American racing produced few surprises in 2010. Jimmie Johnson won the Sprint Cup for the fifth consecutive year, Dario Franchitti took his second straight Izod IndyCar title, Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas drove Chip Ganassi Racing's Daytona Prototype to the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car crown, Gary Brabham and Simon Pagenaud won LMP in ALMS, John Force had his 15th championship in NHRA Funny Car and Larry Dixon his third in Top Fuel.
Those champions are racing superstars. There's a new name to add to that exclusive list, the biggest surprise of this season. Ryan Dungey, a 21-year-old from Belle Plaine, Minn., went from promising rookie moving into the premier 450cc-motorcyle classes to becoming the greatest Supercross and Motocross rider in the world.
Dungey's dominance on his Rockstar/Makita Suzuki came in three parts. He won Supercross, an FIM-sanctioned World Championship, in the 17-event season that runs from January to May. Dungey captured the AMA-sanctioned Motocross title that goes from May to September, becoming the first rookie to win both series. He closed the season by winning both races -- known as motos -- in leading the USA team to the Motocross des Nations championship, a competition where 32 countries send their best riders.
"It's definitely a sport where growing up you work so hard with the long-term goal of being the best in my era of racing," Dungey said. "There's always the challenge of winning races and championships. I've put my head down and tried to be the best I could, one step at a time. It feels great to be in the position I'm in today.
"One of the biggest things is staying there. I know for a fact that 2011 will be the biggest challenge of my career. They say that how a rider defends his title is what proves his strength and solidifies his legacy and I'm ready for that challenge."
The grueling Monster Energy Supercross season, 17 events in 18 weeks, begins Jan. 8 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif. Dungey has to prove himself all over because there are those who Dungey was best of the rest after former champions James Stewart and Chad Reed and chief challenger Ryan Villopoto had their 2010 seasons cut short by injuries.
Stewart has been regarded as the fastest rider in Supercross since 2006, but has been plagued by injuries. He won the title in 2007, winning 13 main events, and in 2009, winning 11 main events. Stewart, 25, broke his wrist in the second round last season and returns riding for Yamaha.
Australian Reed, the 2004 and 2008 Supercross champion, broke his hand in the second round and he's back, too.
Villopoto, 22, broke his leg in a crash at St. Louis. He had won seven of the previous 11 main events to close to within 12 points, 277-265, with four events remaining.
"I'm definitely upset with how things turned out," Villopoto said. "I really felt like I had Ryan [Dungey] where I wanted him and I was putting a lot of pressure on him. In the past, he's made some mistakes when the pressure is on, so I was just waiting for my opportunity to capitalize."
The injuries to Stewart, Reed and Villopoto are reflective of the physical demands of Supercross, where riders fly high and race in close quarters, and Motocross, where the speeds on the longer and wider outdoor tracks are much higher. Crashing on either type of course has serious consequences. Staying healthy is a critical part of the game and Dungey did that last season.
Dungey won six main events in Supercross, but his confidence booster came in the opening round at Anaheim when he finished second to Stewart.
"I got the hole shot [lead out of the gate] and led the first 17 [of 20] laps," Dungey said. "James [Stewart] passed me and I ended up second. It was my first 450 race and it felt like a win to me. Walking away from it, I was all ready looking forward to what was to come. It was a great night, a big stepping stone in my career."
Motocross is a different format than Supercross. It has two motos, each lasting about 45 minutes. Dungey was eighth overall, with moto finishes of 10th and sixth, in the season opener at Hangtown, Calif., but rebounded to win 19 of the remaining 22 motos and 10 of 11 rounds.
"The Motocross championship was maybe the toughest, but most rewarding of my career," Dungey said.
Dungey had only one weekend off between the end of Supercross and the start of Motocross.
"I was focused on Supercross and didn't venture out to test outdoors like I had in previous years," Dungey said. "I just didn't have it at Hangtown, nothing seemed to come together no matter how much I tried. Everybody has a bad day and it was just a bad day.
"After Hangtown, we had a weekend off. We were able to do some testing and got the bike better and were able to start winning."
At the Motocross des Nations at Thunder Valley Motocross Park in Lakewood, Colo., Dungey beat Italy's Antonio Cairoli, the FIM Motocross World Champion, in both motos. Cairoli was second in the first moto, fourth in the third.
The USA won the title with 23 points to Belgium's 30, followed by Germany, Great Britain and Italy. Dungey's teammates were Andrew Short and Trey Canard.
"It's the biggest race in our sport and it's definitely an amazing event to be a part of," Dungey said. "There are riders from different countries and the attendance is much bigger than a regular motocross. The whole weekend is just a thrill.
"It's one of the hardest weekends you go through. You're real nervous, riding for your country. Winning was one of the greatest moments of my life."
With Stewart, Reed and Villopoto back in Supercross, Dungey understands the stakes.
"I was looking forward to doing battle against them last season and it's a shame they got hurt," Dungey said. "I'm looking forward to riding against them this year. I think it raises the level of our sport, the intensity and speed. We'll be pushing each other to go faster.
"A second championship would be great. To have those contenders there and be able to go out on top would make it even better. There's no excuses, no naysayers, nobody can say that you didn't win it against the best."