Brothers From Different Mothers

For a lot of race fans watching the Peoria TT from Thunder Valley’s grassy hillsides – or live on – on the afternoon of August 17th, rookie sensation Dallas Daniels’ dramatic, come-from-behind and runaway win in the AFT Singles race was very likely a bit of a surprise.

After all, the kid had only recently turned 16 and was not a household name … at least not yet; Peoria is one of the most technically challenging and physically demanding racetracks in the flat track world; and Daniels was lined up against many of the world’s best AFT Singles and Tourist Trophy riders, including AFT Singles points leader Dalton Gauthier, two-time Peoria TT winner Jesse Janisch and two-time Buffalo Chip TT winner Ryan Sipes – arguably one of the most talented and versatile riders on the planet.

In control and way out front. It was that sorta day at Peoria for young Dallas Daniels. Andrea Wilson/Estenson Racing 

But to a certain few in the paddock, including family members, some close friends, and especially to Daniels’ dad Nick and riding coach, family friend and longtime AFT Twins competitor Johnny Lewis, D.D.’s win wasn’t much of a surprise at all.

“We were all pretty much blown away by the impact and suddenness of it,” says Lewis of the dramatic victory, “but we really weren’t all that surprised. Those of us close to Dallas see his skills and focus and work ethic and attitude every day, and we knew that would translate into wins eventually. But this soon, and on a track as difficult and challenging as Peoria? That was a bit of an eye-opener, for sure!”

Halfway through the Peoria AFT Singles Main, Daniels had things wired. Behind him are reigning champ Dan Bromley and the very speedy James Rispoli. Scott Hunter/AFT

If not exactly a surprise to his inner circle, Dallas’ win – his first-ever as a Grand National Championship professional, and coming in just his fifth AFT race after turning sixteen in June – was a seriously emotional happening for everyone involved.

“I’ve been at all his races this year,” says Lewis, “and during that Peoria race I was screaming inside, trying to hold back tears. I’ve only known him personally for six years or so, but he’s like my little brother. During the Main I was standing at the exit of the final corner, and when he came by on the last lap I couldn’t hold back. I was crying like a baby! I look up and see Nick, and he’s crying, too, and I think, ‘Man, we’re getting weak! We’re supposed to be big, strong men, right, with no emotion?!’ [Laughs] But we were both a sloppy mess! It was so cool, especially when Dallas picked up Nick and his sister Rease for the victory lap. She was really excited, as was the rest of the family. It really was an amazing thing to be part of.”

Team Estenson lined up to congratulate the kid after his emotional victory lap. Andrea Wilson/Estenson Racing 

“It was a pretty emotional scene,” says Dallas of the post-race celebration, “especially with lots of family and friends there watching. Those folks have been watching me race and cheering me on since I was a little kid…. Mom, Dad, sis, Grandma and Grandpa, some close friends. Winning a National has been a dream of mine for years and years, and to do it the way we did it was just amazing.”

It was hugs all around at Peoria, post-race, with Mom and coach Lewis (left) taking it all in. Scott Hunter/AFT

Amazing. The word gets tossed around a lot when talk turns to young Dallas Daniels, though the 15 amateur national championships and accolades this young man has earned during a two-wheeled career that began when he was just a couple of years old and progressed through childhood and his early teens are 100% legit. Father Nick came from a motorcycling family and introduced his son to bikes very young, moving him from a PW50 with training wheels to no training wheels to 65s and 85s and then 250s and 450s as he progressed.

“My dad raced dirt track, so I was always around bikes,” Nick says. “My mom and dad saw some of the dangers of dirt track racing up close, so I wasn’t allowed, and did woods riding and motocross mostly growing up. I got hurt once back where they couldn’t see me and they finally relented, thinking that at least on a dirt track they could keep an eye on me! I ended up racing pro on and off during the 1990s until the mid 2000s, doing dirt track, some road racing and Supermoto, which is where I met Johnny Lewis. Ended up wrenching for him later when he did his Triumph gig in the Twins class.”

The Daniels family has a long-running connection with the Hayden clan. Daniels Archive.

That friendship would blossom once the two got involved with the Triumph twin, but it was in the early days of the partnership that Lewis would connect with Dallas in a significant way.

“Johnny posted on Facebook that he was going to do some training at a track in Tallahassee,” remembers Nick. “This was before he started his riding school academy, back when we were competing against one another in Supermoto. Anyway, he said, ‘For $100 I’ll work with your kid,’ and I figured we’d give it a shot with Dallas, who was maybe 10 at the time and doing pretty well. We’d see what Johnny had to say, maybe hear a different perspective. His demeanor with the kids was great, Dallas included, and we had a fun weekend. The two got along well, and really bonded later on when he and I hooked up on the Triumph deal, because Dallas would travel with us to the races on occasion. By that point he was helping and mentoring Dallas, and for free, too, and Dallas and I were helping out at JL’s schools, which he’d started by that point. I always tell people now – and joke with JL, too – that it was easily the best $100 I ever spent!”

Dallas was a flat track phenom growing up, earning handfuls of amateur National Championships. Daniels Archive.

“When I first saw Dallas,” Lewis remembers, “he was just a little kid, maybe four years old, wearing riding gear around the pits but not riding, just looking the part! He was racing at the time, but obviously not at the Supermoto races Nick and I were competing in. Anyway, I did a kids boot-camp school and Nick signed Dallas up. I think he was ten. We connected pretty well and have become much closer through the years as I’ve helped mentor him. It’s funny…Nick’s mom, Dallas’s grandma, says I’m the older brother Dallas never had – a brother from another mother! It certainly feels like that, since we give each other crap and are messing around all the time.”

Daniels met Johnny Lewis at around age 10 at a Supermoto camp Lewis put on. "It was the best $100 I ever spent," says Dallas' father Nick. Daniels Archive.

The buzz surrounding Dallas intensified in a big way last August when, as a 15-year-old, Daniels was signed to a two-year deal by Estenson Racing for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Since he didn’t turn 16 until June of this year and wouldn’t be eligible to race AFT until the Lima Half-Mile, Dallas would help the team in a support role, shadowing AFT Singles teammate Ryan Wells during the first eight rounds and learning what he could. Nick came aboard as a Singles-team crew chief.

“The roots of our relationship with Tim Estenson and the team go back a few years,” says Nick. “We’d met [Estenson Racing PR manager] Andrea Wilson at a Supermoto event in Canada back in 2015 or so, and she was sorta blown away by Dallas’s speed and skills as 12-year-old. She called last year and asked if we had anything locked down for 2019, and when I said no, she helped arrange a trip to Arizona so we could meet Tim and talk about things. So we flew down, met with Tim, had a great meeting and signed up in August of last year. Charlie Roberts from the Rookie Class of 79 charity helped, too. The Estenson folks are more like family than a typical race team. You really couldn’t ask for a better deal for your son. They’re good people.”

Tim Estenson hadn’t seen Dallas turn a wheel in anger, but had heard plenty. “I was leaning toward letting [our 450 program] die and focusing on the Twins class,’ Estenson remembers, “but my wife Traci said, ‘You owe it to the sport to support the 450 program and the up-and-coming riders.’ And that made sense. We are here for the long run, we are here to do something to help these kids, and we are fortunate to have Dallas and his dad Nick with us.”

The elements that make up a top-tier professional racer are almost always more than physical on-the-bike skills. The mental aspect is often the key to success, and Dallas seems to have plenty of the latter – even at the young age of 16.

Fans and folks in the paddock have been known to wonder if Dallas Daniels is having any fun. He most certainly is. Andrea Wilson/Estenson Racing 

“Dallas is really focused,” says Lewis. “He has that intense, game-face look a lot of the time, and is always processing something, usually something racing-oriented. We joke about it a lot, but it’s there. You can tell. If I say something about the bike or a line or a way to approach something, he’ll sit there and consider it. A lot of kids just open their mouths or act without thinking, but he’s a lot more mental than that. It’s sometimes hard to read him, and people often think he’s mad or not enjoying himself…but he’s usually just thinking.”

“He’s a pretty serious kid,” echoes Nick. “I’m like that, too, really competitive, so I guess he gets some of it from me. When we were racing all those years, we were always pretty focused. I mean, this is a serious sport, and doing well means being serious and committed. Folks sometimes ask me if Dallas is having fun, because they can’t tell by his demeanor. But he loves it… we love it!”

The Daniels family, circa 2013. Daniels Archive.

“Still,” says Lewis, “he’s got pretty good life balance. Friends, family, all of that. He’s got a great sense of humor, too. He’s always bustin’ on me, and I’m always bustin’ on him, too. He can be a smart-ass, for sure. For a while he was calling me a ’30-plus’ rider, or a ‘vet rider,’ and I told him he could say that only after he beat me.”

“Well,” says Dallas with a laugh, “I did beat him, at Springfield earlier this year during Steve Nace’s All-Star event in May, which ran alongside the AFT Singles TT event. So now he’s Mr. ’30-plus’ rider to me, and I can actually say it! [Laughs]

Dallas, ripping earlier this year at the Steve Nace All-Star event at Springfield, where he beat his mentor Lewis. Scott Hunter/AFT

“But I have so much respect for Johnny,” Dallas adds. “He’s a top-level pro, a guy who’s won a GNC National, and I’m fortunate to have him as a friend and mentor. He’s like a big brother, and having him around is really calming. He’s so knowledgeable with set up, riding, fitness, strategy, all of it. Without him I wouldn’t have been able to win at Peoria. I’m from Illinois but had only raced Peoria twice before. Going in I figured I’d have a shot at a podium; I’d always felt comfortable there. The big thing there is confidence, and the jump and right-hander are key to going well. A lot of guys are psyched out by the jump, which is pretty tricky to get right. A lot of guys just blast it over the jump and screw themselves up for the right hander and the entry to the last corner that leads out onto the front straight. You have to get a good drive onto the straight; it’s a road racing thing, really.

“On a typical race day,” says Dallas, “JL and I will take a good look at the track early on. He’s really good about reading the dirt, calling out how it’s gonna unfold and change during the day. We’ll talk about bike set-up and gearing and such, and then he’ll watch me in practice, the lines I’m using, watching the bike and suspension, etc. At Peoria we talked about me opening up the two left-hand corners more; I was forcing it down a bit too much, and he advised me to open them up at the exit, along with a few other things. It definitely helped.”

“Johnny helps the whole Estenson team,” adds Nick. “He’s really elevated things for us in those areas, helping Ryan and even Kolby [Carlile], too.”

Lewis has been helping Estenson Racing's younger contingent, as well, including Kolby Carlile (center), who's come on strong in Production Twins of late. Andrea Wilson/Estenson Racing   

Did Dallas feel pressure coming into the 2019 season after all the pre- and early-season hype? “Yeah, I did,” he says, “but it wasn’t from the team, or from my Dad or Johnny. It was from outsiders, mainly, most of whom didn’t really know what was going on inside the team. The team didn’t put any pressure on me at all, which was great. I could tell they were letting me go at my own pace. But the pressure did get into my head a little. I pushed it aside, but some of it stuck. And some was from me. I knew a lot of fans had paid money to come watch me race, and I didn’t want to let them down.”

In terms of training and diet, the plan seems to be a slow ramp-up, not a sudden, total-immersion program. “I do a lot of motocross riding and stretching,” says Dallas, “and I worked out a lot while in Arizona early in 2019. But my plan over the off-season is to move to Florida and train full-time with Johnny at his Moto Anatomy facility. The idea of waking up and riding dirt track and motocross, along with some bicycling and gym work, is pretty appealing!”

The Peoria jump is critical to fast laps, and Daniels had it - and the following two corners - nailed in August. Scott Hunter/AFT.

“We’re not trying to overwhelm him” says Nick. “After all, he’s still just sixteen. His diet will have to improve, too [laughs], and I’m sure Dallas will agree! We don’t want to burn him out; he’ll grow into it, which is just fine. Tommy [Hayden, Estenson Racing team manager] is mentoring him, too, which is great.”

“I’m enjoying the idea of doing what I love and making a living at it,” says Dallas. “Winning races over the years has made me want to get serious about my primary goal, which is winning a National Championship, and I’m feeling pretty good about where we are at this point.”

There were a lot of very fast, very experienced racers lined up behind Daniels at Peoria. His number 163, btw, is an ode to team owner Tim Estenson, who ran it during his racing career. Scott Hunter/AFT

“I think Dallas has the perfect mentality for his current path,” says Lewis. “Last year I was training a group of younger riders, and Dallas was part of that group. In the morning I got up and made my rounds, telling the guys what I wanted to see in the morning session. I didn’t see Dallas, and asked where he was. Someone said he was already out stretching, which just reinforced the idea that he’s self-motivated, self-driven. He wants this, and if you’re around him you notice it.”

Amazing two-wheeled skills. Mental toughness. And an analytical racing brain. Dallas Daniels seems to have all the right stuff to realize his championship dreams. And when you add riding coach and mentor Johnny Lewis to this 16-year-old’s moto mix, you’re very likely looking at a serious force to be reckoned with in the coming decade. Or two.