Riley Dickinson slumped back into the seat of his dad’s truck defeated, exhausted, and tired of baseball. At seven years old, the little kid from New Braunfels could tell: the usual sports just weren’t for him. Texas and its Friday night lights be damned. He slipped into the seat and gazed at the ranches and sun arcing across the east Texas hill country horizon near Loop 337. Riley’s dad, Drew, had all the confidence in the world in his son. He didn’t know his son had all the confidence in himself too.
“Oddly enough, the baseball field is across the street from the go-kart track,” Dickinson says. “I was so done with baseball, and I looked at the track. I told my dad, ‘I want to do this instead.’ … Looking back at it, I wonder why he trusted me so much.”
His instincts haven’t let him down from that night on. They took him from the Hill Country Kart Club to the Porsche Carrera Cup when he was just 16, where he quickly impressed as a teen holding his own against grown men. And fresh off his 21st birthday, they've taken his driving to new heights in the 2023 season and turned him into the runaway championship leader. Riley Dickinson is putting on a clinic in the #53 car for Kellymoss Racing; he's won five of eight races and podiumed in the other three. He's like the Max Verstappen of the North American Cup, if Verstappen had a more emotionally supportive father.
If Dickinson keeps it up, a performance like this can set the stage for even bigger things to come in the racing world. There's a whole second half of the season to get through first, of course. But Kellymoss owner Victoria Thomas has faith in those instincts too.
“Riley’s seat-of-the-pants feel is what makes him different, special. It’s that feeling he has behind the wheel that he can then articulate to engineers that makes him successful,” she says. “It’s so unique.”
Riley Dickinson is hardly a robot when he gets into his #53 Porsche Carrera Cup Car before the first race in Miami last month, where I caught up with him. It's a big weekend to cement his blazing start, coming off a win and podium in the previous rounds at Long Beach and back-to-back wins at Sebring. He chats with his car manager, leaning against the tall gooseneck wing of his 992 GT3 Cup Car like it was an east Texas fence post. His hands are relaxed, and his face is uncommonly emotive. Riley doesn’t waste much effort and focus out of the race car.
“I’m a pretty easygoing guy … except when it’s time to get down to business,” Riley says one breath before the following. “Looking at the timesheet, anywhere outside the top three is going to be a disappointment.”
This is his fifth season of Carrera Cup, making him a veteran despite the fact that he's barely old enough to drink, and it's been a steady build of success. Since he began racing Porsches in 2019, he’s taken second and third place in season standings, amassed a handful of wins throughout several seasons and even more podiums. He's very aware a start like this one raises expectations, especially when you drive for a storied team like Kellymoss.
“I know that I do have that experience. I know how these weekends work and I have some comfort going into the weekend, I have that experience with the cars,” he says. “For me, though, it’s hard to be focused on the expectations. If something doesn’t go your way, you can psych yourself out. It’s more about what I can control.”
Dickinson races for something bigger too. His Porsche is adorned with hands and well-wishes from children thanks to his partnership with Children’s of Alabama to support kids with cancer. ("I have two kids this year with my car, who are my honorary crew chiefs. It’s really their car.") It's also a cause that's very close to him. When Riley was making his way through karting, his teammate and close friend Nicholas was diagnosed with bone cancer in his shoulder and later passed away.
“We were brothers, and he was the older brother I never had,” Riley says. “It put a lot of things into perspective, and every day is a special day to me."
Though he's led more often than not this season, it'd be a mistake to think he's untested. In Carrera Cup, at tight racetracks like Miami, it’s a contest of restarts. Dickinson is quick to make use of clean air ahead of him from the front, but when the racers bunch up during restarts, he’s often pressured from cars behind him. At Miami, the second-place runner pushes him wide on the first turn, forcing him into the runoff area and out of position. Instead of finding his way back onto the track immediately, he makes a split-second dash to the outside, a move that saves him from getting hit by another two cars and puts him back into the lead with room to spare. If 100 racers were forced into the same position, 99 of them wouldn’t have taken that route.
“[In normal circumstances] that means your day is done, but somehow it was a miraculous act of the racing gods, or whatever you want to call it… We had a bent toe link there at the end and anything above fourth gear is a pretty, pretty massive high-speed vibration. Anytime I tried to turn left, the rear would always try to come around.”
Regardless, Dickinson keeps it together and does what he does, winning both races in Miami and soaking it all up on an F1 podium, which he calls "hands-down the coolest experience that I’ve had in my racing career thus far." (Emphasis ours.) This past weekend he nabbed second place in both races at Watkins Glen, further padding his championship lead. The kid from New Braunfels is going places—where exactly, not even he knows.
But thinking on it more, maybe he does know why his parents let him go racing in the first place.
“It was always me, helmet in hand, saying I want to go to the karting track,” Riley says. “I guess they could see the fire in my eyes.”
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