Need for Speed: Teen Becomes First Autistic NASCAR Driver, Proves Naysayers Wrong, Inspires Others

March 3, 2020 Updated: March 15, 2020
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Nineteen-year-old African American professional race car driver Armani Williams is living his best life as the first-ever NASCAR driver with autism. His need for speed started when he was just a child; today, he’s making his dreams a reality.

Williams, hailing from Grosse Point, Michigan, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2; doctors informed the toddler’s parents that he was non-verbal. However, Williams defied the odds by starting to learn to speak within 12 months of his diagnosis.

A love for cars followed shortly thereafter. As per NASCAR, it started with go-karts and escalated from there.

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NASCAR Drive for Diversity participant Armani Williams poses at Bethune Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, on Oct. 16, 2017. (©Getty Images | Jerry Markland)

“I first got in a car when I was 8,” the teen explained, as per News Journal Online. “I had been a fan of racing, but when I got in the car, from that moment I wanted to be a race-car driver … It felt like a lot of fun and something I really enjoy. It didn’t scare me one bit.”

Williams turned his passion into a career ambition, taking part in numerous racing events and eventually making a name for himself in professional racing circuits.

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Williams waits in his car at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida on Oct. 17, 2017. (©Getty Images | Jerry Markland)

“I would watch NASCAR nonstop,” Williams explained to The Art of Autism in an interview in 2018, “and it amazed me how fast those cars were going, passing cars, and a winner getting a trophy at the end of the race.”

“[O]ne day I told my dad straight up that was something I wanted to do when I grow up,” he continued. “I wanted to be a professional race car driver.”

According to Face 2 Face Africa, Williams was signed to SPEAR MotorSports in 2016, and broke a record for being the fastest finishing African American during the championship season of the ARCA Truck Pro Series of the same year. His next stop was NASCAR.

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Williams photographed at Bethune Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, on Oct. 16, 2017 (©Getty Images | Jerry Markland)

NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity 3-day “combine” in October 2017 featured a diverse group of young men and women hungry for a career in racing from all corners of North and Central America. Williams was the only autistic candidate.

The young hopefuls were put through their paces at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, with written, verbal, and physical tests designed to determine their suitability for a run behind the wheel. “It was hard, but we all had a lot fun,” Williams summarized, as per News Journal Online.

Moving to Daytona Beach’s New Smyrna Speedway the following day, the candidates had the opportunity to show off their driving skills and battle for four coveted seats in the 2018 NASCAR minor-league circuit. Williams came out in the top four.

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NASCAR Drive for Diversity participants Fabian Welter (L), Ryan Vargas (C), and Armani Williams (R) at Bethune Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, on Oct. 16, 2017 (©Getty Images | Jerry Markland)

As per the Autism Society, autism is a “lifelong developmental disability that … can impact a person’s social skills, communication, relationships, and self-regulation.” The condition can affect people of any race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic group.

Williams claims that, far from holding him back, his autism and his love for racing have been of reciprocal benefit to one another. “I feel like my greatest challenges of having autism [are] the communication and social interaction,” the driver said.

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NASCAR Drive for Diversity participants Nicholas Sanchez (L), Chase Cabre (C), and Armani Williams (R) at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida on Oct. 17, 2017 (©Getty Images | Jerry Markland)

“I have managed to steadily improve these tactics,” he explained, “being a little more proactive around other people, and that’s going to help me in the long run as I continue to live my life with autism.”

The racer also credits his family’s enduring support for helping him achieve his dream. Williams and his family even established the Armani Williams Race 4 Autism Foundation together to promote autism awareness and offer hope to others who may feel marginalized by the condition.

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Williams looks on at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida on Oct. 17, 2017. (©Getty Images | Jerry Markland)

The teen gives inspirational talks to young audiences nationwide to encourage others to be proactive and follow their own dreams. As of 2020, Williams continues to race while studying mechanical engineering at Michigan’s Oakland University.

According to NASCAR’s Home Tracks, Williams has a personal mantra that has accompanied him since the very beginning: “Tell me I can’t,” he says, “so I can show you that I can.”