A year on from his shock decision to end one of the most prolific careers in AMA SX/MX we caught up on a drastic change of life for Ryan Dungey, how he has eased off the gas and what he’s doing next.
We are at the launch of the 2019 KTM SX range of bikes at Tony Cairoli’s Malagrotta circuit near Rome. Ryan Dungey sits down to talk and is friendly, engaging and the consummate professional (we wonder how much he’d earn if we gave him 5 dollars for every interview he performed in an eleven-year career and through winning seven major AMA titles). Physically he still looks like he can buckle some boots and set a new lap time around the hard-pack course, and actually after our interview he quickly suits up to go riding with journalists and athletes like Red Bull KTM’s MX2 star Jorge Prado.
Dungey has hardly changed since he won his third 450 SX title in Las Vegas last summer and then held a press conference shortly afterwards to announce he was stepping away from the sport at 27. Compared to the #5 we encountered at races and through media projects when he was full-depth in the regime of being a pro Supercross and motocross racer (thirty weekends of competition a year), Ryan has the relaxed air and stress-free demeanor of a man who no longer has to devote so much energy to focus, drive and concentration.
We were able to talk for a long time about the switch from athlete to able-assistant, from single-mindedness to a new form of sacrifice and about finding new ways to channel the determination and desire that helped Dungey to hold the longest consecutive podium appearance record in Supercross with 31 trophies in a row.
So, after the press conference last year what did you do? There was no routine any more …
“One hard part was making the decision and moving on but then I also didn’t really have a plan. I kinda knew what I wanted to do next … and I didn’t really disappear. I stayed in California because the ‘Outdoors’ was coming with the first two rounds there. I didn’t have anywhere to be so I kinda stuck around and wanted to see those races. Marvin [Musquin] and I are pretty close so I supported him. We had a bit of a vacation and nothing that was really structured.”
It seemed like you ‘stopped’ but didn’t stop. You were there in KTM colors, on TV, media roles …
“Yeah … for sure I wanted a break but I still enjoyed lots of parts of what I did. It was not like I hated it but it got to a point where I – I was not exhausted – but I knew ‘this was it …’ I’d had enough. Making the decision took a whole year while racing and it was hard because you are supposed to be racing with the mindset of competition. I was trying to make a decision that was tricky to leave on the shelf.”
So, it wasn’t a case of ‘run to the beach´ …
“I think you need to do those things and regroup and refresh but I was too young to retire from my career and certainly from life. I will always want to contribute and add to this world in some way. Something has to get you out of bed in the mornings and everybody has something that makes them tick. So, I thought about how I could give benefit to other people and thankfully I have a lot of good partners and could transition into a good role with people like KTM, Fox, Oakley and Red Bull. But I didn’t just want to go into it and be paid to do nothing. I wanted to have some influence and for KTM that might be through testing or helping the team or the riders. I wanted to add to something and do meaningful work and not just look for a paycheck. That was my outlook and also as a racer.”
With the demands of the sport and the schedule you must almost have to live every day with focus and goals and compromise. To not have that any more – and for the first time in your life – was it bewildering?
“As a racer your schedule is jam-packed and maybe that is the case for a lot of jobs. The big adjustment is the change of pace. I’m learning patience and not being in a rush and not getting resentful and bitter. It’s easy to suddenly think ‘I’m not satisfied’ so it is important to have a purpose. You can take time away but it’s good to have something that drives you … not having that is a bad feeling. You look for more projects. My whole schedule was planned out and now it isn’t, and that was a big shift. It has forced me to look at my life and my motives and to question it all and get more answers. When you are in the routine of racing then you just go with it and you don’t really catch things that might be ‘red flags’. You might think ‘maybe I should go racing again because I can improve the monthly bank income much more’ but that’s not right. I learned a lot about myself in this process.”
Was it like having a new identity?
“No, because I always knew who I was. I’m Ryan Dungey, not a dirtbike racer called Ryan Dungey. I raced dirtbikes: it is not who I am but what I did. I always knew I shouldn’t find my identity in racing. It was never an issue but I think I got spoiled in a way because in that position [of a champion] you can have a lot of influence and benefit a lot of people and I liked that feeling.”
Was there also some fear about heading into the ‘unknown’?
“It feels like there are a lot of options and you can go in many different directions and that can be confusing. You still want to make sure you make good choices. As a racer all the attention is on you and – not that I was ever self-absorbed – but you are kinda spoiled and then all of a sudden the attention goes onto the next rider and isn’t there anymore. I did not crave the attention and it was good for me to get out of it. I was ready for something else and that aspect never drove me.”
Every racer says they are selfish and self-centered. It seems a weird way to exist …
“I am still trying to understand that also. Selfishness obviously isn’t good and people say it is a selfish sport and you might have an important role but nobody is not being forced to do anything. We are all working towards a goal. For a rider to recognize the position he is in is like a guy leading a successful business. Of course, everyone wants to please him but he is also turning around and saying ‘how can I make my team or business better or find improvements?’ I think riders need to recognize the position they are in and I learned how people feed off you and how you can motivate your team. It changed for me when I stopped looking at it like ‘how can everybody help ME win a championship?’ to ‘how can I help this team to win a championship?’ then it took off in a good way. So, it is selfish … in a way. Another thing is that these riders are so young, and you do grow out of that as you get older otherwise it makes you miserable. At some point you need to look around and say ‘is everyone still onboard?’ and that means your family, your wife, your circle. I don’t think mine were over it but they were coming to races every single weekend for me for eleven years. Maybe they enjoyed it but I was ready to move on.”
You obviously had a lot of success and must have enjoyed the process of reaching those goals. Do you miss that sense of achievement?
“No because winning races and championships – the achievement part – they were temporary. I knew that people would forget about that sooner or later. There will be records and this-and-that but people move on. Winning a championship is a great feeling and something great to remember but the very next day it is onto the next championship. You cannot live in that moment. You work for six months and you accomplish a goal but it is short lived. I try to see past the achievement and look for more meaningful stuff. You can win a race or a championship but if you treat people like crap then how does it matter? Being a good ambassador and leader and representing the brand and being a good influence for kids: that is the stuff that is impactful and life-changing. The success on the track was good and kids can look up to that and you can have an integrity that others might want but the bigger picture was the effect on other people. Championships do help bike sales though! And other areas …”
It’s been just over a year; do you feel you’ve found Ryan Dungey 2.0?
“Yeah, I do. I miss the racing and I miss a lot of things … more so the memories. They pop up. But I have found the next step and how I can impact and still benefit people within the sport, the kids, the riders, the team. Representing the brand and the sponsors and what role I can have. Things are still slowly unfolding but I feel I have found my direction.”
You look like you can race tomorrow, so you have obviously avoided the cookie jar. Are you still working out?
“Oh yeah. I think I just told my wife Lindsay that I think it has only been three days off since I finished racing. I enjoy it because I don’t have to do it. And I can do different workout routines and not just focus on ‘what’s your lap time?!’ We’ve always lived a healthy lifestyle.”
So, what do you want to do next?
“I’m a big dreamer. I think about our sport quite a lot and what I can do and since the moment I started I always had the thought ‘how can we make this bigger and better?’ It is tough because there are a lot of separate groups in America and not everyone is working together. So, one of my big goals is to try to get everybody working in unity so other areas can benefit; I think there are a lot of areas of potential in the sport that hasn’t been tapped into everybody gets along … but you only get what you give and companies know that; if you don’t invest then you don’t grow and I have seen that learning curve [work]. I’ve been part of teams like that and it all comes to a stop at some point because you quit giving and investing. I think if we worked together then it would affect everybody through the whole chain. It is not something I want to have control over but maybe at least have a voice in. So that’s one area: what is that next step [for MX/SX] and I cannot do it on my own.”
You also have your The Mind Champion coaching/education program. What is that about?
“My first project, and it will come out here soon and we have done a lot of content, interviews and filming for it. Even with Roger [De Coster]. I think it will be good for the kids in the sport in any class. For me it has been about sharing knowledge and insight and maybe some wisdom and what helped me get to the level I was. Riders are ultimately a driving force. If they are not a good spokesperson and don’t realize the position they are in then this is not helping. A lot of people are watching and it contributes to the growth of the sport.”
Photos: Marco Campelli | Sebas Romero | Simon Cudby