It’s a flash of orange and the crowd erupts: Ryan Dungey rides the No. 5 KTM motorcycle up Horsepower Hill at the Hangtown Motocross Classic.
It has been six years since any Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship crowd has seen Dungey in action. While he officially retired from all forms of racing in 2017, his final motocross race was in 2016.
Fast-forward to the third round of Pro Motocross and the 32-year-old Red Bull KTM rider has returned to his old form — same team, same but improved bike and same mindset.
“I have a little bit different perspective; I’m at a different place in my life,” Dungey said during the preseason press conference, referring to his blossoming family. “But for me, it’s always been, I want to be in it to win it.”
However, it’s not only Dungey and his family who have shocked motocross fans across the country with their return to racing. The addition of a second retired Red Bull KTM rider left the industry reeling.
“We get a text that says, ‘I have two questions for you. One, is the No. 222 taken? And two, what about No. 5?’” recalled Davey Coombs, president of MX Sports Pro Racing.
It was late April and the Monster Energy Supercross series was racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Coombs and his promotion team were filming TV bumpers for the upcoming Pro Motocross season and Cooper Webb had yet to show up as Red Bull KTM’s only motocross entry.
It was previously established that Marvin Musquin was in a Supercross-only contract, but team manager Ian Harrison notified MX Sports that Webb would also be sitting out the motocross series due to injury.
“Immediately, I was like, ‘I know who No. 222 is,’” Coombs said.
The No. 222 belongs to Antonio Cairoli, the nine-time MXGP world champion who retired from the sport during the fall of 2021.
At the time, it wasn’t official that the two past champions would be on the roster.
But Dungey was already in the middle of bike testing and rumors about Cairoli pursuing his bucket-list dream of competing on American ground were making their way around the industry.
Cairoli ran the first three rounds of the season, while Dungey had run the first four events at this writing, as the series celebrated legends of the sport during its 50th anniversary campaign.
“If anyone had told me in the middle of April that we would see Dungey and Cairoli on a starting gate together again, I would’ve thought you were talking about a video game,” Coombs said.
While other retired champions like Ryan Villopoto, Ricky Carmichael and James Stewart have never looked back, Dungey has been entertaining the idea of racing again for a few years.
“I didn’t think I’d ever race again, honestly, but I’m really happy that it worked out and I got to do this,” Dungey said.
The rider has been renowned for his work ethic off the track, and coming into this season, his time spent preparing and putting in laps looked similar to previous years.
However, before the opening round at Fox Raceway, even he was unsure of where he would place against a stacked field of riders who have been consistently building their experience over the past six years.
Dungey considers his constant challenge to be “getting my body back into that top-end race shape, where I was at before.”
The No. 5 placed fifth, seventh, sixth and fifth overall in the first four rounds of the series — contending for podiums and racing old rivals in every moto.
While he doesn’t regret stepping away from the sport in 2017, considering the mental state he was in at the time, it’s been like a return home.
His goal this season, more than anything, is to “not waste the gift” he’s been given.
On the other side of the Red Bull KTM tent, Cairoli races with a different mentality.
“I didn’t have much expectation, because I know I’m not in any shape to be in front, but I know I can do good,” Cairoli said.
At 37 years old, Cairoli has been racing professionally for 20 years.
Since 2002, beyond his impressive number of championships, he has acquired 183 victories while on the MXGP circuit and is revered as one of the greatest motocross riders in the world.
Still, his visit to Pro Motocross has brought its own challenges, as Cairoli is now competing against riders who are in their 20s and who are more familiar with the quick turnaround between motos.
“I’m still managing to ride with them and be there; I’m really proud of this,” Cairoli said.
In the MXGP format, riders are given two hours to rest between races, versus the 45-minute break that Cairoli now deals with.
“The recuperation between motos is not similar to when you’re 25. It’s slow,” Cairoli noted.
The name of his game has been subtle week-to-week improvements, evident in his seventh, sixth and fifth overall results through three rounds. His best single-race finish was fourth in the second moto at Thunder Valley.
For Cairoli, results aren’t everything. It’s also about the experience, from being in the pits with his wife and son, to finally racing in front of American crowds.
“I really feel a lot of love, let’s say, from the American fans. This is nice, because even if I’m at the end of my career. … I feel like they really want to see me here,” Cairoli said.
While originally contracted for the first two rounds only, Cairoli extended his visit to Pro Motocross.
“It’s been wild, I never really would’ve thought I’d be teammates with Tony Cairoli and Ryan Dungey, much less at the same time,” said Aaron Plessinger, the third rider under the Red Bull KTM team awning.
As a past 250 motocross champion, Plessinger has adjusted well to having Dungey and Cairoli beside him on race day. He’s currently making his own return to racing, after being off for several months due to injury.
“I’ve only known them for a little bit, but probably two of the best teammates I’ve had so far,” Plessinger said.
The team dynamics stay light among the combination of his freestyle approach to motocross and Dungey and Cairoli’s professional and friendly personas.
At the end of the day, the three teammates have quite a bit in common — they know what it takes to win, they are here because they love to race and they still have something left in the tank to use out on the race track.
From Coombs’ perspective, as he lays witness to a season full of legendary riders, he recognizes this as an unprecedented piece of motocross history.
“Antonio, his masterpiece is complete. He’s literally painted the Sistine Chapel of motocross, especially for Italy. But he’s still fast,” Coombs said.
And for Dungey, to come back after six years and contend for a podium in the 450 class, Coombs admitted, “That’s one of the most impressive things that Ryan Dungey has ever done, and he’s done a lot.”
It’s a thrill for the crowds to see the No. 5 and No. 222 battle and have the chance to be spectators of their Hall-of-Fame worthy race craft, to interact with their genuine off-track personalities and to take part in their return to the sport, no matter how brief it may be.