at once by switching gears. I can’t do that and never have been able to do that.
“I consume racing all the time. It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing when I go to bed. But I’m always struggling with knowing when to stop.
I don’t have an off-switch.”
After graduating college in 2022, he zeroed in on a racing career.
“Racing makes me feel just as capable as anyone else. It is the car and me, and I am in control. I push it to its limits.”
He has quickly become known as an up-and-coming star. He was named 2022 “Rookie of the Year” by the Sports Car Club of America Cal Club Region with a record that included three wins, 13 top-three podium placements and three lap records.
His goal is to get licensed for NASCAR racing and become NASCAR’s first professional driver openly diagnosed with autism to win.
However, equally important to him is his mission to advance the acceptance of people with autism and inspire autistic children to know they can be successful in many different ways. “I want to represent the autism acceptance cause at NASCAR in front of a million people.”
Varco has already begun to use his budding celebrity status to heighten understanding of autism, doing interviews and guest speaking at the “Autism Speaks” fundraising walk in L.A. He has also hosted events for autistic children and their families where they meet and talk with race-car drivers, sit in race cars and operate training simulators. A recent event attracted hundreds of participants.
In November, 2022, KNX News in L.A. proclaimed Varco “hero of the week” and “superstar in the making” who is “breaking the stigma of autism.”
It is not hard to envision that some day NASCAR enthusiasts will cheer on Austin Varco as he crosses the finish line and takes the podium, serving as an inspiration to a generation of autistic children.
About this series
Jan Goldsmith is an Emeritus member of the U-T’s Community Advisory Board. He is an attorney and former law partner, judge, state legislator, San Diego city attorney and Poway mayor.
Someone San Diego Should Know is a column written by members of the U-T’s Community Advisory Board about local people who are interesting and noteworthy because of their experiences, achievements, creativity or credentials.