When Crystal Davis of Winterport, a single mother of four boys, makes spaghetti for dinner, she tops it differently for each child. One son likes it cheesy, another plain and yet another with tomato sauce. She doesn’t mind — the custom menu helps maintain a relative sense of calm at dinnertime.
The quartet keeps Davis busy and not just because of their differing tastes. The boys are all on the autism spectrum, which means they lack social skills to understand each other and other people they come in contact with.
But the boys, ages 2, 3, 5 and 9, are the inspiration behind the new decor on local teen racing icon Lexi Roach’s yellow race car. The Workstore in Glenburn did the paint scheme for the vehicle, which includes puzzle pieces and a butterfly, two symbols of autism. Children with autism will have a chance to sign their names on the car as well.
“We came up with our own ideas, and they did it to perfection. It’s pretty cool,” Roach said.
The Davis-Roach partnership is a perfect match. The boys love cars. They’ve all been going to Speedway 95 in Hermon where Roach races since Davis was pregnant with each of them. It’s there that a unique relationship was forged between four little boys and a teenage girl all in love with a bright yellow Volkswagen Beetle.
“The boys are so cute. They’re my racing family now,” Roach said. “Crystal is going through struggles most people never have to go through. It’s unbelievable how Crystal can do what she does, especially with four boys.”
A fan favorite
Roach, 14, started racing in Hermon when she was 11 years old in a “banged-up” Ford Escort.
Children ages 11 to 15 are allowed to race at the track as part of the Stars of Tomorrow program overseen by Kim Baker Allen, who has been at the speedway for decades.
Baker Allen said the children are often taught how to drive on private property, but before racing, they must demonstrate their skills to race track staff. Once the youth receive any formal driver training such as driver’s education courses or when they receive a permit or license, they are disqualified from racing in the Stars of Tomorrow division.
“It means all of the children are basically racing right around the same level,” Baker Allen said.
Several safety precautions also are in place including gear requirements, car inspections and if the children start going too fast, staff will add weight to the back of their cars to increase traction.
So far, the state has not tried to regulate the youth racers, however, Baker Allen said she is trying to start a formal training program because of a recent increase of children wanting to learn to drive.
“Before it was a lot of kids who were already part of race families and had been at the track since they were born,” Baker Allen said. “But now we have these fresh ones, and we want to grow the program from the ground up. The kids are the future of [the track].”
When Roach was 11, her father taught her how to drive in a parking lot near their home in Brewer, and eventually, she graduated to the track. She drove the Ford for a few years, but she recently upgraded to the Volkswagen.
“It was a little weird and different, but I’m unique,” she said. Despite classic movies such as “The Love Bug,” Volkswagens are not common racing cars, especially not bright yellow Beetles driven by girls, Roach said.
Last year, Roach and her father, Pete Roach, decided they would start giving the car a theme.
“I like to race for something that means something,” Lexi Roach said. “When you have a theme, it becomes more real to people. It becomes a little more personal.”
In 2014, Roach’s car was themed “Don’t Text and Drive,” and she spoke with spectators about driving safety and distraction-free driving. But this year, she wanted to do something more personal.
“The moment I met the boys, I fell in love with them, and when I found out they had autism, I knew I had to do something,” Roach said.
The boys have long been drawn to the yellow Volkswagen Beetle with big painted-on eyes. But they also are fans of its driver, too.
“My boys are obsessed with Lexi. … The car caught their attention, and my 9-year-old has a big crush on her,” Davis said. “[Lexi’s car] is a fan favorite, and the boys were drawn to it right off the bat, but once they actually met her, they instantly fell in love with her.”
The two families are intertwined in one another’s lives.
Pete Roach helped Davis and the boys move into their new home last fall. Then at around Christmas, after learning Davis was struggling to give her boys the Christmas she imagined, the Roaches had an idea.
After a rather nasty crash last year, Lexi Roach’s fender was unsalvageable. So they cleaned it up, Roach signed it, and they gifted it to her four young fans. The fender is proudly displayed in Davis’ living room.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children have been identified as having a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, a number that has increased significantly since 2000, when it was estimated 1 in 150 children had autism.
The increase has meant more people are aware of what Davis is explaining when she tells them about her sons, however, they may not realize what that means in terms of how they act or respond to certain situations.
“The prevalence of autism is rising, people are more accepting of behavior, but they’re not necessarily more aware of what’s causing the behavior,” Davis said.
So she’s using the partnership with Roach as a chance to further her goal of raising awareness and support for families in similar situations. They have already begun spreading the word about autism by exhibiting the car at the Northeast Motorsports Expo at the Augusta Civic Center in January. In the coming months, Davis will continue looking for media attention, sponsors and organizations to give money and educational materials to the team. It’s not a new role for her.
Last year, Davis participated in the autism awareness walk in Bangor and regularly lobbies for her boys, making sure they have resources to help them learn and grow.
“I think I was destined to have them,” Davis said of her boys. “I was destined to be a mom with kids of special needs.”
She said she was touched by Roach’s gesture and desire to spread more awareness in honor of her children.
“My boys are everything to me, they work so hard, and I’m so proud of them, so it’s nice to see someone be proud of them as well,” Davis said. “It’s a huge deal for me.”
At every race, the team will have a table set up with information about autism and resources for the public and families coping with a diagnosis. She hopes to meet other families and reach out to parents who may need an understanding shoulder to lean on.
“As an autism community we are a family. … When you meet another parent of a child with autism, you can honestly say to them, ‘I know what you’re going through,’ and we all need that support,” Davis said.
But she wants the public mindset to continue shifting, too. While most people are understanding of an autism diagnosis, not all are accepting of it as an explanation for her children’s sometimes explosive behavior.
“The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, but we do still get a lot of disgusted looks,” Davis said. “My hope for the community is that they learn to be patient with them.”
Knocking down stereotypes
As a participant in the Stars of Tomorrow class of youth drivers at the track, Roach regularly competes against all boys. So she’s taken it upon herself to serve as an example to other girls who may want to pursue racing. She hopes with a win under her belt last season, she’ll start this year out strong.
“I definitely want to move up, and I’m hoping for a championships,” she said adding that she also wants to continue breaking down stereotypes.
Many of the boys in her division can be ruthless, she said, often harassing her about being a girl. But she tunes most of it out.
“I don’t listen to what they say. … It’s hard to do, but if you listen, you start to think what they’re saying is true,” Roach said. “If you want to do a boy-based sport, go for it.”
Her dad, first hesitant to have his only daughter participating in a high-speed, male-dominated sport, has come around and is her biggest fan.
“It’s different to have her racing, but you know what, why not?” Pete Roach said.
Lexi Roach has several events lined up for 2015, which she hopes will bring the message of autism awareness to thousands of people. Roach will be featured at the Bangor Mall Car Show on March 27-29 and will participate in the Walk for Autism on April 26, among others.
“Autism and racing aren’t really two things you’d think about being together, so that makes people want to take a second look and learn more,” Roach said.
To sponsor Lexi Roach’s car or get involved with autism awareness can do so through Crystal Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.