“Being in a race car, it’s like a comfort zone,” Armani said.
The 22-year-old is defying expectations and helping to promote inclusivity as one of the few black drivers in the sport, and the first NASCAR driver to publicly discuss his autism.
“I wanted to prove to everybody, you know, that autism can be a strength, not a weakness.”
Autism spectrum disorder is a group of neurodevelopmental disorders that affect communication, learning, and social skills. Armani was diagnosed at the age of two, and like other children on the spectrum, he was non-verbal for the first few years of his life.
“He could say ‘Mom,’ he could say ‘Dad,’ but he didn’t say much else,” said Armani’s father, Del Williams.
His parents didn’t know much about autism and were worried about his future.
“You immediately start thinking about their growth, their development. Would they be able to ride a bike? Would they ever go to college, would they live independently?” Del said.
In addition to communication struggles, Armani’s autism came with a hyper-focus on detail, a trait that would later become key to his success as a professional driver. With the help of speech therapy and occupational therapy, Armani began to thrive. The parents decided to sign up for a two-week course at a nearby university that taught autistic children to ride bicycles.
“By the end of the first day, Armani was able to ride a bike without training aids or balance supports,” said Del.
That’s when they knew he had something special.
“These were the first signs Armani showed of what a brave kid he is.”
It was a trip to the local amusement park that revealed his passion for four wheels.
“They would love a go-kart attraction, and when we first drove around, I wanted to go on it several times, like over and over and over again,” explains Armani.
He started collecting matchbox cars and watching NASCAR racing series on TV.
“I was amazed at how fast those cars were going; I’ve never seen them go that fast,” Armani said.
“It dawned on me that this was something I wanted to do.”
Using his different abilities to his advantage
Armani was able to quickly pick up the mechanics of the gas, brake pedals and steering wheel after attending kart racing school at Jackson Speedway. By the time he was eight he was competing in cards.
From there, he moved on to mini cup racing, a half-sized version of a professional stock car. During that time, he won 18 races and two championships.
Autistics can have sensory hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. Armani’s hypersensitivity to sound and touch has been active in racing.
“Every driver has a focus, but because I have autism, I have a laser-like focus; you almost have to love the car,” explains Armani.
Armani’s hypersensitivity to sounds and touch alert him to the vehicle that other drivers may not notice.
“Maybe it’s happening in a way that a lot of people haven’t seen before.”
“That’s the kind of thing I use to make sure I help give my crew accurate information so they can make the adjustments they need to make to get the best out of the car,” he says.
“It’s strange, if I’m honest, his ability to stay focused and tunnel vision on some things,” Del said.
Armani competed in the ARCA Menards Truck Pro Series, a semi-pro league, at age 16. There he became the Black driver with the highest finish in the 2016 series and championship race.
That same year he was invited to a NASCAR driver diversity program, where he did well enough to compete in Canada’s Pinty’s Series as a professional driver the following year.
“It was a completely different atmosphere,” Armani said.
“I knew that being a professional for the first time would be a lot to learn, but I went out trying to prove to everyone that I had what it takes to drive a race car and be really good.”
In 2021, he made his stateside debut in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, the sport’s third-highest division, finishing 21st.
Leveraging her platform to raise autism awareness
As Armani matured, it didn’t take him long to realize the power of his platform.
He always looked up to drivers like NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and the work he did to support the causes he cared about.
“His character, what he did on the court, his talent and the things he did off the court in terms of helping the community really inspired me to be more like him,” Armani said.
Armani is now shifting gears among drivers, students and advocates.
He attends Oakland University to study mechanical engineering, a degree he hopes to use in retirement to help design, build, develop and test future race cars.
“I wanted to take on this role to offer a lot of hope and inspiration to people in the autism community; to inspire people to keep going and to understand that you can do anything in this world that you put your mind to.”