Steve Matthes: ‘What’s eating Ryan Dungey?’
Apologies for the rip off of a famous Racer X cover story on Jeff Emig, the 1997 450SX champion, who was now struggling badly in 1998 but I feel this applies to our 2016 450SX champion who no longer quite looks like himself out there.
Ryan Dungey has been a picture of consistency for so long now; we almost take it for granted that he’ll be there each and every week. Until this year it had been two season since he scored more than one fourth place finish in a series. Yeah, his rival Ryan Villopoto captured four straight 450SX championships in a row but Dungey was in many ways more consistent than Villopoto in that run. It’s just that RV’s levels of excellence were a tad higher.
This year’s been weird. Dungey, always in phenomenal shape, has been caught, passed and dropped late in races by his teammate Marvin Musquin. Dungey, always an amazing starter, can’t seem to get up there all the time. Dungey, always one of the fastest qualifiers, sits outside the top five in average qualifying times. It’s been ‘Bizarro Ryan Dungey’ in 2017 made even stranger with the fact that he’s still got the points lead with five races left.
Never before has a rider who’s a three-time 450SX champion and has the points lead, been written and talked about in a manner to make one think he was fifth or similar. But this feels different and it’s so out of character that it’s slowly becoming a story. Just two wins, his points lead reduced from more than a race to just seven with five races to go and puzzling podium interviews about how it’s “life is more than just a dirt bike race” when he has a bad race has left many people in the paddock wondering what’s going on.
Dungey’s not doing a lot of talking outside of the press conferences so it’s hard to figure out if he’s battling an illness or an injury but from people I speak to around “camp Dungey” it doesn’t seem to be that. Those same people say the longer main events that have been causing the tracks to break down has been an issue and this is something that Ryan’s been critical-of at past races. The lack of dirt in the tracks have made for some sketchy moments where it’s down to the concrete before the main event starts and the ruts get deeper and deeper. Pushing outside his comfort limit is not something that Dungey feels like doing at this point. There have also been some bike testing issues with Ryan not able to get to Florida and on the softer dirt as early as he would’ve liked to. Never one to just ride his bike with a set-up week to week, Dungey’s been generally fiddling with the KTM 450SX-F more and more this year.
His Red Bull KTM contract up at the end of the year, some have speculated that this could be it for Dungey and perhaps he’s wanting to go out without an injury. It’s a bit unusual that a top rider like Ryan hasn’t re-upped by now and I spoke to team manager Roger DeCoster about it a few weeks ago. DeCoster didn’t say which way Dungey was leaning but said that there’s a deal waiting for him the moment he decides that he wants to come back racing and that Roger, nor KTM, was going to pressure him into it. DeCoster said that Ryan’s earned the right to make a decision when he wants to.
Dungey’s never been one to have the raw speed of a Villopoto or Roczen so the fact that Eli Tomac, who’s absolutely on rails right now, is beating him isn’t that big of a shock. It’s the fact that Dungey seems powerless to stop charges from Musquin late in the race or that he loses touch with Tomac in the races. He turned some bad starts into some decent finishes in Toronto and Daytona but there’s no doubt he wasn’t his usual self in ripping through the pack passing riders he used to just drop. Ryan Dungey is, for perhaps the first time, looking, well, human.
The plotline is made even richer with the fact that he’s training and riding with Musquin during the week at Aldon Baker’s place. By all accounts things are fine down there in Florida and there haven’t been an issue but in my experience it wouldn’t take much by Musquin in a race to ignite some tensions. Although Marv is perhaps one of the nicest riders on and off the track in the sport so maybe nothing happens but top dogs riding with each other during the week is usually something that doesn’t work.
And a couple of riders that have given Dungey fits in recent weeks have been some KTM riders Blake Baggett and Davi Millsaps of the RM KTM team. The team gets factory support from KTM (their bikes are probably 90% of what Dungey, Musquin and Trey Canard have) and both Baggett and Millsaps have been right there. Baggett’s been very fast all year and just small mistakes have held him back from collecting more than his one podium. Millsaps raced Dungey hard for more than twelve minutes this past weekend in Detroit before eventually giving way. It may be a bit early for team tactics to help Dungey out for this title but one has to think that this situation could get a little sticky for the team as the races wind down.
So whatever is going with Ryan Dungey, it’s going to be interesting to see if he can rebound and fight back against this Tomac train that’s been whittling away at his lead for over a month now. From all his race wins and titles, if he manages to win this 2017 450SX crown it might mark his most significant achievement because he’s clearly fighting more than just Tomac.
Pics by Cudby/Shepherd