AFT Champion Series, Part II: Dalton Gauthier Rediscovers the Hunger

Twelve months ago, Dalton Gauthier was not a racer at the top of his game. And he was very definitely not a newly minted AFT Singles champion, as he is today.

Twelve months ago, Gauthier was sitting at home in Pennsylvania wondering if he’d ever race at the top level of his chosen sport again. He’d been riding some local events, but none that packed the prestige and satisfaction he’d experienced in 2016 – when he finished second to Ryan Wells in the AFT Singles championship – or at the beginning of 2017, when he blitzed to wins in the first three races of the season in Daytona, Atlanta and Charlotte … before being suspended indefinitely after failing a random drug test.

After winning in Daytona and Atlanta, Gauthier ran away with the Charlotte Half-Mile in early 2017.

At that point, early in the 2018-2019 off-season, Gauthier’s layoff was approaching the two-year point, although its extended length wasn’t AFT’s doing; rules allowed him to return as soon as he completed the Road To Recovery program, which meant he could’ve been back racing in 2018. But when he didn’t materialize in ’18, folks wondered if the wunderkind would ever return to professional dirt track racing. Were the drugs, edgy lifestyle and influential friends they imagined to be the cause of all this too alluring to resist?

The truth, of course, was vastly different than the conventional wisdom, and had almost nothing to do with a little pot smoking on the side. Yes, ill-timed partying had landed him a suspension, but that wasn’t what had kept him away during 2018, or from finishing the rehab program.

“I was totally burned out,” Gauthier said a while back. “I’d been racing non-stop since I was four years old. Four. I’d just never realized it before, and knew I needed a break. Deep down, I knew I needed some time off, to get away, to be a teenager, to hang with my friends, to not be traveling and racing and working on bikes every hour of the day.”

“When this all blew up,” he added, “the AFT folks told me what I needed to do. The Road To Recovery thing, the rehab stuff. It was expensive for me. I didn’t have a lot of money. I had to pay every time I got tested, or meet with someone, whatever. They kept changing the people I needed to meet with and the places I had to go. It was very frustrating. The last guy I saw I didn’t get along with. And I got a bit fed up with it.

“But burnout was the real cause. And once I realized that’s what it was, I felt lot better about things, and a lot more positive. Because I knew I’d be back, knew I’d return to racing, because I loved it, and was good at it. But at the time I needed some time off. It had to happen for me to be hungry again. And you gotta be hungry to race and win.”

Gauthier, leading Chad Cose (hidden) and reigning AFT Singles champ Dan Bromley (1) earlier this season at Springfield. Scott Hunter/AFT  

Hunger. It’s a powerful motivator, and a necessary ingredient in nearly every form of human achievement. And once Gauthier recognized he had it again and that it was real, he re-engaged, embarking on a path that would, less than a year later, lead him to his first professional National Championship.

Step one on that pathway was a change of location and a fresh set of acquaintances – primary among those being Pensacola, Florida, and Rob ‘Robby Bobby’ McLendon, a racer, dealer, flat track aficionado and short track owner with a history of involvement and support of professional dirt track racing.

“Rob had been a friend and supporter of mine for a couple of years,” Gauthier told us, “and he and I stayed in touch while I was away from AFT. I was still racing and riding, but just local stuff for fun and to keep my edge. Anyway, Rob had a race or two in late 2018 down in Pensacola, where he lives, and we talked about me coming down. I wasn’t doing all that much, just living at my Mom’s in Pennsylvania, and it suddenly hit me. It’s time. It just felt right. The hunger was back.

Gauthier credits Rob 'Robby Bobby' McLendon (left) as the key player in his championship. "I could literally not have done this without him. We're a team, and a good one," he says. Scott Hunter/AFT 

“So I packed up my stuff and moved to Pensacola. Rob said I could live at his house and train and ride at his racetrack. I’d finish my rehab this time, be serious about it, and train like crazy, working out three or four times a week, and riding hard – and I mean for hours – several times a week.

“We were talking on and off during last year and the off-season” McLendon told us early in the 2019 season, “and I was sort of challenging him, telling him I was tired of hearing about him making a comeback, and that he needed to either sh&# or get off the pot. And it finally clicked. I think he’d had enough of just hanging around, and really wanted to get back into it full-bore. There’s a good level of trust between us, and I told him, ‘If you give me 100%, I’ll give you 100%.’ I have a big house, and my girl is used to racing people being around and staying over, so it all works. It gets crowded at times, but hey, we have three bathrooms!

“Dalton’s like one our kids,” McLendon added at the time, “and he’s worked his ass off over the last couple of months. We give him his freedom, too. If he has a date, he knows where my keys are. I trust him, and he’s repaying that trust by staying clean and working with me to help fund our race program; I have a side business buying and selling parts and motorcycles, and he’s contributing. We’re not a well-funded team by any stretch, but so far the results are pretty darn good.”

The Gauthier/McLendon duo teamed up with Terry Rymer and the Black Hills H-D/Vance & Hines team this year and did some serious damage in the inaugural AFT Production Twins class, making nine of 11 Mains, scoring two wins and finishing fourth on the season. He's very likely headed to the SuperTwins class in 2020. Scott Hunter/AFT 

“I wasn’t really sure when I’d be cleared,” Gauthier told us. “We figured it might be in time for Texas, or maybe Atlanta, but didn’t think it would happen for Daytona, but I was clean and the rehab folks knew it because I’d been tested and they saw I was deadly serious. There were lots of tests in the weeks leading up to Daytona, but I wasn’t messing around, and I think I ended up getting cleared a week or so before Daytona. It was a relief, but hey, I did the work, and it paid off in terms of being able to race but also with our finishes at Daytona and Atlanta.”

Gauthier got good starts all season long on the Husqvarna FC450s he rode for much of the 2019 season. Scott Hunter/AFT 

Those finishes were surprising as well as spectacular, especially considering the layoff. Gauthier podiumed in four of the first five races, with a second at Daytona (after qualifying 30th on a stock-engined KTM… “with more speed we might’ve won it!”); a win at the Atlanta Short Track (“I rode one of Jay Maloney’s Hondas with help from Jake Constantine. It ran well and we had a great night, winning going away…”); a fifth at tricky Texas Motor Speedway; a runner-up finish at the rollercoaster-esque Arizona TT and a well-deserved third at the Perris, CA Half-Mile.

With top finishes on Miles, Half-Miles, Short Tracks and TTs, Gauthier's skill set is wide and on the gas. Scott Hunter/AFT 

Most dirt track watchers figured it’d take Gauthier a handful of rounds to get up to speed and contend for wins and podium spots, but the kid came out of gate with his ass on fire and pretty much never extinguished it. McLendon was never one of the doubters, and knew DG would contend from the outset. “We ran Huskys for much of the season,” he said, “but the kid could ride a Popsicle stick and still podium,” he said with a laugh more than once during the season.

Gauthier showed consistency as well as outright speed on his way to the 2019 AFT Singles championship, netting four wins (tied for the most with Mikey Rush, who finished second on the year, just six points back), nine podiums and just one DNF. Reigning AFT Singles champion Dan Bromley finished the season third on his factory KTM, just three points behind Honda-mounted Rush.

The kid certainly has a history of winning. Born in January of 1999, Gauthier was racing by the age of four thanks to his Canadian-born father, a racer himself and a Harley-Davidson mechanic. “So it was natural for me to race,” he told us. “I started riding at about two-and-a-half and was racing a Honda CRF50 at four. We went everywhere we could go, all year ’round, just about every weekend, on all types of tracks and all types of surfaces, indoor and outdoor, against anyone we could find to race against. Later on I graduated to KTM 50s and then 85s, and we were racing against the best kids in the country, north and south of the border. We didn’t have much money; we pretty much lived in a camper, traveling to the races and racing. It was a heck of an adventure to grow up like that. We definitely had a lot of fun!”This year's #1 plate wasn't Gauthier's first, but it was very definitely the sweetest. Gauthier Archive.

At the age of 12 Gauthier graduated to 250s and rode Huskys for a couple of years, getting better and faster by the race and continuing to do well in local and regional events. In 2014 he switched to Yamahas and, in one of his very first races on the YZ450F at a Steve Nace-promoted event in Savannah, GA, beat the very best riders in the country straight up, guys by the name of Mees, Coolbeth, Robinson, Beach and Vankerkooi.

“From there,” remembers Gauthier, “I wanted to turn pro and do this for a living, and knew I had the skills to compete at a higher level. At that time it was still just me and my Dad, him working during the week whenever he could and also building the bikes, with a little sponsorship and us driving around in our old camper.” All that success led to a link-up with Tim Estenson and the then-fledgling Estenson Racing squad in early 2017 – which led to those three shocking wins at Daytona, Atlanta and Charlotte to start off the season … and then, of course, came the ill-fated drug test.

Gauthier (center) was joined by runner-up Morgen Mischler (left), Dan Bromley (right) and McLendon on the podium at Weedsport. Good times. Scott Hunter/AFT  

“That was tough to take at the time,” Gauthier says now. “Total heartbreaker. When they called and said I’d failed the test…. Man, it was bad. I was frustrated. And angry. I was totally sober, you know? Had been for weeks. It just didn’t seem right. But hey, rules are rules, and I broke ’em. It was on me.”

But all that’s ancient history now. And the 2019 American Flat Track season? Well, that’s on Gauthier, too, along with McLendon and a host of sponsors who took a chance on a kid who’d made a mistake, owned up to it, paid the price, took some time off to find himself, and roared back from motorcycling’s Siberia to win a National Championship.

Gauthier acknowledges the crowd after his Williams Grove Half-Mile victory. Scott Hunter/AFT 

It’s a comeback story of mammoth proportion, with the ‘Comeback Kid’ nickname sticking thanks to its liberal use by AFT announcer Scottie Deubler during the season on live stream telecasts and at the track. Gauthier’s story is not unlike that of racing legend and Hall of Famer Ricky Graham, who reached the pinnacle of racing stardom as a Team Honda factory rider and Grand National Champion, then fell backwards due to the demons of alcohol and drugs, only to re-emerge in 1992 and 1993 with a sober vengeance, winning his third Grand National title with Johnny Goad on the Team Undo Racing Honda. Like Gauthier, Graham rediscovered the hunger, and it made him a winner in the end.

Just under twelve months ago, as Gauthier drove back to McLendon’s place after a local off-season race that included Brandon Robinson and a few other AFT regulars, he and McLendon traded texts about the race and the upcoming 2019 Daytona TT in several week’s time.

Gauthier: Looks like I gotta win tomorrow to pay you back … I just wasn’t comfortable on the bike tonight.

McLendon: Bro, you’re good. I’m proud of your speed!

Gauthier: I need to grind out these next couple of weeks or riding and training…

McLendon: Let’s go win a championship this year!

Gauthier: Yep, we’ll get it done!

And boy, did they.

“It’s starting to set in now, a week and a half later,” Gauthier told us for this piece, “and it feels mighty good. Things were a little sketchy at the Meadowlands finale; we just had to finish the main and beat one rider and the championship was ours, but wow….the track was really ugly and guys were crashing, and I got pitched up out of the seat a few times, and it all had a pretty big effect on me. I just sucked! But I’ve never been so happy with a 14th in my life! I didn’t know if we’d won the title until I saw Rob on the front straight after the cool-down lap; he had a big-ass grin, so I knew we were good!”

“The best part is that no one saw this coming,” DG added. “I mean, the haters were out in force, especially on social media, and I don’t think a lot of fans or folks in the flat track community thought we could do it, either. So it’s been very satisfying.”

“As for 2020, I want to be on a Twin,” he says. “I got a nice taste of it this year with the Black Hills Harley-Davidson team and Terry Rymer, and the Vance & Hines guys and the factory, too, and we did pretty well ... surprised a lot of people, I think. So we’ll see.”

It’s probably not a good idea to doubt Mr. Dalton Gauthier. After all, the hunger is back. And a lot can happen in 12 months.

It was championship T-shirt time at the Meadowlands. Scott Hunter/AFT

With a happy Mom and Dad at the Meadowlands finale on September 28. Scott Hunter/AFT.