By Arrissia Owen
As Ryan Dungey twisted the throttle, soil shot out from the tires of his KTM 450 SXF dirt bike like daggers. One by one, the 22-year-old passed each of his competitors after launching out of the gates in fourth place. It was his second moto race of the day Aug. 18 at the Red Bull Unadilla National in New Berlin, N.Y., the AMA-sanctioned professional racing series, and there was more on the line than winning the race.
“I put the same plan of attack into motion: Go on the track and get in a good ride,” Dungey says about one of the most important days of his career so far. “I made a couple of passes, but I was so in the moment, it really didn’t sink in until I crossed the finish line. It’s a great feeling.”
The 22-year-old had overtaken the only guys standing between his factory team, Red Bull/KTM’s first U.S. Motocross Nationals 450 Championship title. The win was particularly exhilarating since the 2012 title was wrapped up two races shy of the end of the season, sending a clear message for the future.
Gunning to America
Until Aug. 18, the Austrian company KTM had struggled to make its mark in the states, continually in the shadows of the big Japanese four—Suzuki, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Honda—since the mid 1970s. Dungey and company sent a message: Austria is ready to rock U.S. motocross.
The win was a team effort, one that began in the fall of 2010 when KTM lured Rockstar Makita Suzuki team manager Roger DeCoster to its ranks. The bait was the promise of unprecedented freedom and support in the states to win a U.S. championship.
The winning equation included a new bike—the steel-framed KTM 450 SXF, which DeCoster attained two years before its scheduled production in the U.S.—a strong team built around his engine guy Ian Harrison, and the right rider to take them to the winners’ podium.
DeCoster knew just the guy, the same one he gambled on six years prior when he brought the then-unknown racer onto the Suzuki pro ranks and came up big: Ryan Dungey.
When Dungey’s contract with Suzuki finished a year after DeCoster’s defection, Dungey followed suit. The fact that KTM had never won a U.S. national championship and that the bike he would race didn’t exist yet didn’t shake Dungey’s confidence in his mentor.
“I am all about loyalty and sticking with the right people and not burning bridges,” Dungey says. “Suzuki is great, we won championships and had a great run, but the KTM offer was good. And with Roger being there, who helped in the decision-making, knowing if he was there that he was going to build a team and make it the best . . . If he gives me his word, I trust him.”
A Boy and his Bike
Growing up in Belle Plaine, Minn., Dungey climbed onto his first motocross bike at 5. His father, Troy, raced as a teen. So when Troy had three boys of his own, family outings on dirt bikes were a given. As they got older, Dungey and his brothers Jade and Blake’s hobby aggressively grew into something more serious.
“Me and my brothers got really into it,” Dungey says, recalling his early dirt demon days. “On Fridays after school, we’d be begging him to take us out.” The Dungeys would pack the family RV, load the bikes and hit the road.
As the boys became more ambitious, Troy, who worked for Dungey’s grandfather Gary’s construction company, and their mom, Michele, who was an accountant at a marketing firm, supported their pursuit wholeheartedly. “I feel like it brought us closer together as a family,” Dungey says. “We spent the majority of weekends through the year together because of it.”
At age 8, Dungey stared into the bright lights of a professional motocross race in Minneapolis and was absolutely smitten, ditching basketball and little league baseball. With his competitive itch, Dungey had no qualms leaving team sports behind for something that would put him in control of the score.
“I didn’t know you could make a job out of the whole deal until then,” Dungey says, recalling his first time seeing professional racing. “From that point on, I thought for sure that I wanted to be a professional motocross racer. I set my sights on that.”
Troy and Michele gave more than their time to help Dungey’s dream become a reality. “It takes a lot of money and sacrifice,” Dungey says. The family often ran into the red to support their sons.
Dungey’s family support is obvious, particularly in the stands. His parents and brothers are at nearly every race. “Them being at the races, it’s a comfort thing having them there,” Dungey says. “It’s a journey we’re taking together.”
Michele learned some marketing skills during her time crunching numbers for the firm, which counted Target among its clients. “She always had things under control, whether she was trying to get races or getting our faces in front of sponsors,” Dungey says. She still plays a big part in Dungey’s career.
But even more important is what they taught Dungey by example. “My parents were very hard working, and I saw that,” he says. “I try to set that same example in my life. I work hard to accomplish my goals and stay true to that. They kept me grounded, and if I ever got out of line they were the first ones to put me back in my place.”
From Darkness . . .
American Suzuki Amateur Program and Cities Edge Motor Sports supported Dungey during his early years on the track slowly earning name recognition through the amateur nationals. But something wasn’t clicking. He didn’t want it badly enough yet.
Then when Dungey was 14 his grandmother, Barb, lost her battle with cancer. Faced with the imminence of mortality, Dungey couldn’t help but find some perspective about his own life.
“I started to think about what life was all about and how to make a difference by being the best I could be at my sport,” Dungey says. “That was the point that I realized that life is quick and it’s all going to be gone before we know it, and that I have to make the best of it.”
Dungey found his motivation. “I didn’t want to leave anything on the table that was going to hinder me from giving it my all,” Dungey says. “I did everything I possibly could myself. I worked hard and put in a lot of time and effort to become a winning guy.”
A couple of months in and Dungey won his first championship in Texas at Lake Whitney. “It took off from there,” Dungey says. “Once I won once, I knew how to win and was able to consistently win amateur races.” His biggest milestone that year was winning the 2005 Loretta Lynn’s Amateur Championship. But the next week, an even bigger achievement would happen.
While Dungey is not short on fans—many MX heads relish his refreshing lack of bad boy appeal and notorious niceness—he has always remained an underdog in the sport. When he signed to Suzuki in 2006, many industry types underestimated the then 16-year-old, questioning DeCoster’s judgment.
As the story goes, Dungey approached the five-time Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme World Motocross Champion and legendary team manager in 2005 at the Millville, Minn., track one week after winning the Loretta Lynn’s Amateur Championship. He had only won about a dozen amateur races in total.
“I didn’t know him, but my dad and me went up to him,” Dungey recalls. “We thought it was pretty cool to even get his attention for a few minutes. I told him, ‘I look forward to riding with you guys one day.’ He laughed a little and he thought it was pretty cool to hear that.”
Dungey’s earnest display of ambition struck a chord with DeCoster. The two kept in touch, with Dungey updating DeCoster on his career. While he was in California talking to a potential non-factory team sponsor, Dungey touched base with DeCoster. Dungey reminded DeCoster how badly he wanted to ride for Suzuki, and that he would even do it for free.
“I just wanted the factory equipment so I could prove myself,” Dungey says. “Later that night, he said he would see what he could do. Four days later, I got my first try out. It was really unexpected. It happened so fast, but it was truly a dream come true.”
One year after that initial encounter, DeCoster gave Dungey his start as a pro for the Suzuki team, making his debut at the same track where they first spoke. With his home crowd cheering him on, Dungey finished seventh overall for the day.
Dungey finished the year with a modest showing, but with plenty of experience to carry over to his next season. What Dungey displayed that first season was something DeCoster saw early on. It was the beginning of his doubters’ double take.
By his second year competing at the pro level, Dungey proved his critics wrong. During the first round of the 2007 East Coast Supercross Lites series in Atlanta, Ga., Dungey won his first supercross race as a pro.
Things were looking promising for Dungey until he fell during a practice run at Red Bud. Dungey suffered a concussion and missed his next race, only to come back the next round of the series finishing second at Unadilla. He later broke his collarbone with a mere three races to go in the season, but he pulled out a fifth place overall finish.
But by the end of the 2007 season, he was crowned Rookie of the Year and had four wins under his kidney belt, including the Dave Coombs Memorial East/West Lites Shootout. Dungey never quits.
There were many almost-great seasons during those early years, with rookie mistakes hampering his success. But by the end of 2010, he became the first 450 rookie ever to win both the AMA Supercross and Motocross titles, shocking many in the sport.
Then DeCoster said sayonara to Suzuki and Dungey’s fate took yet another turn. During 2011, a DeCoster-less Dungey was plagued with mechanical issues that put a dent in his season, in the end costing him the national titles. He finished third in the supercross title race and second in motocross.
Dungey did, however, once again lead Team USA to the top spot at the podium for the third year straight at the Motocross of Nations in Belgium before leaving Suzuki. He made his debut with KTM at the Monster Energy Cup in Las Vegas in October 2011, finishing second on the new bike and showing the rest of the field what was to come for the following season.
Taking the 2012 national MX 450 title before the season is over isn’t enough for Ryan, DeCoster and the rest of the Red Bull/KTM team. With eight straight wins, Ryan wants to seize on that momentum for the last two races to match his 10-win rookie season, fitting for his first season on a new team.
And with just one more win, Ryan will surpass his tie with veteran racer Ricky Johnson for third place on the all-time list of career wins in the 450 class. From there, he heads up Team USA for the fourth year at the Motocross of Nations race, followed by the Monster Energy Cup on Oct. 20. Then it’s time to be a supercross superstar.
“I am very grateful at an early age to have been able to win every title in our sport,” says Ryan, who has used his success to give back by starting the charity bicycling event Minnesota Major River-to-River Ride. The race is in his grandmother’s honor to help raise money for St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital. “Now it’s about repeating titles back to back and winning races, and to be a good ambassador for our sport.”
Lucas Oil Red Bull Lake Elsinore Nationals at Lake Elsinore Motorsports Park, 20700 Cereal St., Lake Elsinore, (951) 264-5256; www.racele.com; www.allisports.com/motocross. Sat, Sept. 8. 1pm. $20-$200.