NICKY HAYDEN: A TRIBUTE | Not forgotten
Three years after he was tragically taken from his family, friends, and fans we remember the nicest bloke in the GP paddock – Nicholas Patrick Hayden
If there is any solace to be found in the passing of 2006 world champion Nicky Hayden, it’s that he probably didn’t feel any pain, and possibly never knew what had happened. It’s the very least the popular American racer deserved.
What he didn’t deserve was to lose his life aged just 35 because of something so prosaic as getting knocked off his bicycle by a mid-sized hatchback on the public road near the Misano circuit at 2pm on Wednesday, 17 May 2017.
He was a man who had challenged the gods and come out winning, even when it went wrong. A man who had even beaten Valentino Rossi to the world championship.
And a man who was not only admired by everybody who met him, but actually loved. Very widely so.
Nicky was a rare creature in a world where rampant egos vie with blatant attention-deficit personalities, and where kindness and good manners are generally subservient to ambition and greed. His smile said it all.
News of the ultimately fatal accident brought forth an outpouring of tributes, support and affection, from every quarter – from Rossi himself to fans worldwide who had never met him.
I was lucky to have done so, frequently and regularly over his 13-year grand prix career. Several things stood out: his determination, his work ethic, and his racing talent. And one thing that made him almost unique – the fact that he wasn’t interested only in himself. Every question you asked, he’d ask one back about you.
Nicky was the middle of five children – three boys and two girls – born to Earl and Rose Hayden in Owensboro, Kentucky.
Both parents had been dirt-track racers. Earl handed on his AMA racing number to Nicky, 69, because (as Earl had it) “it looks the same whichever way up you are”.
According to Nicky, Earl’s stories were always better than his. “He’ll talk about racing Daytona with no gloves, with girls as his pit crew, one you liked and one you needed to borrow her trailer. And then they got liquored up and spilt gas on him at his pit stop. Real racing stories…”
All five of the kids would go on to race motorcycles, including the girls. According to Nicky, it was the kids who wanted to do it, never the parents pushing.
And it was sometimes a struggle because the family wasn’t well off. In between practising and training, Nicky would put in time at Earl’s used-car lot, Second Chance Autos. “Some days we’d have to do a repo – that was always interesting.”
Nicky never did win a Grand National dirt-track mile or half-mile – years later, he told me it was still a regret.
But he was a natural at road racing, and won the AMA Supersport title in 1999, then the premier Superbike title in 2002, including the Daytona 200.
His reward was a place alongside reigning world champion Rossi in the Repsol Honda factory team.
Nicky arrived as an innocent, wide-eyed boy from smalltown Kentucky.
I recall a story from his first MotoGP in Japan. Sitting in business class, he was asked if he’d like to put his hand luggage in the overhead locker. He grabbed it all the tighter. “No! It’s got my passport in it.”
He was in at the deep end, but not out of his depth, finishing fifth overall in 2003 with two third places, one at Motegi, just a couple of seconds behind Rossi. Just as importantly, he scored points at every round but two. Consistency would become a keynote.
Nicky’s first win was a home-race milestone, in 2005 at Laguna Seca, and that year he finished third overall.
The best was to come. Only two more wins in 2006 (one in the US again), and then a real sting in the tail, a final showdown with Rossi when it was the Italian legend – gunning for his sixth successive title – who blinked first, and the Kentucky Kid took the gravy.
It was, of course, a dream come true.
Nicky had two more years with Repsol Honda, then joined Ducati – and shared in a steady decline for the Italian marque, joined by Rossi again for two years.
Finally came two seasons on the downbeat production Honda before moving to World Superbikes with the semi-official Ten Kate Honda team. Another downbeat bike, but he took it to the top, winning in the wet at Sepang.
This, almost exactly one year before his fatal crash, made him one of a very few riders to win races in AMA Superbikes, MotoGP and World Superbikes.
Aside from his friendly nature, Nicky was unfailingly modest. He was significantly the most successful Hayden, though elder brother Tommy and the younger Roger Lee are both distinguished US Superbike riders.
“I will say I’ve had the most success on paper,” he told me. “But I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m the best. I’ve had some good opportunities and been in the right place at the right time, and took advantage of ’em.
“Tommy’s my biggest go-to guy as far as… I wouldn’t say rider coach, but when we was growing up my dad was off trying to pay for the bikes [and] my brother was the one teaching me how to ride them.”
Nicky’s trademark, aside from consistent finishing, was a work ethic that meant he was always the first one at tests, and the last to finish. In this way he taught himself how to ride in the wet and worked tirelessly on development.
“I like the work,” he said. “I like to be a grinder, to put in the process, and when it all comes together seeing it pay off.”
And he was working when he was knocked off his bicycle, training to remain fit. He suffered catastrophic head injuries and fractures. Put on life support, his family and doctors made the toughest of decisions five days later.
Nicky’s death left his team and the rest of racing – all of us – bereft.
Most of all, he left his family bereft: Earl and Rose, brothers Tommy and Roger Lee, sisters Jenny and Kathleen, and fiancee Jackie Marin. Their loss is incalculable.
But I bet they’re proud of him.
Nicky’s dream seemed to have ended in the dust at Estoril in 2006.
It had been a great year, with wins at Assen and Laguna Seca, when his lead on points went up to 51. But Rossi was closing. With two races left, the legendary Italian was just 12 points behind.
Nicky couldn’t afford any mistakes, let alone by his new Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa. In the early laps, rather to his surprise, he found himself fighting hard over third place with Pedrosa.
“I didn’t expect them [Honda] to make guys pull over for me, but I do think we should have had a plan,” he said later.
On lap five of 28, Pedrosa screwed up, bouncing off the kerb and taking both himself and Hayden down and out.
Nicky, gesticulating in the gravel trap, “used a couple of words you wouldn’t use in church”.
Rossi finished second in the race, and took the title lead for the first time.
As an emotional Hayden said: “Let’s be real. Give him eight points with one race to go, the dude’s just got to follow me.”
Rossi qualified on pole for the Valencia finale while Hayden was in the middle of the second row in fifth. But Rossi got a bad start and was losing ground. Then, after five of 25 laps, he fell. He remounted for 13th; Nicky came third behind the Ducatis.
It was enough. He was World Champion by five points. The tension was released in floods of tears, and Nicky did a little dance on the podium.
Interviewed on TV, he said: “Man, you know I just believe good things happen to good people.”
And he was right.
Tommy Hayden: He dreamed as a kid of being a pro rider and not only achieved that but also managed to reach the pinnacle of his chosen sport in becoming world champion. We are all so proud of that.
Roger Lee Hayden: I’ll never forget the Monday morning after you won the world championship, you woke me up to go running. That’s what separated you from the rest and made you a legend.
Valentino Rossi: The most beautiful moment I have about Nicky is when he shakes my hand after an unpleasant race at Valencia 2015. For him, the race was a goodbye to MotoGP, while I lost the world title. His supportive gaze from his helmet was one of the few positive moments I had that day.
Dani Pedrosa: Always in my heart, champ. RIP Nicky.
Maverick Viñales: One of the best ever and a good friend. Always in my heart.
Repsol Honda: Nicky was a great sportsman, a true gentleman and a friend. We’ll never forget him.
Troy Bayliss: Life just isn’t fair sometimes. RIP champ.
Mark Webber: A beautiful person, genuine and real.
Neil Spalding: Godspeed Nicky Hayden. The best, most humble and honourable man I have known in the GP Paddock. Simply gutted that this should happen.
David Emmett: A great champion, but an even greater man.
Mark Bracks: As I said to his father Earl at Le Mans during his 2007 title defence: “He might be a world champion rider, but you have raised a world champion bloke.”
Julian Ryder: RIP Nicky Hayden; champion of the USA, champion of the world, and the finest example of a sportsman it’s ever been my fortune to meet.
Words Michael Scott Photography Gold & Goose