True Grit: Off-Road Champ Gary Sutherlin's Unexpected Season
Winning two different championships in one year is not an easy task. Gary Sutherlin did so in 2017, but unexpectedly found himself without a ride a month before the 2018 season. We talk to Gary about the adversity he faced, and single-handedly making a new program work for the 2018 season.
Gary Sutherlin is an off-road racer that has been swinging his leg over a dirt bike for many years. Initially from Montana, and now residing in California, he encompasses a lot of passion, knowledge, and overall love for the sport. More recently, he has established a legendary name for himself in the off-road scene. Gary is the reigning WORCS and AMA National Hare and Hound Champion, two forms of respectable off-road racing that are not for the faint of heart.
In December, Gary faced some adversity and was forced to find another team to ride for, despite winning two championships simultaneously. Racing is filled with highs and lows, and this was not the first time Gary has had to put his head down and get things done to make sure he was lining up at the 2018 season openers.
Suzuki stepped up to help, and Gary has been competing this year on the RMX450Z, backed by multiple other companies who recognized Gary’s talent and contributed to his program. We sat down with Gary to talk about the transition from the 2017 to 2018 season.
Tell us a little bit about the time between the 2017 and 2018 seasons, and the adversity that you faced?
Sutherlin: I won two championships in ‘17 and then I was dropped from the team I was riding for. They didn't hold up their end of our three-year contract, [and] that left me high and dry late in the game. Luckily for me, I was able to get bikes from Suzuki. I had some other sponsors who really stepped up to make things possible. Hatch Racing, Wayside Lumber, and Foothill Drywall. A lot of my sponsors are just everyday companies and people who just love the sport.
What were some of the struggles you faced at the beginning of the season with a new program that you had to put together late in the game?
Sutherlin: Being dropped 4 weeks before the start of the season was a huge blow, especially after winning two championships. All the manufacturers and teams where full, and budgets were full basically everywhere. So, putting my program together was super stressful, but I was lucky enough to have Suzuki step up and give me bikes and parts. With no mechanic help or in house support, the biggest struggle to overcome was shooting in the dark on bike setup and an engine package on a model that is pretty unknown.
How have you felt in races so far, especially on the new bike?
Sutherlin: Unfortunately I feel like I haven’t been able to get myself to 100 percent just because of all the work that’s gone into building my program and all of the bike work. I am getting some of the little bugs worked out and I feel really comfortable on the Suzuki and look forward to the summer break and training for the remainder of the season.
Is there any race that stands out to you so far this season?
Sutherlin: All of the races this year have been a learning curve, and there has been a lot to overcome it seems like each round. The championship isn’t won in one race, so I’m doing my best to stay consistent to keep my Suzuki up front and close the 10 point gap to wrap up my third WORCS championship.
You are also a father… How do you balance all your work, training, and your daughter?
Sutherlin: It’s tough. I actually have another girl on the way. As far as juggling all that, when she’s in school that’s when I get my work done. Having my fiancé, Kristy, her support has really been a game changer. I have that 8-hour window to get my work done. My daughters are my motivation.
Emerie, his daughter, is also one of his toughest critics. She’s the first one to ask why he didn’t get first. Her ‘If you ain’t first, you’re last mentality’ really holds him accountable.
What other sponsors have stepped up to help you accomplish your goals?
Sutherlin: Like I said, Suzuki and other main sponsors really stepped up. Some of these sponsors besides the ones I mentioned earlier are Bell Helmets, Thor, and JE Pistons, which have been a huge help to my career and my current season.
You mentioned JE Pistons, how has working with them been?
Sutherlin: Since having their pistons, I have seen a huge increase in performance. With the quality of the products, I feel more confident on the track. I trust the products and their ability to withstand my racing conditions. Hope to stay with them and their products for years to come.
Find JE Pistons for your machine here.
Of all your accomplishments, what are you most proud of?
Sutherlin: I never gave up on my dreams. I won a championship in 2013 and 2014. After 2016 when I lost my spleen, I wanted to come back and prove something. Kurt Caselli was the only one to win the Hare & Hound and WORCS title in one year. I put a lot of emphasis on that in 2017 and coming back after my spleen injury. Proving that to myself and everyone else that I could do it, that was one of my biggest accomplishments.
What do you hope for the future of off-road racing?
Sutherlin: I would love to see just the growth, more OEM into off road racing. In general, just to see the sport grow, to keep improving, the events evolving, and getting more fans out there. We’re there to put on a good show, and we want to continue to do that.
Going through highs and lows in your career, what has been your biggest take away from it all?
Sutherlin: My biggest take away is that I started out working a full time construction job, while chasing my career, working hard, taking opportunities, and making the best of it. When you get that shot… doing something with it. I never gave up on my dreams and that was my biggest take away, because of where I am now.
What advice would you give to aspiring racers?
Sutherlin: Keep your head down and keep working hard. It won’t happen in one race or one season… it takes years. It’s also about being a good brand ambassador on and off the track. NOT GIVING UP ON YOUR DREAM.
You’re going to have many high and lows through your career, people are going to tell you can’t, but it’s so important to stay consistent. It’s not always the best rider, but the one who gets opportunities and makes the best of them.
Gary sets a great example for young and aspiring riders, and he serves as a reminder that if you work hard, stay dedicated, consistent, and never give up, you can accomplish your dreams. He’s down-to-Earth, and he’s passionate about his sport. We’re happy to have him as part of the JE Pistons family, and we’re looking forward to many more years of racing.
Photos courtesy of WORCS and AMA Kenda National Hare and Hound. WORCS photos by Harlen Foley.
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