Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got a head start on the 2017 season last month by racing in the 31st annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals. The 29-year-old has been active in the Nationwide series since 2010 and the Sprint Cup series since 2011, and has qualified for the Chili Cup four times in his career.
And while Stenhouse said that he enjoys getting some extra track time in, the opening day of the Chili Bowl is particularly special for him. This year, it kicked off on Jan. 9 with the third annual Bryan Clauson’s Racers for Autism event.
Stenhouse drove a midget car for Clauson-Marshall Racing for the event in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Clauson, who passed away suddenly at the Belleville Nationals midget race in August 2016, had arranged the event after being inspired by a high school friend and classmate. His friend, Ben Hodgkin, was diagnosed with autism as a child and had been raised with a dim outlook on his abilities. Since his communication and social skills were limited, they never thought that he’d develop to the same level as his classmates.
Applied Behavioral Analysis helps children between ages zero and 18 foster these skills and often helps them focus on one particular interest. For Hodgkin, that was racing. His passion developed as he grew older and helped him connect with other people. In 2015, the first year that Clauson put on the event, over $40,000 was raised for the Autism Society of America. Last year, they nearly doubled their proceeds at $76,000.
After Clauson’s untimely death, his fiancee Lauren Stewart decided to continue the event in his honor.
“Bryan was incredibly passionate about our event and raising awareness for autism,” she said. “I didn’t have to think twice about continuing the Racers for Autism event.”
Stenhouse, who was close with Clauson, has continued to take part in the autism conversation as a tribute to his late friend.
“We’ve got a buddy, Ben, who has autism,” said Stenhouse. “He’s Bryan’s biggest fan. I’ve adopted him as a fan because of Bryan.”
Stenhouse, along with other racers like Kyle Larson, has actively supported autism events in the past.