Believe it or not, Ryan Dungey, the Minnesota native who is one of the most accomplished pro dirtbike riders ever, is a little afraid of heights.
His day job requires him to soar 40 feet high while landing jumps spanning 120 feet. And top speeds on those bikes can hit 125 miles per hour. But Dungey has never been much of a daredevil away from the racetrack.
“People tell me, ‘You’re crazy,’” the 27-year-old said Thursday morning while sipping an 8-ounce cup of coffee at Peace Coffee inside the Capella Tower. “But I’m scared as heck to go on the Wild Thing at Valleyfair.”
While traveling from coast to coast and sometimes overseas on the top dirtbike circuits, he keeps tabs on the Vikings. He quit youth football after a year because he wasn’t a fan of tacklers diving at his knees and ankles.
He once was too intimidated to ask his future wife for her phone number, something that makes him chuckle when he shares their story again.
And Dungey would never have experienced his six total Supercross and Motocross titles, and all the fame and fortune and opportunities to give back that came with them, had the death of his grandmother not given him the shove he needed to stop being afraid and go tear after his dream.
On Saturday, Dungey will be back in the Twin Cities when the Monster Energy AMA Supercross tour makes the next stop in its 17-race series at U.S. Bank Stadium. Eying his third straight tour title, he is currently the points leader in the 450cc class, the higher of the sport’s two tiers.
While he has been publicly mum on his future beyond this year, there is a decent chance this could be his last race in his hometown, which is why he was willing to take his time with that tiny cup of coffee, his guilty pleasure, and reflect for an hour on his improbable ride to the top.
Dungey spent his early years in Carver and then Chaska before the family moved to Belle Plaine when he was 15. His father, Troy, once a successful amateur dirtbike rider as a Minnesota youth, had his three boys revving their engines at an early age. Dungey’s first ride was at age 5 on a sandy property in Jordan. He kept crashing and toppling over. He loved it.
“You know what it was like being a little kid on a bicycle?” Dungey said. “Well, you’ve got an engine now and a throttle. It was awesome.”
His father, who still works in construction, used his Bobcat to carve out a racetrack on their 5-acre property. The boys later rode on his grandpa’s land near the pickle factory in Chaska. Years later, after he turned pro, Dungey took a TV crew to see that old stomping ground. No one told him that his grandpa had the dirt track flattened because of lack of use.
“I was like, ‘Well, this is where it used to be,’” he said with a laugh.
If Dungey had his way, he’d have ridden his dirtbike year-round. But the Minnesota winters forced him to dabble in snowmobiling and other winter sports. He also played baseball, basketball and, briefly, football.
At 8, after seeing Jeremy McGrath blaze through a race on TV, Dungey decided his dream was to ride dirtbikes professionally. He admittedly did not show much promise during much of his local amateur career, in part because he held back, never going full throttle out of fear of injury.
That changed after his grandma, Barbara, died of cancer when he was 14. The two were very close, and he considers it a turning point in his life.
“It was hard. I was mad. I was angry,” Dungey said. “But then I realized, ‘Dude, life is too short. You need to chase your dreams. You need to make the most of it. You need to go after it and quit being afraid to fail.’”
He started winning more amateur races but still went unnoticed nationally. As he blew out candles on his 16th birthday cake, he thought to himself, “Well, it doesn’t look like [turning pro is] going to happen this year.” How was he to know that he was about to seize the opportunity of a lifetime?
That year, the Dungey family took a trip out to California to watch some professional racers. While at the racetrack, they spotted Roger DeCoster, one of the top managers in the sport. Dungey and his father approached him and asked for a tryout. DeCoster gave the kid a chance.
Four days later, with DeCoster and Ricky Carmichael, the rider whom Dungey considers the greatest in history, looking on, Dungey aced the tryout and was offered a two-year professional contract the same day.
At 16, Dungey moved to California. He rented a one-bedroom apartment, with his parents using their vacation time to take turns flying out to stay with him. Family friends in the area helped look after him, too.
“It was all eat, sleep and ride,” he said. “It was a fun moment in my life.”
Dungey also met his future wife that same spring, back in Belle Plaine.
Home for a couple of months between racing seasons, Dungey became smitten with a cute waitress at Annie’s Café in that small city located 45 minutes southwest of Minneapolis. A day before he had to fly back to California, he tried to muster the courage to ask her out. As he approached the cash register, another waitress walked over and he chickened out.
After sheepishly slipping out, “All I could think of was 4-1-1,” he said. He called the operator, got transferred to the café and asked for Lindsay.
“I didn’t know who he was,” Lindsay recalled. “[I thought], ‘Who is Ryan?’”
She reluctantly surrendered her phone number. And it took some convincing to get her to go on a date that night. But she eventually relented.
“That night with her, I was like, ‘I feel like I could marry this girl.’ I just loved being with her. We hit it off. I took her to Chipotle,” Dungey said, his sly grin acknowledging that it was probably more romantic than it sounded.
For a few years the two maintained a long-distance relationship, though their lives were drastically different, with Dungey racing professionally at arenas across the country and Lindsay consumed with high school hoops before attending the University of Minnesota for a couple of years.
Things got serious when she moved to Florida in 2011 to live with him. She finished her degree there and is now a certified personal trainer. Dungey popped the question in 2013 in Barcelona, where they were for a race. The two got married the following fall and currently live near Orlando, where his trainer is located and the weather allows him to practice year-round.
“If I would have said no, who knows if I ever would have seen him again?” Lindsay said, looking back on when he called the café to ask for that date.
Dungey’s unexpected rise to the pinnacle of his sport was rapid.
He quickly became a top rider at the lower 250cc level, earning six figures a year in salary and bonuses as a teenager before winning both the indoor Supercross title and outdoor Motocross title in 2009. The following year, at 20, Dungey joined the top circuit and stunningly won both the indoor and outdoor titles. He was the second youngest rider to ever do that.
Before he was legally allowed to drink, Dungey had reached the top.
“It was the most exciting followed by the hardest point in my career because I set a goal and I didn’t set it high enough,” he said. “I achieved that goal, and in my mind it was like, ‘OK, you did that. Now what?’”
Unable to muster the necessary motivation, he unsuccessfully chased after Ryan Villopoto for a few years before winning his second Supercross title in 2015. He won his third last year and has his sights on a fourth.
Dungey has three Motocross tour titles, too. Only Carmichael has more on the outdoor tour, where the races are longer and speeds are higher but the racing is technically more forgiving than on the tight indoor tracks.
“He’s earned his place as the No. 1 rider that he is today. It wasn’t easy,” said his mother, Michelle. “He had to have a lot of things go wrong before he learned how to get it right. It’s very difficult to get where he’s at today. And to be honest with you, we had no idea [years ago that he would].”
His dominance since 2015 has raised his profile, and Dungey is tugging his sport toward the mainstream, too. He was on a Wheaties box. He won ESPY awards in 2015 and 2016 for being the top male action sports athlete. And, in a move that surprised some who know the humble rider, he posed nude on a dirtbike for ESPN the Magazine’s 2016 “Body Issue.”
“Racing has taken me places I couldn’t imagine,” Dungey said, shaking his head. “Looking back, it’s been amazing how it all worked out.”
Has Dungey given any thought to retirement? His career earnings total eight figures and there is little in his sport he hasn’t accomplished. Relatively speaking, he had managed to avoid many major injuries before a fractured C-6 vertebra in his neck last June thwarted his pursuit of a second straight Motocross title. Not many top dirtbike riders race into their 30s.
“I’ve been asked that question a lot this year,” Dungey said, sighing.
His contract with Red Bull KTM Factory Racing expires at the end of the summer Motocross season and he has not publicly announced his future plans, though he has a good idea right now of which way he is leaning.
“I have nothing to prove to anybody,” Dungey said. He continues to ride because he loves it. Once his heart is no longer in it, that will be it.
His focus remains on winning two more tour titles this year. But he has ambitions beyond the dirt track. He hopes to start a business someday.
“Obviously he’ll do something else because he can’t sit still,” his mom said.
Dungey also wants to be more hands-on with his charity work, which he said has been “the most rewarding thing” to come from his pro career.
Honoring the late grandmother who inspired him as an amateur, Dungey in 2012 first partnered with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to host a charity ride and 5K run. According to Richard Shadyac Jr., President and CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude’s, the now-annual event has raised more than $405,000 for the cause.
“We appreciate Ryan’s dedication to making a difference in the fight against childhood cancer as an ambassador for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital,” Shadyac said in an email. “We are grateful for all the ways that Ryan has supported our mission: Finding cures. Saving children.”
Dungey and his wife also want to start a family of their own, something they decided to put off due to the constant travel of his racing tours.
“If it was up to Ryan, we probably would have had kids like five years ago,” Lindsay said. “That is something we are both looking forward to.”
Dungey said that when his remarkable racing career does reach the finish line, they plan to set up their home base somewhere back in Minnesota.
In the meantime, he hopes to add to his tour points lead with another win at Saturday’s Supercross event at U.S. Bank Stadium while trying to not internally overhype what could be his last race in his home state.
“I’m excited for sure to be back in Minneapolis,” he said. “There are a lot of Supercross fans here in Minnesota and it sounds like the stadium will be pretty packed. But I just need to approach it like any other race.”