As Ryan Dungey retires from racing, Supercross is left looking for its next hero
I am the consummate Supercross fan. I watch every race, I follow all of the happenings closely. But I am hardly alone, I am sure many of you do the same. I don’t approach it as a moto industry person. I don’t get invited to press conferences. I don’t have any insider news. Heck I don’t even go to the races. The best seat is in my comfy chair right in front of the television. That’s the way I want it. In my world of motorcycle related work, this is purely pleasure for me.
For better or worse we find ourselves staring 2018 square in the face. The Supercross season rolls out with a huge crop of talent, teams and big show persona. And it will all happen without Ryan Dungey going to the starting line. It seems sort of odd. It feels a bit hollow for the moment.
Big professional sports are all about having franchise players, those who represent the team in a manner greater than their on-field performance. Supercross is no different. We all have riders we love and then those we love to hate.
For the first time in at least 20 years, there are no former champions battling for the premier class crown. When has that scenario ever occurred before? Of course that means the championship path is open to a bigger group of riders than ever before. Hurray for close racing! No offense to two time champion Chad Reed but he won’t be in the hunt.
In the modern era of Supercross, there have probably been four riders who have defined the sport, those who were as large off the track as they were on it; McGrath, Carmichael, Stewart and Dungey. Yet for nearly half of his career, Dungey is the one who never seemed to be “that guy”.
Early on he was given the moniker “The Diesel”. It was not a compliment, rather something of a slight. Dungey was nearly always viewed as something less than great. Even after he won his first premier class championship, he was still viewed with a strong measure of skepticism. It was said that he had lucked into the win.
Yet we stand here years later looking back at one of the most successful motocross racers of all time. His name is near the top of every record; wins, championships, podiums etc. He was one of the most versatile racers in history, winning championships in every mx/sx major class.
In his entire career, he only raced under the guidance of Roger Decoster. At Suzuki he walked into an established program with Ricky Carmichael. But it was their move to KTM that really challenged both rider and team boss. Credit to KTM for being ready to build a winning bike and doing everything needed to build a winning team to match.
Dungey may be the smartest, most disciplined pro racer ever. There were many nights when he didn’t have what it took to win. So he played it safe and gathered as many points as possible. He stuck to a game plan, the kind of plan that can lose a race but still win the championship.
Part of that plan was to stay injury free too. Ryan’s tally of consecutive starts and podiums is testament to that. Supercross is such an injury plagued sport, simply staying healthy is extremely difficult. By comparison, look at contemporary rider Trey Canard. Perhaps even faster and more talented, he spent nearly an entire career battling injury.
In the tale of two careers and how important the choices you make are, just look at Dungey’s first big adversary, Jason Lawrence. At the outset of their pro racing lives, both looked equally talented and destined for success. But Lawrence let himself get distracted by outside influences and quickly faded into oblivion. Few things demand the work and discipline of being a professional motorcycle racer.
Then there was the Wheaties box. That cemented Dungey as the modern face of the sport. As much as the world seems to love bad boys, in the long run it was a clean cut, hardworking image that raised the sport to a wider mainstream audience.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Someone is going to fill the current void. Dungey seemed an unlikely hero to many, and so it may be with the next big champion of the sport. For now, the parity among the contenders should give us some great racing to watch. So let ‘em race and let us see who rises to the top.