Dalton Gauthier: The Comeback Kid

To recent fans of American Flat Track, the uninitiated, or simply those who’ve been sleeping beneath a box van for the last several years, the name Dalton Gauthier may not be a familiar one.

Gauthier - pronounced 'Go-Tee-Ay' - has seemingly blasted out of nowhere in the beginning of the 2019 AFT Singles season, grabbing runner-up honors to race-winner Jesse Janisch at Daytona and basically running away with the Atlanta Short Track last weekend. The 20-year-old was simply in a league of his own at Dixie Speedway.

These were impressive and wholly powerful performances, especially given the world-class competition in the AFT Singles division – a class that featured 10 different winners last season and one in which any number of riders can win on a given night. The scene at the front of an AFT Singles Main is often a ferocious and bruising one.

Gauthier ran away from a superb field on the red clay of Dixie Speedway on March 23, 2019. Here he leads Red Bull KTM's Shayna Texter and the rest of the pack early in the day. Scott Hunter photo.

The reason Gauthier’s name isn’t so well-known to some is simple: At the time of the DAYTONA TT earlier this March, the 20-year-old hadn’t competed in an American Flat Track event in nearly two years – his last race prior to Daytona the Charlotte Half-Mile on April 1, 2017.

The reason for the two-year gap? Gauthier, after blitzing to three straight wins in the first three events of the 2017 season (the inaugural DAYTONA TT, the Atlanta Short Track and the Charlotte Half Mile), failed a random drug test administered by AFT in the aftermath of that third win at Charlotte and was immediately suspended.

“Dalton Gauthier, rider of the No. 22 motorcycle in American Flat Track’s AFT Singles class,” said American Flat Track in a press release dated April 12, 2017, “has been disqualified from the Charlotte Half-Mile and suspended indefinitely from AMA Pro Racing for violating the sanctioning body’s substance abuse policy. On April 1, 2017, Gauthier was found to have violated Section B (AMA Pro Racing substance abuse policy) of the 2017 American Flat Track rule book. Gauthier’s AMA Pro Racing competition license will remain suspended indefinitely, pending successful completion of the Road to Recovery Program as outlined in the 2017 American Flat Track rule book.”

Before the fall. Gauthier on his way to an impressive third win in a row at Charlotte in early 2017 on the yellow-liveried Estenson Racing Yamaha YZ450F. Ten days later he was suspended indefinitely. Scott Hunter photo.

The suspension was a bit of a shock to the AFT paddock and the racing community in general, and for a wide variety of reasons. It was a shock to Gauthier, too, but rules are rules and the then-18-year-old took it like a man and owned up a day after the AFT release:

I had marijuana in my system when I was tested at the Charlotte Half-Mile. I’m 18 years old and made a rookie mistake. I take full responsibility for my actions; it was nobody’s fault but my own. The rules are clear, and I violated them. My season is off to such an incredible start, [and] a distraction like this is not what anyone wanted to see. I apologize to my sponsors, my fans, and everyone involved with American Flat Track. I am disappointed in myself, learned a big lesson, and promise this will never happen again. I plan to complete the Road To Recovery program as soon as possible so I can get back to racing. When I’m back I’ll be gunning for the championship like always.”

Most in the AFT paddock and in the general racing community figured Gauthier would be back after a few months, plenty of time to attend the required outpatient meetings, pass the subsequent drug screenings and then get on with his dominant, winning ways.

But when the 2017 season ended and the 2018 season began with no sight of Gauthier, folks began to wonder, silently and aloud … would the kid with so much promise be back? Were the drugs and edgy lifestyle and influential friends too alluring? Did he not have the positive gumption he radiated in his statement back in April of 2017?

Only Gauthier himself knew the answers to those questions…

Gauthier with that first CRF50 and his Dad's speedway bike alongside the family's old race-hauler van.

Dalton Gauthier was born in January of 1999 in Pennsylvania and was racing motorcycles by the age of four thanks to his Canadian-born father, a speedway racer himself and a bike mechanic who worked in motorcycle shops north and south of the U.S./Canadian border.

“My dad was a speedway racer and a Harley-Davidson mechanic,” Gauthier told us, “so it was a natural thing for me to ride and race. I started riding at about two-and-a-half and was racing a Honda CRF50 at four years old. 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 65s and then 80s, 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 out of our old van. It was a heck of an adventure to grow up like that. We definitely had a lot of fun!”

The CRF turned into KTM 65s and 80s over time, and Gauthier got faster, moving to 250-class machines at the age of 12.

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 van and camper.”

Gauthier’s first AFT season was 2015, where he finished a credible 13th overall with one podium (at Daytona) and six top-10 finishes in seven total Main Events. But it was Gauthier’s 2016 campaign that really established him as a title threat. Despite ongoing financial, transportation and mechanical struggles he and his father endured, Gauthier finished second to Ryan Wells in the championship, netting three wins, nine podiums and a whopping 10 top-10 finishes. The confidence and speed he developed that year, along with the ability to defy the odds and contend without big sponsors or new motorcycles, put him in perfect mental and physical condition leading into the 2017 campaign.

A highlight from Gauthier's runner-up 2016 season was his dramatic Arizona Mile win on a Ron Wood-built BMW. "I'd crashed in the heat race due to brake failure," he says, "but got into the Main via the LCQ. Started the Main from the third row, got the lead on about lap four and just ran away with it. Unfortunately, we had mechanical problems for much of the season, which hurt my championship chances." Scott Hunter photo.

“I knew I’d be up front heading into 2017,” he told us. “I’d done really well in 2016, so I just knew. We’d gotten some help from Tim Estenson that year, and it was so cool. He and I kept talking, and I ended up on his team for 2017. He bought us a brand-new 2017 Yamaha, and we spent the entire winter building bikes and engines at Woody Kyle’s. I felt really comfortable after the Daytona win, I was in a good place. So I wasn’t too surprised when I won Atlanta and Charlotte. It all felt really good. My confidence was high. I knew I could win the championship. I had like a 50-point lead after just three races.”

Above and below: Gauthier at Daytona, 2017. He won, and kept winning. But it was all about to come apart. Scott Hunter photo.

And then, with the call from AFT about the drug test results, everything came crashing down. No Charlotte win. No points. An indefinite suspension. And a murky, confusing future. 

“It was total shock,” Gauthier remembers, “total heartbreak. I knew they had random drug screening, at every other race, I think it was. I wasn’t too surprised; it was the first time in my career I’d been tested. To keep myself out of trouble I stopped smoking a few weeks before Daytona, so I figured I was clean. I’d been training and eating well, and didn’t have much body fat, where that stuff hides. So 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’s on me.

“They 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 met with someone, whatever. They kept changing people I met with, and the places I had to go. That was frustrating, too. Last guy I saw I didn’t get along with. And I got a bit fed up with it.

“But there was a lot more to it than just the rehab frustrations and the money and all the questions by friends and fans and flat track folks about when I was coming back. I’d been racing non-stop since I was four years old. Four. I discovered I was burned out on racing. I’d just never realized it before. I knew I needed a break. Deep down, 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.

“Once I realized all that I felt better about things. I knew I’d be back, knew I’d come back 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.”

So as 2017 turned into 2018, Gauthier watched the scenes unfold in the AFT Singles and Twins classes across the country and began thinking about a comeback.

Long-time racer, tuner and shop-owner Rob McLendon (right) befriended Gauthier several years before they won the Atlanta Short Track. "I had a feeling about Dalton early-on," McLendon says. "He's one of those really unique talents." Kristen Lassen photo.

“Rob McLendon had been a friend and supporter of mine for a couple of years,” remembers Gauthier, “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, I thought. It just felt right. The hunger was back.

“So I packed up my stuff and moved to Pensacola. Rob said I could live at his house and train and ride at his little 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 – three or four times a week. I wasn’t really sure when I’d be cleared; 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 that 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 ran with DAYTONA TT winner Jesse Janisch (132) for a while, but a stock engine had him lagging on the asphalt straightaway. Still, watching the two put on an aerial show over the jump was epic stuff. Scott Hunter photo.

“We were talking on and off during last year and the off-season” McLendon says, “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_t or get off the pot. ‘Just get your ass down here and we’ll make it happen,’ I told him. 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. We have some history. 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!

Gauthier returned the favor to Janisch nine days later in Atlanta, where he scored an impressive first win on a Maloney/Constantine Honda CRF450R. Scott Hunter photo.

“Dalton’s almost like one our kids, and he’s worked his ass off over the last couple of months. We give him his freedom, too. We’re not his parents. 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, and we’re looking for additional help for the season, but we’re squeaking by and, so far at least, the results are pretty darn good.”

A close second and a runaway win right out of the box is better than good.

About DAYTONA, Gauthier says this: “I was on stock bike at DAYTONA. I’d never even ridden it until the day before the race. I qualified 30th or something like that, but ended up third in the heat behind [Dan] Bromley and [Ryan] Sipes. In the Semi I got the holeshot from the outside of row one and won it in front of [Jacob] Lehmann and Bromley. That gave us confidence. I was thinking, ‘Sheesh, I could maybe win the Main tonight.’ I got the start in the Main but Jesse outpowered me on the asphalt, and that was the difference, really. He was riding great but had more power than we did, which really showed up on the tarmac. If I’d had a faster bike it would have been a lot closer.

After qualifying slowly at Daytona on a mostly stock KTM, Gauthier fought his way to the front, grabbing third in his Heat and winning his Semi before scoring a runner-up to Janisch in the Main. Scott Hunter photo.

And on the Atlanta Short Track, this: “In Atlanta I rode one of Jay Maloney’s Hondas with help from Jake Constantine, Maloney’s tech and business partner. It ran well and we had a great night. We have a ton of confidence going into Texas, and we’re hopeful about the future. We’re hoping to pick up some additional sponsors and I think that’ll happen if we keep winning and getting on the box; I feel pretty sure we can do that through the season. I’m hungry again, and that’s a feeling I haven’t had in a while. It’s good. I’m excited. Robby is excited. Our whole effort is energized, and we’re gonna do what we can to keep the momentum rolling.”

The Atlanta Short Track podium was like a pitcher of sweet tea for Gauthier (middle), McLendon (raising trophy) and Jake Constantine (just left of Gauthier), who built the bike Gauthier won on. That's Morgen Mischler (far left) and Dan Bromley (far right) celebrating alongside. Scott Hunter photo.

That momentum might even carry over into Twins competition this season, with Gauthier and McLendon working on an AFT Production Twins effort that will mesh seamlessly into DG’s AFT Singles championship run.

“Dalton is so talented,” said Estenson Racing chief Tim Estenson in early 2019, and a guy who saw Gauthier’s potential in 2016. “You could compare him in some ways to Ricky Graham … just unreal natural talent, a kid doing what he loves.”

What he loves.

This year, once again, Dalton Gauthier is loving the idea of motorcycle racing. After all the work and wins growing up, all the cross-country travel, all the sleeping in the family camper, the successful 2016 season, his amazing 2017 start, the drug suspension, the long finding-himself delay during rehab and, finally, the realization that professional dirt track racing is what he was meant to do... After all that, DG is back in his groove.

And very soon, it’s a good bet everyone will know his name.