Ryan Dungey knew that hoisting another first place trophy this season would be even tougher with 2011 winner Ryan Villopoto fully recovered from a torn ACL and back in the hunt. But four stops into the 12-round series, Villopoto is not only back, he's been so dominant that Dungey and the Red Bull KTM team know there's going to be no beating him without pushing into some uncharted territory.
"Villopoto came out swinging," the 24-year-old Belle Plain, Minn., native says. "I'm a guy that likes to be consistent lap after lap, but when another guy has a little bit more than you, it makes you step out of your comfort zone."
Heading into next week's fifth round at Budds Creek National in Mechanicsville, Md., the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross 450 class defending champion is second in the points standings, and got his first overall win two Saturdays ago at Muddy Creek Raceway in Blountville, Tenn. He has ridden cleanly, but hasn't been able to keep Monster Energy Kawasaki's Villopoto -- who's won seven of eight motos by wide margins -- in his sights for long. And there's a good reason for that: Villopoto, coming off his third consecutive Supercoss title last month, has been early and often with his hard-charging, cutthroat passes, creative lines and aggressive, impeccable riding.
Dungey has made progress in logging six second-place moto finishes, a third and a first he captured by wearing down rookie Justin Barcia after Villopoto crashed early in Muddy Creek's second moto. Though Dungey didn't have to pass Villopoto to get the checkered flag (Villopoto fought back from 16th to fourth), getting that winning feeling was a major relief. But it was short-lived. The following week at High Point in Mount Morris, Pa., Villopoto went 1-1 again while Dungey again went 2-2.
As they say in boxing, styles make fights. Villopoto, 25, is a blazingly fast risk taker who rides on the edge and has been injured more in his eight-year career, but has captured more titles. Dungey, fast and consistent, has a less injury-prone riding style that's kept him in position to capitalize on mistakes over his seven-year career.
"The thing about Ryan is, he's always the same," Villopoto says. "He's always good, he's always fast, he's always fit. You know what you're gonna get out of him. He's never gonna come out and just blow everybody's doors off, but he's gonna be right there on the podium there every single weekend, and that makes it tough. In a long season, consistency is good."
"Ryan's natural tendency is conservative," agrees Red Bull KTM team manager Roger DeCoster. "He keeps maybe 5 percent safety in his riding while Villopoto rides right at that edge of maybe 1 percent safety. When we finish behind Villopoto, I wish Ryan would hang it out a little bit more. But I would not be so happy if he was hurt and could not race for the season, like what happened to Villopoto last year."
With eight rounds left and trailing Villopoto by 16 points in the overall standings, what does Dungey have to do to defend his title if Villopoto stays healthy? It'd be easy to argue he should play it patient and gamble that the past might repeat itself: his rival can't keep riding this hard without getting hurt and giving him an opening. On the other hand, Dungey could start upping his risk-level to get in front early.
"When you get a chance to open it up more you've got do it even if it ain't comfortable, because the one thing Villopoto has is a lot of speed," Dungey says. "He's kind of hanging off the back, steering with the rear, putting it all out there, and he definitely looks more out of control, like he's getting ready to lose it. But whether he looks in control, or not in control, he still wins."
Slow starts have been kryptonite for Dungey so far this season. Too often he's gotten caught in the pack early, spending precious time and laps battling forward, only to be too far behind Villopoto to challenge him. But Dungey has improved a bit each race, and he's taking all the positives he can out of losing by smaller time increments and progressing with his bike adjustments.
"Villopoto's strong point is, he gets out front and goes," Dungey says. "My strength is that I can hold a high intensity for a long time. So I need to add his strong point to my strong point. That way I have the total package. It's definitely gonna be a fight to the end if we both get out front early."
Dungey's dilemma could have a big upside for fans, who are hoping to see the defending champ respond to the way Villopoto is riding -- not to mention all the other threats to the No. 1 plate Dungey earned by winning the 2012 championship. This year's season kicked off with one of the most talent-rich MX fields in years -- former champ James Stewart is healthy, as is Trey Canard and other riders such as Barcia are pushing to be frontrunners. Behind Villopoto, Dungey hasn't been able to run away with second place -- he's had his work cut out for him, but he's used his fitness and experience to his advantage.
"Ryan's got a really consistent can-do attitude," says Trey Canard, who's raced against Dungey since they were junior high schoolers. "His technique is very committed. He's always in the right body position, he doesn't make a lot of mistakes. Being healthy is huge because it means he can continue to develop without having to come back from injuries. He's consistent, that's a big part of it."
There's that word again: consistent. It's definitely more of a nuanced compliment than a gushing one -- but given the three premier 450 class titles Dungey's won, it's an indicator of sound strategy and physical fitness in a sport as injury prone as motocross. Of course, wins are wins, though style points count for something too. Villopoto's riding is not only getting results at the moment, it's conjuring up comparisons to the GOAT, Ricky Carmichael. But stability is a Dungey virtue and he's not apologizing for it. He's earned it.
This tale of two Ryans and two styles has had more than a few chapters. Dungey and Villopoto have battled on 450s since 2010, with Dungey notably capturing his one SX title (2010) and two MX titles in years when Villopoto went down early with injuries (2010, 2012). Coming up though the ranks, Villopoto, who's a little more than a year older, gained recognition early in his career, racking up podium finishes and key youth and amateur titles throughout the early 2000s, while Dungey seemed to bloom from journeyman to champion all of a sudden in 2007 when he was named AMA Supercross/Motocross Rookie of the Year. While generating the single-mindedness he needed to ascend into the elite ranks, Dungey says he overdid it a bit.
"At one point it was racing or nothing," he says. "I pushed a lot of people aside and I started being a jerk, because when you put that one thing at the top of your life that probably shouldn't be there -- and then that thing goes to hell -- everything else goes to hell because that's what you put first. It slapped me in the face, in a good way.
"In 2008 I was in the thick of the points lead and I didn't know how to handle it. I was stressed out and I wore myself out. I lost a few races because I was so deep in it, which cost me a championship. The harder you try the worse it gets. I didn't have a balance in life and that really sunk in. Once you step back, things fall into place."
He says he began spending more time with his family and girlfriend, Lindsay Siegle, and realized how much enjoyment and encouragement he got out of nurturing important relationships outside of racing. These days, Dungey says he's outgrown his old struggles with doubts, commitment and confidence that plagued him in his early years, but his biggest challenge is keeping his on- and off-track lives balanced.
Siegle, who travels with him to most of his races, is helping with that. He used the short break between the SX and MX seasons last month to take a short trip with her to the beach in Dana Point, Calif. Relaxing at the seaside, shopping and enjoying the local restaurants for a few days was the perfect amount of mellowness for a guy with perfectionist, workaholic tendencies. Dungey, who finished third in the 450SX standings, says it takes constant vigilance to avoid getting sucked back in to obsessing over racing.
"Winning comes with a lot of joy and fulfillment," he says. "Then, when you don't win, that's when you start losing the balance again and you have to keep yourself in check. Trying to figure out what we can do to be better is a 24 hours a day deal."
Finding this equilibrium has been a big part of Dungey's accelerated maturing process in the journey from teenager to 24-year-old. DeCoster, who discovered the Tallahassee-based rider when Dungey was a 17-year-old amateur, would like to see him loosen up even more.
"Ryan's pretty high stress and he's a worrier," DeCoster says. "Sometimes he thinks if he doesn't ride his motorcycle five days a week he's going to forget how to ride. If you relax, you can come to the race mentally fresh. Sometimes he's too concerned about being perfect."
That's a byproduct of the pressure that has come with being the defending champ. There are high expectations that he can do it again -- none higher than his own. But that's where having the right perspective and the right support system around helps the most. "The weight of the No. 1 plate can be kind of heavy," Canard says. "On the other hand, there's really no pressure because you've already won before."
One thing that Dungey has wholeheartedly embraced, to great results, is physical training. In the offseason, he does a daily, hardcore strength-oriented circuit-training regimen -- bench press, squats, lunges, shoulder raises, plus agility bands to build his hip flexors. In-season, with the energy-sapping heat becoming more of a factor as the outdoor series goes on, he's more focused on endurance workouts so he has the stamina and confidence for battles deep into the second motos.
"There's a lot of physical suffering that takes place," he says. "You're maxed out for the whole moto -- underneath the helmet our heart rates are 160 and 170 it's very intense and it's 35 minutes. It can be nerve racking, because you start feeling it, and when you're suffering, you've got to dig even deeper mentally and not give up and back down."
For sure, if Dungey could take the outdoor national title competing head to head with Villopoto the entire season, it would put those "asterisk-championship" murmurings to rest.
"No disrespect to the other guys, but whoever finishes in front of Villopoto will be the champion," DeCoster says.
You can hear cautious excitement and maybe a bit of defiance in Dungey's voice at the idea of what would be a signature and certainly a satisfying MX season victory. "Having Villopoto back means the racing is better, more intense, and that much more rewarding," he says.
Fortunately, Dungey knows firsthand that Villopoto is beatable. This past Supercross season at the Minnesota race, he won a toe-to-toe thriller against the Seattle area native in the Metrodome. Villopoto had led for 17 laps before Dungey charged with nine laps left, sending his hometown fans into a cheering frenzy as he chased Villopoto down and beat him by just .09 seconds. It was a gratifying win, and Dungey attributed it to having worked out some kinks with his KTM 450 SX-F bike.
Outdoors, so far, the bike tweaks are ongoing. "We've tried to control the mapping and get the motor package and the power a little bit more smooth and controllable to my liking," Dungey says. "When the bike isn't working the best, it's hard for me to get into it. I like to try to push it out to the edge as much as I can, but when the bike's kind of dancing around and getting sideways it's not the most comfortable feeling."
And comfort is paramount for the Red Bull KTM rider, but bike mechanics aside, what it boils down to is motivation. Dungey says it isn't the thrill of climbing the mountain again that's driving him -- it's the quest to be one of the greatest of his era, and the knowledge that motocross careers go by quickly. In light of that goal, having a nearly unstoppable archrival on the track is actually a catalyst that could prod him into a major evolutionary step. DeCoster says all the elements are there, Dungey just has to trust his training and his ride and let the rest happen. For his part, Dungey says he's ready.
"This is my time to rise up to the tradition, to be that next guy in the sport and be a role model for the kids and the fans," he says. "When you can put it all out there, and have fun and enjoy it, and do it with all your heart and love, and then you start pushing it and you're wide open, you don't look at it like, 'Oh, I'm gonna crash.' You look at it like, 'It's gonna be a little sketchy but I'm gonna have fun through it.' So yeah, I'm inspired."