Ryan Dungey | 2017 Supercross Champion
Turning The Page
Ryan Dungey is one of the greatest racers in history, and possibly the healthiest as well
Ryan Dungey raced professional motocross and supercross for 11 years, and during that time this “supercross specialist” racked up an impressive 44 AMA Supercross win (34 in the 450SX class) and 46 Pro Motocross wins (39 in the 450MX class). Without knowing the numbers, it’s a safe bet that a lot of people wouldn’t have guessed he had more wins outdoors than indoors, but the one statistic nobody’s really spent much time discussing is his health. And they should.
Dungey earned the nickname “Diesel” due to his steadiness. Even if he wasn’t winning, he was always right up near the front somewhere. Always.
But the nickname was always a bit of a backhanded compliment, too. “Diesel” implied that he was always near the front, but maybe not the fastest guy. In truth, he often was the fastest guy, as evidenced by the win numbers touted above. It’s just that his riding style made it so that even when he was the fastest, he never looked like he was on the edge of control. That’s mainly because he usually wasn’t.
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Photography by Steve Cox and Red Bull Content Pool
Rubber Side Down
Probably the most astounding (and not often discussed) fact about what made Ryan Dungey stand out was this: Throughout his entire professional career, spanning 11 seasons, he missed a grand total of 14 races. Even more remarkable than that, they came in just two bunches from just two injuries: five supercross races in 2012 from (broken collarbone, after which he returned, with three rounds left, and won the final two races of the year) and nine motocross races in 2016 (fractured vertebra in his neck, missing the final nine races of the year).
That’s it. Every other time there was a race in a class Ryan Dungey was competing in, he was on the line.
Motocross/supercross is probably the toughest sport on the planet, and most top racers are lucky to make it through a single year without missing any races. Dungey made it through nine out of 11 (although he retired before the motocross series started in 2017).
This has to be some sort of a record.
“I would do anything to not pull off the track or miss a race,” Dungey said. “I hated a DNF. I hated a crash. That also hindered me in the middle of my career because I was so afraid to fail and I didn’t want that to happen that I wouldn’t give my fullest capability. I was 99%, maybe not 100. Once I finally said, ‘You know what? I’m not going to be afraid to fail,’—I say this humbly—but I had 52 consecutive better-than-fourth-place finishes [including outdoor motos]. It just goes to show if I rode scared I would make a mistake and I would get a bad finish, versus if I just let it all out there and wasn’t afraid to fail and just put my best foot forward. After that, the consistency came more and it got better. I was getting more out of what I was in control of, instead of worrying about the things I wasn’t in control of.”
The “middle” of his career that he’s referring to is from 2011 through 2014. It also happens to correspond with the dominant era of “the other Ryan.”
“Villo[poto] by far [was my toughest competitor],” Dungey said. “He was tough. It seemed like nothing I did could ever—you just couldn’t break him. You could have a couple runs here and there and beat him here and there, but it was hard to break the guy. He was just consistently really good. After that I would have to just say Ken [Roczen] was a tough competitor. We had a couple series there where he was tough to beat. Then obviously this year with Eli [Tomac]. People say, ‘What’s wrong?’ this whole season. ‘What was wrong?’ I’m thinking, we all go through these tough times. You’ve got to motivate yourself, but we’re all feeling that. But Eli just raised it a level higher than what you would see in a season. I think we all saw that. The first three rounds weren’t great and then all of a sudden at Phoenix it was like, ‘Holy buckets!’ He was putting a second on me a lap. He beat us by 20 seconds! The guy was on fire. So, just with that, that was challenging. Trying to make up that speed, trying to find the right bike setup and the team and I collaborating. What are we going to do to beat this guy? We didn’t focus on him, we focused on ourselves, but it started us working on a plan and hoping that was enough.”
Tomac was going as fast as anybody’s gone around a supercross track in 2017, but Dungey didn’t give up.
“Just like outdoors last year with Ken [Roczen in 2016],” Dungey said. “He was on a little bit better level than us and we had to bridge that gap. There we are trying real hard and we just make a slight mistake.”
That mistake caused Dungey to hit the ground hard early in the second moto in Colorado. He finished the race in fourth place despite the fall, then realized something was wrong with his neck. After doctors checked it out, he ended up sitting out the rest of the series. As it turns out, that Colorado MX National was the last outdoor motocross race of Dungey’s career.
Ryan Dungey was always a bit conflicted, and fans sometimes could sense it. Media certainly could. When he first turned pro, he’d speak his mind, and the fans and press loved it. However, Jason Lawrence and Roger DeCoster changed that. In 2008, Lawrence beat Dungey for the 250SX Western Regional Supercross Championship by getting under Dungey’s skin. He’d mess with Dungey in practice, and talk smack about him, often knowing Dungey was in earshot. It was a mental game, with the help at the time of Lawrence’s trainer Ryan Hughes, and it worked. He got Dungey off his game and beat Dungey for that championship by a couple points. Later that year, at the Colorado MX National, Dungey sort of went off on Lawrence, calling him an idiot in the press conference, and again, the press and fans (except for Lawrence fans) overwhelmingly loved it. However, it was at that point that Dungey changed.
From that point forward, with coaching from Roger DeCoster, Dungey—with very few exceptions—was always very calculated with what he said and when he said it. In that way, Dungey’s nickname could’ve been changed from Diesel to Vanilla. But he credits that time against Lawrence with his resilience later in his career.
“We all kind of know who that guy was [who got under my skin], obviously Lawrence,” Dungey said. “That was quite the season. I’ll say this the best way I can: I was young. I was trying to learn all this stuff. I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to win a race one year and the next year how am I going to win the championship? So boom, boom, it just escalated from one to the other and here we are in the thick of it. There’s an opportunity. It’s the first one, and you want to hang onto it. You did everything you can. I didn’t handle it the right way, mentally. But I will say that was one of the best years for me in my career. Although I crumpled under the pressure, I failed and this and that, I don’t even like to call it a failure—it was just a learning experience. That, forever—for the rest of my career—mentally just put me in a better place and made me stronger. That was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It sucked at the moment, but hindsight is 20/20.”
Failures are the best way to learn. Someone like Jeremy McGrath won so much and lost so little that it might be pretty difficult for him to coach a rider through overcoming major hardships to begin winning, but Dungey could do that pretty well.
“Everybody’s careers are different in a way, but like [trainer] Aldon [Baker] always told me, it’s never a failure, it’s always just an experience,” Dungey said. “The only thing that you’re going to fail from is if you quit. If you quit on the line. If you quit and actually give up, that’s a failure. By the way, this [retirement] isn’t me quitting. This is just me moving on to the next thing. It’s always a learning thing. You’ll always learn more from giving it your best and not being afraid to fail than if you go out there afraid to fail.”
The other time, much more recently, that it became apparent that something got under Dungey’s skin was at this year’s Phoenix Supercross. It started, for him, when he injured his neck in Colorado in 2016. Up to that point, he’d almost never been seriously hurt, and he was already considering retirement at the end of 2017. The neck injury shook him. “The doctors said it could’ve been a lot worse than it was, and I thought a lot about that,” Dungey said at the time. “I want to have a family. There’s a lot I want to do after I’m done racing, and I almost lost it there. There’s much more to life than racing motorcycles.”
This feeling popped back up again after Anaheim II this year, when Ken Roczen had his massive crash and mangled his arm. Roczen had won the first two races of the year. Then in Phoenix, Tomac destroyed Dungey (and everybody else), which likely put Dungey on edge a little bit more as he headed into the press conference. In the conference, Dungey was asked if losing Roczen as a competitor made him feel as if he had the championship in the bag, and he got really angry. Later comments revealed that Roczen’s injury really bothered him, because supercross is the kind of sport where you can be at the absolute top and then be at the absolute bottom in a split second.
“You come into these series and you know these guys who you’ve got to beat, and they motivate you in a way,” Dungey said. “You’re doing your thing during the week and you want to win and go out there, but you know that this guy—it’s just like when me and Marvin [Musquin] and Jason [Anderson] are at the track, we push each other. It kind of drives us. You’re like, ‘I don’t want that guy to catch me,’ so you either run him down and try to pass him or you try to break away, or vice versa. With Kenny [Roczen], he was a competitor and it motivates you in a way that you don’t really understand. Then the injury happened and things turned. That guy who was there, who motivated you, is gone. We didn’t know Eli [Tomac] was going to do what he did. But everybody’s saying, ‘It’s Dungey’s now, and everybody’s going to hand it to him.’ I’m thinking, ‘This is the exact moment where you don’t underestimate people.’ You’re almost cautiously aware of your surroundings and what the guys are doing. Sure enough, here comes Eli the next week on fire. Bike setup’s good, he’s feeling good; everything’s just clicking. It wasn’t [clicking] for us. It was like, ‘Wow, here we go.’ That was round four of 17, so that’s when it started.”
In the end, though, Dungey held on to win his third-straight supercross title, and it turns out the team tactics from the week before the Las Vegas finale were unnecessary. Then Dungey hung it up.
Determined To The End
Even though Dungey had already decided that he was going to retire at the end of supercross, there was never a moment where he didn’t give it everything he had, even during his last supercross season.
Twice in 2017 he went down in the beginning of the race and dug really deep. The first time was at Daytona, where he battled down to the final lap of the race, bullying his way past Cole Seely—physically moving Seely out of the way—on the final lap for fourth place. That garnered Dungey two very valuable championship points.
Then in Seattle, he did it again, passing Davi Millsaps on the final lap to snatch fourth place and take two more points after coming from basically dead last.
“It was those rides like Daytona and Seattle,” Dungey said. “You’re dead last—this is going to count towards the end some way, somehow—and it did. I could have settled and lost the five points we won by. Might not have been there. It might not have been nine points going into the last round.”
And ultimately, that’s how Dungey is going to be remembered. He always did everything he knew how to do. When you leave it all on the track, it’s probably much easier to hang up the boots when the time comes.
“Even today I don’t regret the retirement from racing either. A lot of people don’t understand. Even when Roger was up there saying [at Dungey’s retirement ceremony], ‘You’re 27 years old at 100 percent!’ I’m thinking, ‘I know, Roger.’ I kind of start to feel that guilt kicking in. I know I’m only 27, but the truth is it’s a shorter career. I don’t know why, but it’s like that and it just seems like that 10 or 11 years, maybe one more is maximum. It’s not a matter of physical. It’s not a matter of anything but that I think mentally you’re just at it and you’re hitting it hard for so long.
“What people need to understand is there are so many races a year that we have now, especially in the 450 class. There’s very little time off. Practice is an adrenaline rush, too. You’re on that edge. With the racing one day a week there’s also three other days of riding a week, and the training. It all starts to add up.
“I just feel like the last 11 years it’s been, you wake up and it’s just kind of there. It’s on your mind. You know what you’ve got to do. You know where you’ve got to be. You know what goal you’re going after, and how are we going to get better today? I always wake up embracing it and try to enjoy it, but it starts to weigh on you. That little thing starts to kind of get heavier. I don’t know if that’s just about wanting to do good. Once you finish where we have and the top spot, it’s so hard to expect anything less.
“I’m very fortunate for that, and that’s not why, but more mentally it just got to a point—and I felt slight signs of it last year in the outdoors—just that mental exhaustion. You’re sitting on the gate and it’s hard to get into it. I don’t want to put myself in that position. That’s why I stopped and didn’t do the outdoors. Not because I didn’t want to fulfill my obligation on my contract, but because my mind wasn’t in the game and things happen too quick.”
That’s how a champion wants to go out: On top, without hanging on for too long. And that’s what Dungey did.
250cc SX Wins
2007 = 3
2010 = 6
2007 = 0
2010 = 10
2008 = 3
2011 = 1
2008 = 3
2011 = 4
2009 = 4
2012 = 4
2009 = 4
2012 = 10
Total = 10
2013 = 2
Total = 7
2013 = 3
2014 = 1
2014 = 4
2015 = 8
2015 = 7
2016 = 9
2016 = 1
2017 = 3
Total = 39
Total = 34
250cc SX Titles
Eating For One
Trainer Aldon Baker’s dietary regimen is notoriously strict, so now that Ryan Dungey’s retired, we asked if he was going to start downing a bunch of Haagen-Dazs and donuts. He’s earned the right, after all.
“Thankfully my body type isn’t that go to McDonald’s or something and put on the weight,” Dungey said. “Honestly I’ve made a lifestyle and I knew from the beginning—I made a lifestyle of eating right. It’s not just for racing. It’s a lifestyle. I want to eat good. I didn’t have to do anything this week, but I was going to the gym. I was working out, still doing my cardio. I just still want to be active. That stuff makes me feel good. That stuff refreshes me. It energizes me. It’s like, we got that done, now let’s enjoy the day. I always enjoyed that part. Although it was hard, I still enjoyed parts of it, for sure. But I’m not going to let ‘er go, no. I’ll keep her tight. Let’s put it this way—in the gym I’m not looking for muscular endurance. I’m looking to get big! [Laughs] When I go to eat it’s not the lean, it’s the fatty. I’m going to get the burger instead of the lean chicken!”
So, soon we should see Ryan Dungey at the races, walking around the pits with shoulders wider than they were when he was racing.CN