Off of the street Golden Lantern in Laguna Niguel, California, is a small shopping center. It’s the typical deal: A grocery store, a Blockbuster video store, a shop where women get their nails done, a hair salon — you get the drift. Also inside the center’s confines is a gym and a place called Peet’s Coffee. It was there, on New Year’s Eve, that I met my friend Johnny O’Mara and his understudy, Ryan Dungey, to catch up and see how the duo were doing with Anaheim I on the immediate horizon. Ryan and Johnny had tested at the Suzuki test track earlier in the day and after they had finished up, called to see if I wanted to meet them at Peet’s for a cup of coffee.
At 6:00 P.M., we sat down in a booth and Johnny and Ryan elaborated on the off-season and their plans and goals for the 2008 racing season. Brought together over the summer with the encouragement of Ricky Carmichael, O’Mara, just as he had done during the first phase of the GOAT’s almost unfathomable career, was working closely to help mold the 18-year-old Dungey into a future champion.
In a full-circle sort of way, on Saturday night, January 28, 1984 before 71,000 fans in Anaheim Stadium (before it was reconfigured into a 45,000-seat baseball venue called Angel Stadium), Johnny O’Mara won the season-opening Anaheim Supercross and continued on to win the Supercross Championship. Now here he was, nearly a quarter of a century later, attempting to send another young rider down the very same yellow brick road both he and Carmichael had the privilege of doing. We spoke for over an hour — and would have spoken longer — but the staff at Peet’s was closing up early to get home to enjoy New Year’s Eve. The conversation was both enjoyable, and as you’re about to read, very, very insightful.
Racer X: Ryan, how long have you been in California now?
Ryan Dungey: Well, about a month after the outdoors ended, I’ve been out here on and off and going back-and-forth to Florida. I just got back out here this last Thursday. Now we have a little less than a week until we get to Anaheim.
What were you just doing in the gym a few doors down?
I ended up doing a bike ride and some strength stuff. It was good.
Ryan Dungey is ready for 2008.
Yeah, we went riding up at the Suzuki track in Corona.
Ryan Dungey is ready for 2008.
How long did you ride for?
We’re usually out there for about three hours. That’s how long it takes to get our laps in. We’d do a moto, then a break and then another moto. Johnny was out there with me.
How do you guys work together when Johnny is out with you when you’re riding?
Before we go out we’ll usually set up what we’re going to do. We’ll go out there and I’ll warm up and then I’ll start riding. While I’m riding he’ll give me lap times on the board and he’ll tell me if I’m going good and help me out. And after we’re done we’ll look at where we can get better and better, we’re always trying to get better.
So with Anaheim 1 only six days away, do you feel 100 percent and fine-tuned right now?
Yeah, I mean right now it’s pretty much just the finishing touches. We’ve prepared and worked hard for months before this. Right now, you know, it’s not like, ‘okay, we’re resting up’. We’re still at it. Now it’s just tapering down a little bit until race day.
When the Nationals finished up last September, did you know right away that you were going to ride the West Region?
Yeah, basically, I did the East Coast as it was my first year with Suzuki. The plan this year was to do the West Coast. I knew it for a while. When I actually started preparing for it was right after the outdoors. I took a couple of weeks off and then started looking to West Coast. What also happened was that I was out of outdoors earlier than we expected, so we took advantage of it (Note: Dungey broke his clavicle during practice for the Steel City National). I was out but still able to ride. It was like, ‘alright, the outdoors is over with so we’re just going to start getting ready for supercross.’ So we built a base. We did it all right and all according to plan. I feel ready, man. I’ve never been more ready in my life, so it’s awesome.
Not only did you shine in supercross last season, but also you rode extremely well in the Nationals, hauling down four podium finishes before you hurt yourself. Do you have a preference between racing supercross and motocross?
You know I like to think of myself as both. I don’t want to be good at just one; I want to be good at both. Supercross did go my way a little more last year and outdoors was good to me too, you know. I got some podiums and learned a lot. In both supercross and motocross I learned a lot. Overall, I think I want to be good at both. I mean, going back to the Atlanta Supercross (where he won his first supercross) I probably did surprise a lot of people and I know that. But going into that race, it was like, ‘Dude, you can’t sit back.’ I had to believe in myself. It was hard to, but I had to. I think that’s what kind of got me going. That, hard work, dedication and my team.
You guys will start the 2008 West Region series with seven consecutive races. And as we all know, both the West and the East Regional Series are very abbreviated. In other words, if you blow one race, you could be right out of the mix and done for. Have you and Johnny talked about this?
Johnny O’Mara: You don’t need to win every race. But you looked at what happened to Ryan last year. You have a race like Daytona where he didn’t even start and he has to throw out 25 points. I’d say if you’re always on the box or the podium, you’re good. The room for error is pretty small.
So Ryan, in working together with Johnny, do you think you have that programmed into your head now? Not to rush things or push too hard?
Yeah, I mean definitely one of my goals is to be on top of the podium, but to also be smart out on the track and put myself in good positions and get good starts and just let things fall into place and to not be in such a hurry. Definitely our goal is to win every weekend, but some weekends things might not be working out.
Johnny O’Mara: Yeah, I talked with Ryan about this. Some weekends you might not have things going perfectly. I’ve been around the sport long enough to know that sometimes you might feel terrible, some weekends you might have it going on, sometimes if you’re having a bad night you have to make the best of the situation. Definitely his goal is to win every race. I mean all of us that have been around and who have wanted to be a champion knows you go to every race to win. But, you know, there can be situations. Ryan’s aware of those things. Ryan’s aware you have to make good choices while you’re racing. You make sure you minimize the risk factor out there — you don’t take any unnecessary risks. Hey, if you can win it, do the best you can to win it. If you have to get the second that night, that’s fine. You want to be in the hunt for the championship at the end.
He’s right. You have to with until you get there. Hopefully, we did our homework and we’re on top, but there might be that guy who is going good and you have to watch out for him. I think you can’t underestimate anybody. You have to realize everyone is there.
Johnny O’Mara: I agree and I think that’s why Ryan isn’t mentioning any particular rider. You just base it on doing your homework like he said. I came on board with Ryan in mid-May and before you know it, we’re already at Anaheim I. We’ve been talking about all this stuff even in May. All this stuff we did and what we are doing now — and what I did with his training — we should really see Ryan reap the benefit in 2008 and here we are one week away. So we’ll see if what we’ve been doing works. We’ll see if I helped him a lot. I know that I probably have. I think I’ve brought him a lot of stability in his training and his mindset. In my opinion, he’s ready to go. There’s no doubt. I’ve watched him quite a bit. He’s grown a lot in the six months that I have known him and I see a bright future.
Johnny, when you won at Anaheim in 1984, was what you were doing then to prepare to win relatable to Ryan Dungey in 2008?
Johnny O’Mara: It’s identical. It’s completely identical. Other than the scale of it — I mean the sport is bigger and more worldwide and there is more TV and everything — it’s the same. It’s completely identical. Just as I saw the season come closer for him, I remember it as when I was on the same deal. Now I’m on the outside helping him to kind of lead him down that path to get to Anaheim and the main races that he has to race in the series. It’s completely the same.
While you’re from Minnesota, you’ve been living out here in California and getting ready for the season. Having said that, you seem to have kept yourself pretty removed from getting caught up in the “California scene.” Do you want to weigh in on that?
Johnny O’Mara: Well, he’s not going out partying tonight on New Year’s Eve if you want to put it that way. One of the reasons why I’m helping Ryan is that I can tell that he’s very grounded. I like him. I see a lot of similarities in him that I had in me when I was his age. Nothing against all of the other kids that came up through the sport, but yeah, maybe some of them didn’t have their priorities set. This window of opportunity in racing for all of us is pretty small. It doesn’t last too long. Ryan can identify with that. I made it very clear to him that, ‘hey, you need to get established quick in this sport and you have to grow on it to become a champion.’
The window to “make it” is very small, isn’t it?
Johnny O’Mara: Yeah, it absolutely is small and it can close quickly on you with some bad luck and some injuries and stuff like that. But we’re very prepared and if I help Ryan in that department then that makes his chances and odds way better than most.
So what have you and Ryan worked on the most to get ready for Saturday night?
Johnny O’Mara: You know it’s pretty much everything. It’s really hard to nail it down and say, ‘we’ve upped his endurance level.’ It’s everything. In all reality I don’t even really like to be labeled as a trainer for Ryan. I’d rather be known as a mentor or a coach. I’m there to help with his mental outlook. I’ve opened some things up so that the learning curve is probably quicker. I mean I helped Ricky [Carmichael] in that area, too, early on. It’s really similar with Ryan now.
Johnny O’Mara: Absolutely. We all know how great Ricky was, but Ricky will tell you at the beginning he was pretty lost, too. He didn’t have any real idea of how to do it. Fortunately, we and him met and we had a great relationship. Ricky’s parents trusted me just like Ryan’s parents trust me now. They have a lot of faith in me. I spend a lot of time with Ryan. It’s a great combination. I wouldn’t do it for anybody else but Ricky. I didn’t think I’d ever do it for anybody else but Ricky, but Ricky is retired now and Ricky endorsed this deal that I’m working with Ryan. He actually told me about Ryan before I even met Ryan.
Ryan, how is the atmosphere within the team now? Carmichael is gone. Alessi and Vuillemin are in. What’s it like inside the team now? Is it a lot different?
Well, it’s definitely different. Ricky was there and not having him there anymore is definitely weird. Even not seeing him out on the track is different. Ivan [Tedesco] went onto Honda, too. A lot of new guys came in, like we have Vuillemin and Alessi and [Nico] Izzi. It’s all good. Everything is good. They’re good teammates. I don’t see them much, but they’re great teammates. We’ve hung around each other and everybody is cool to one another. I’m not bummed on the team at all. I’m pumped. It’ll be cool. It’ll be good.
Johnny, what’s your sense on the “new” Team Suzuki?
Johnny O’Mara: I told Ryan right away, ‘hey, the team needs a new leader. There is nobody better than you. Step up and show these guys how to do it.’ Like in testing, the guys on the team just shake their heads because Ryan rides from sun up to sun down. Just like Ricky did. Some of the other guys on the team have seen his work ethic already and they know he works with me and they can tell the team is growing. Ryan’s already set that example. He’s being a leader. He learned that from Ricky. He saw that firsthand. So I said, ‘hey, it’s time for you. There’s a big hole in the team. There’s a transition period. You take that leadership role.’ As young as Ryan is, he’s ready to step up. He can do it.
Ryan, what’s your take on that?
I think having Ricky that first year and to see how he does it, it kind of got me on the right track. I got to be around him quite a bit to see that he definitely is the real dude. I think having that first year with Ricky kind of put me ahead a little bit more, so it was good.
Do you want to get up into the 450 class pretty quickly?
It’s a whole different bike. I haven’t really thought that much about it. I think for this year and next year I just want to focus on the Lites class.
There’s a good chance it may rain on Saturday night. Has that crossed your mind?
I guess everybody has to ride in it, right? We’ve prepared and we’ve done our homework. It’s mud and you just don’t throw yourself out.
Johnny O’Mara: It makes it a little bit of a crapshoot if it’s a total quagmire. It’s just what it is. You just have to deal with it and hopefully Ryan can get great starts. Everyone’s got to deal with it. You just can’t totally let it ruin your mindset for a race. When you have open stadiums or outdoor motocross eventually weather is going to come and get you once in a while.
So is motocross what you live with seven days a week and 24 hours a day?
Yeah, I do. Sometimes I have to try and tell myself, ‘quit thinking about it,’ but everyday that’s all I think about: racing and how I can get better. That’s my goal. My goal is to be the best. My goal is to be up there one day and be that guy. But, yeah, I do live it 24/7. Johnny and I give it 110 percent all the time, whatever it is. I don’t do it because I have to, I do it because I love to and I want to and I love doing it.
Johnny O’Mara: If anything, I almost have to tame this guy down. He has so much passion for the sport. He wants to do it all. Sometimes it doesn’t happen overnight, but his learning curve is going to be really quick. We’ve already seen that. That’s why he is the Rookie of the Year. That’s why he won quite a few races this season and he did finish on the podium a handful of times in the outdoors. That’s a great rookie season. I mean other than a Ricky or a Bubba, not too many people have done what Ryan has done in his rookie season.
Do you feel nervous about Anaheim being here in just a few days?
I think about it. You always get a little bit nervous on the line, but I’m ready to go. I can’t wait for that gate to drop on Saturday night.