Last year at Pala, it was time for Ryan Dungey and Ryan Villopoto to become leaders. The duo faced with a steep climb to become the next stars of this sport, because the previous stars were still around. Bob Hannah broke his leg, Rick Johnson broke his wrist, Jeremy McGrath lasted long enough for age to finally creep up, and Ricky Carmichael retired. In those cases, the torch was passed suddenly, but smoothly. Not so for the Ryans, because James Stewart and Chad Reed are still there to challenge. But the numbers say Villo and The Dunge have combined to take the last six 450 Motocross and Supercross titles. It's their world now.
Last year's motocross finale hammered it home. The 2011 season may have been the best and most competitive ever, but after nine months of battle, only the two Ryans were still in championship contention by the final moto of the year. When they crossed the finish at Pala, the long season would end, and Villopoto would emerge with both the indoor and outdoor titles. But Dungey was right there. With the smoke on a fiery season just beginning to clear, how would they greet each other after the race?
They smiled. They shook hands. You could visibly see the relief on their faces, the championship tension finally broken. The next weekend, they would be Team USA teammates, get along well, and conquer that, too. With the world watching to see how the Ryans would play this rivalry, they both made the conscious decision to take the high road. No trash talk, no rough riding, no insults. They would not be friends, but they would show resect. And as the new leaders, they will incite followers—witness a five-rider fight in the 250 Class this year, completely devoid of rough riding, off-track drama or personality conflicts. Just racing and respect. Boom.
And that's how it works. Bob Hannah showed up in the golden era of the 1970s, when the sport was still new and fun. The first American star was Marty Smith, and he was often compared to a surfer. The very essence of surfing is the very essence of joy. But Hannah took that fun and stuffed it in the stinkin' trash. Hannah was mean and pissed, and he worked at hating the other riders. He didn't just hate them, he worked at hating them so he could fuel his aggression. No more fun and frolic, and in his wake came the "super training" era of the 1980s, when the riders morphed into triathletes. That hard-working era produced some close racing, but it also broke a lot of riders down early. You just couldn't keep that pace up for long, and mid-twenties was considered retirement age. Only the tireless will of Jeff Ward and the attention-loving showmanship of Rick Johnson could survive. But hardened will still ruled the day, which is why many thought Damon Bradshaw would become the greatest of them all. Bradshaw not only possessed Johnson's showmanship and Hannah's "fueled-by-dislike" desire, but he had more natural talent than either.
Combine Brashaw's hate for everyone with the first budding American-international feud between Jean-Michel Bayle and Jeff Stanton, and you had blood on the track every weekend. Between Bradshaw/Matiasevich ram fests and JMB playing mind games with Stanton, it seemed like things had reached zenith. These were riders motivated not only by the desire to win for themselves, but by the pride of beating the competitors they didn't like.
It seemed like the ultimate expression of sport, but it couldn't last. All of that infighting and stress and negative reinforcement burned the whole crew out, and, amazingly, JMB, Stanton and Bradshaw all quit, mentally, while their bodies still had plenty left to give.
Which ushered in the exact opposite. Jeremy McGrath became the next leader, and he did it by enjoying it. He had fun, he kept it light. For every zig of a Hannah or Johnson, he zagged. RJ once released a VHS tape called Motovation. MC came out with one called Winning Can Be Fun. MC probably aged less in 10 years than Stanton did in three.
Bob Hannah (center) worked at hating other riders.
Racer X Archives photo
And of course, everyone followed. The 1990s generation found fun in having fun, and now those days can be looked at fondly like the 70s. The super-training 80s birthed a guy like Bradshaw, who took no prisoners and made no friends. The McGrath era 90s birthed freestyle, and, the ultimate expression of that era is the fun loving, friends-with-everyone character, Travis Pastrana. You know what's funny? The guys who won through training often now say they wish they had backed the training down a bit. But the guys who won by having fun never say they wish they had trained more!
It flipped again. Carmichael went all-serious, and suddenly a rider couldn't do an interview without saying "hard work." Carmichael, in fact, seemed to try to purposely suck the fun out of racing for everyone else. He tried to crush people and show them up, breaking their will. It got very, very serious. When I hosted the post-race press conferences during the middle 2000s in supercross, you could hear a pin drop whenever Carmichael, Stewart or Reed were in there. It was blood, sweat and tears in those days. Reed and Stewart carried that mantle forward. They genuinely hated each other, and Stewart, who at one point seemed to love the motorcycle life every bit as much as Pastrana, got sucked into the volatility with Reed.
I don't even think it's in Reed and Stewart's makeup to be that way. With a little time to loosen some tension, Reed has emerged as a laid-back guy who never seems to sweat things too much. Stewart can still be funny. But we didn't see much laid back or funny stuff in 2009. The theme of the day prevented it (with a nod to Larry Brooks, who pressed the "you against the world" button when he was Team Manager for those guys).
The McGrath era of the 90s brought back the "fun" to the sport.
So a year ago, it was up to the Ryans to determine where the next generation would go. Would they go for the throat, hate everyone and make it personal? Would they go deadly serious, get cold blooded and systematically remove everyone's soul? Would they party like it was 1999?
Pala told the story. They would simply race. They would never be friends but they would not get caught up in mind games, either. Hannah and the generation he inspired found ways to be mad, invented ways to motivate each other. Meanwhile, you simply can't get Ryan Dungey to bite on any of that stuff, ever. Zero extra drama for The Dunge. When Hannah switched teams, he adopted a scorched-earth policy. Dungey, meanwhile, never once pissed on Suzuki when his bike let him down last year, and he never said, "I told you so" when he made his oft-criticized switch to KTM work. Never got ruffled by Mike Alessi this summer either—whereas Bradshaw would have risked his own championship season just to take Mike out for blocking.
Dungey works on himself, and himself only. The schedule and pressures on today's racers are too much to get caught up in anything else. The Ryans systematically eliminate all extraneous thoughts or drama, and focus only on riding dirt bikes better. And not even better than each other—just better than the last time they rode. They are raising the bar and also inspiring the next group to do the same. And thus, from this year's 250 Class, great, inspired, intense, all-out racing, but not a peep beyond what happened in the motos. We all like some drama, but I think we can live with this, too.