Ryan Dungey is too polite to say it himself, but let’s get one thing clear: He hates the nickname “Diesel.”
For the second time, Dungey has swept the Monster Energy Supercross and Lucas Oil Pro Motocross championships in the same year, and along the way he has been the best role model the sport of motocross could ask for. Hate is a strong word. One he doesn’t typically use.
Now, at age 25 and with six national Supercross and motocross championships, he’s no longer bashful to stand up for himself.
“You think diesel, you think slow,” Dungey says.
Without being asked, he tries to explain where the nickname came from. The deferential Minnesotan has long been criticized for his lack of intensity and aggressiveness and he often doesn’t come on strong until the end of the race. In 2010, he won both the Supercross and motocross series, the first time a rookie took both titles in the premier class in the same year. Dungey was running his own training program and since he was winning there wasn’t much reason to make changes.
“What you train your body to do is what you get out of it on race day, and late in the race was always my strongest point,” he says. “I’m trying to break that habit. I think Jeremy McGrath came up with the nickname and when he says something, people are going to run with it.”
Dungey’s results in the first five rounds of the 2015 Supercross season started with his lowest finish, ramped their way up and stayed strong — 4-3-2-2-1 — much like a, um, diesel engine would (sorry, Ryan). In the final 11 rounds, he never finished worse than second.
Dungey won over half of the events — 15 of 29 — in the two 2015 championships and hoisted the respective number one plates well before the final laps of each series. His average finish between the 41 main events and motos was 1.92.
The KTM 450SX-F Dungey competed on in 2015 was a new bike from the ground up, and he said he was able to settle on a solid setup by the fifth round of both championships and made only minimal changes from then on. In 2012, his first year with KTM, it wasn’t so easy.
“We got to points with the previous bike where I was fighting this harshness and we couldn’t get rid of it,” Dungey says of his first year on a KTM. “I never thought Roger [DeCoster] and I would get into it, but working together we definitely got frustrated. It got hard. There were things said where I got really upset.”
That’s a surprising revelation from Dungey, an athlete who has always been accessible but reticent with private feelings and internal team affairs. Every title Dungey has won has been with DeCoster (they worked together at Suzuki from 2007 to 2010), but his program became stronger when Aldon Baker, the prolific trainer who worked with Ricky Carmichael and Ryan Villopoto at the peaks of their careers, became available about a month into the 2015 Supercross season. When rival Ken Roczen parted ways with Baker, Dungey stepped in. Although Supercross had already started, Dungey and his wife relocated from Tallahassee, Fla., to be closer to Baker’s facility in central Florida. Like reuniting with DeCoster in 2012, hiring Baker was the best move he could have made.
Being fit has never been a problem for Dungey, but knowing that he made the right decisions with proper timing was a concern. He admits he knew he needed help and Baker eliminated doubts and allowed him to focus on winning races.
“Nobody else could explain it to me in a manner that made sense,” Dungey says of his search for training rituals. “Aldon also understands regular life issues: mental, physical, emotional and spiritual.”
Before the 2016 season, Dungey will go through Baker’s proven but well guarded “boot camp” prep program for the first time. He’ll also be returning with the current generation KTM on which he’s developed a solid base setting. And, possibly for the first time in his career, he might even be considered the favorite. Of all the championships won, Dungey has yet to successfully defend one.
“I was in that position in 2010 and being the young kid, I didn’t know how to handle that,” Dungey says. “I was looking at my achievements and I wasn’t looking at what we were going to do going forward.”
Critics like to talk about the riders who were not on the line in 2015: Ryan Villopoto left for Europe; James Stewart was serving a 16-month suspension for a failed drug test; Ken Roczen dropped out of the Supercross season with injury, as did Trey Canard, Justin Barcia, Jake Weimer and Justin Brayton. In motocross, Eli Tomac swept the first five motos before crashing in the sixth. His season ended with double shoulder surgery. Since 2007, his first full season as a professional, Dungey has missed only nine races out of 237. In six seasons in the premier 450 class, he’s yet to finish lower than third overall in the 12 championship runs he’s made.
On the all-time win list, Dungey has jumped to fifth, with 67 victories between 250/450 MX and 450 SX. He trails Ricky Carmichael (150), James Stewart (98), Jeremy McGrath (89) and Ryan Villopoto (72), and while riders like Carmichael and Villopoto retired well before the age of 30, Dungey said he’s far from done.
“I have a lot left that I want to accomplish. I feel like my better days are still ahead of me,” he says.
Dungey keeps running stronger. Smells a lot like diesel.