Common Tread

Dungey: Done

May 16, 2017

Consistency is important when mixing concrete. Durable, dependable and consistent, it’s no surprise that concrete is the family business that has always been in the background of Ryan Dungey’s motorcycle racing career.

That career, which will undoubtedly put him in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame on first ballot, came to an end today. Dungey’s current Red Bull KTM contract runs through the end of the 2017 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross season and the option to continue with the Austrian brand was his choice to make. 

Yet 10 days after winning his fourth Monster Energy Supercross title, Dungey abruptly ended a career that began in August 2006 and yielded eight national championships and 80 combined wins in Supercross and motocross. In a press conference today at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California, Dungey walked to a lectern wearing a dark, logo-less sweater with a spotted collared shirt and tie popping out at the neck. With no preamble, he said he was done.

“It's hard to believe that this day has come but after a lot of thinking and praying over the last several months, today I announce my retirement from racing professional supercross and motocross,” he said.

The announcement was unexpected, but so was his entire career. From the moment he was plucked from obscurity by (then Suzuki Team Manager) Roger DeCoster (2006) to the year he won the Supercross title as a premier-class rookie (2010) and the time he signed on to race for KTM (October 2011), a brand that had never finished in the top three in a 450SX final, let alone won a championship, Dungey has defied convention.

Ryan Dungey
Ryan Dungey retires. KTM photo.

Later on in his pre-written statement, after Dungey went through a brief history of his own career, he offered a deeper insight into his decision, which he started seriously considering in November, 2016. 

"I’ve gone as hard as I can for as long as I can. Physically, I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life… however, mentally this year I have struggled. I’ve always raced because I loved it and wanted so bad to win. But this season was just different for me. Getting my head in the game each week just wasn’t the same. Lining up and just being able to focus like I always had in the past was just different for me. I never thought I’d get to a place where I thought I would have to talk myself into starting the race. But that’s how it was for me. The truth is, it bothers me a lot. I could easily take a paycheck and race to the finish but that’s not who I am.  

An emotional DeCoster, KTM’s Team Manager since 2011, took the podium shortly after Dungey. “I’ve never worked with a rider who took his job as seriously as you did,” he said, fighting back tears.

Twelve years ago, nobody was beating down the door of the Dungey home in Minnesota to sign up the three young sons of Troy and Michelle. While Jade, Ryan and Blake were all good racers — competing yearly at the amateur national level — they were not superstar standouts and they were more likely to find careers in the family concrete business than as professional dirt bike racers.

The middle child, Ryan, however, did make it happen. He didn’t have the raw speed of James Stewart or the stubborn determination of Ricky Carmichael, or the charisma and talent of Jeremy McGrath. He didn’t stack up a hard-to-remember number of amateur racing championships and the sponsorship support was so thin that it was becoming difficult to continue. Like concrete, Ryan set firm his goals to be a professional athlete and he did so with a unique mix of intelligence, persistence and consistency. 

It wasn’t always sexy, but after a nearly 11-year career, he reached fourth in all-time career wins behind Carmichael (150), Stewart (98) and McGrath (89). When counting up number one plates, his eight championships put him in a tie with McGrath, behind only Carmichael (15) and Ryan Villopoto (nine).

Dungey is more than a collection of championships. He became the first motocross athlete to be on a Wheaties box, win an ESPY Award (two, actually), be featured in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue and he gave KTM its first wins in the premier class of Supercross. He’s even helped raise $400,000 for cancer research. Despite all that, he will undoubtedly be underrated for what he accomplished.

Ryan Dungey
Ryan Dungey. KTM photo.

Watch the body language of spectators in the stadiums or hillsides of America. Supercross and motocross fans want to be on their feet cheering for the thrill of the chase, a big crash or a battle to the checkered flag. Unlike team sports where city or country pride is at stake, racing fans don’t want blowouts or a conservative champion who takes the consistent road to the title. They have their favorite riders but, more than anything, they want good racing. Dungey was both dominating and conservative in his career and the manner in which he chugged his way to the titles earned him a nickname he loathed: Diesel. Critics like to point to the riders who weren’t on the line when Dungey won his titles. But nobody ever won a championship from an operating table or a couch. 

Of the 285 races he was contracted to compete in, Dungey showed up for 268 of them. He was on the podium in 69 of the 75 450MX races he competed in. He once strung together 31 consecutive top three finishes in Supercross. His longest winning streak was 10 straight in the summer of 2012. Of the 15 separate 450-class series he contested, Dungey finished top three in 14 of them and won seven championships. His only falter was in the summer of 2016, when he broke his neck at Thunder Valley in Colorado (yet still finished second overall that day).

I first interviewed Dungey in the summer of 2006 when he made his professional debut. He was just happy to be there and willing to comply with any request. That never went away. Even in 2010, when he became the youngest Supercross champion (20 years, five months) since 1975, he returned e-mails, texts and phone calls quickly, often faster than his team’s media coordinator. He has always wanted to please, even if it seemed like he was suppressing his emotions in interviews. In October 2011, he gave ESPN the first interview after announcing his switch to KTM, the Austrian brand that had yet to find success in Supercross. I asked him why he didn’t let people know how he really felt. 

Ryan Dungey
Dungey's consistency meant he was almost always on the podium. KTM photo.

“I don’t think people understand that I’ve always lived this life of forgetting the bad, forgetting the negative and getting out of that pissed-off attitude,” he said. “My parents taught me to keep moving forward and I don’t know how else to be.”

A year later, following his first full season with KTM, which resulted in a 450 motocross championship, Dungey finally opened up about what was viewed as a risky move. “A lot of people said I was crazy, but it wasn’t about what they thought,” Dungey said. “KTM was willing to do whatever it took.” 

To achieve what he did, Ryan Dungey also did whatever it took but it didn’t always happen on the track in front of the spectators. It happened in the paddock in 2005 when, as a 15-year-old, he walked up to Suzuki Team Manager — and five-time MXGP champion — Roger DeCoster and said, “I look forward to riding for you some day.”

Roger DeCoster and Ryan Dungey
Motocross legend Roger DeCoster has been a constant part of Ryan Dungey's success. KTM photo.

Never mind that Dungey’s amateur career hadn’t been as impressive as those of his peers. He made up for his lack of victories with persistence and loyalty. And when DeCoster went from Suzuki to KTM, Dungey followed him a year later when he was able to. It happened in rural Florida where he won half of his championships under the guidance Aldon Baker, the most successful trainer this sport has ever seen, whose program is often regarded as top secret but that’s a fallacy. The secret is hard (but calculated) work.  

Dungey knew what hard work was long before he courted DeCoster or Baker. It’s in his DNA. In 1979, his grandfather Gary stared Kali Concrete, the aforementioned Minnesota-based construction firm specializing in driveways and patios. It’s grueling work, but even after completing the brutal run of 29 races over eight months in a season, Ryan has been known to return to the suburbs of Minneapolis to help his family. Maybe it’s a reality check to experience the life he may have had. Maybe it’s a break from the undeniable pressure it takes to be a successful athlete. Maybe it’s a simple combination of loyalty and thanksgiving for those who sacrificed their time and money to give him the opportunity. 

Motorcycle racing isn’t losing its King today, or its G.O.A.T. It’s losing a great champion and a modern reminder that humble roots and the favorite presidential campaign line of "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" can still make difference in professional sports. Whether or not he makes the Mount Rushmore of American motocross is a debate for the bench racers. No matter your opinion, Dungey’s legacy is certainly set in… concrete.