TULSA, Okla. — Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals week officially kicks off Sunday night, not with race cars hitting the track inside the Tulsa Expo Center, but with camaraderie, laughs and a special event for a notable cause.

Bryan Clauson’s Racers for Autism, benefiting Today’s Champions — Empowering Those With Autism, returns for a fifth year to bring awareness to the challenges faced by those living with autism daily and to celebrate a special friendship which ultimately led to the idea for the event in 2015.

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Clauson was inspired by high school classmate and close friend Ben William Hodgin, who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at age five and was given a bleak outlook for his chances of thriving as a young adult because of the disorder.

However, that didn’t faze Clauson. The two struck up a genuine friendship and Clauson gained one of his most-loyal supporters.

Fresh off signing with Chip Ganassi Racing’s NASCAR program, Clauson was still at Noblesville High School when he first met Hodgin, an underclassman at the time. A few years later, they rekindled their friendship at a Noblesville basketball game.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Clauson Hodgin Racers for Autism
Bryan Clauson (left) and Ben William Hodgin. (Hodgin Family photo)

“Ben and Bryan were high school friends and their friendship revolved around two things — racing was number one and sports, in general, was number two,” recalled Ben Hodgin, Ben William’s father. “Ben actually found Bryan and they just became fast friends. We call it a unique and pure friendship. It wasn’t contrived and it wasn’t because someone felt guilty about something or needed something … it was just common interests and a common bond between them.”

“It was 2012, when Bryan ran his first Indianapolis 500, when their friendship really took off,” added Ben William’s mother, Beth Hodgin. “We saw them (the Clausons) a lot, not only at Indianapolis, but at a lot of the dirt tracks in Indiana that Bryan loved so much. We were always big Indy car and NASCAR fans, but Ben knew Bryan locally and with him being from Noblesville … it was a natural connection.”

Clauson kept his friendship with Ben William in mind when he posed the idea of a Monday night event to raise money for autism ahead of the 2015 Chili Bowl. His fiancée, Lauren Stewart, and car owner at the time, Joe Dooling, proposed barbecue, beer and an auction. Racers for Autism was born.

“The first few times we went to the Chili Bowl with Bryan, everyone would have a good time after practice night, but they would all go to different places,” noted Ben Hodgin. “Some folks went out to eat, some socialized in the night life and then everyone would get serious on Tuesday, but Bryan thought it would be great to kick off Chili Bowl with something that could get everyone together for a cause.

“He wanted to create a fundraiser around Ben and bring this thing to life, and we were taken aback by the offer and Bryan’s wish … but it was something he really wanted to focus on and he made it happen.”