MotoGP is show business, and to contribute to the show riders must bring more to their teams than race results. Since 2009, few riders have done more for their teams and sponsors without winning a race than Nicky Hayden has done for Ducati.
For decades the mantra in pro racing has been “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday,” but Ducati has seen its North American market eclipse sales in Italy for the first time, even as they have not had a GP win since Casey Stoner left. There’s no empirical way to determine how much of this is due to Nicky Hayden riding for Ducati, but common sense says these are related. So Ducati’s decision to let The Kentucky Kid go must have been a difficult one.
None of the Ducati folks I talked to at Laguna Seca seemed keen to discuss the news, making me wonder if this decision had more to do with Audi’s new influence than existing Ducati management.
Fans did want to talk about it, however. Last week on the Photo.GP Facebook page, I asked those who follow my work there what they thought of Hayden moving on from Ducati. I naively expected 20-30 comments. As I’m writing this, there are 160 comments.
A few are simply anti-Ducati, a few others are critical of Hayden himself for not producing better results. But the great majority are there simply because the people who posted wanted to express their support for one of the most popular riders in the world.
MotoGP riders are respected for their abilities on track, if not for results, then at least because to get to that level of racing and then qualify for the grid is an accomplishment in itself. But as David Emmett pointed out in one of our discussions at the Sachsenring, while riders are generally respected, few riders are truly beloved.
No rider is more beloved than Rossi (and as a consequence none is more hated by those who resent his success and popularity). But Hayden is another of the rare personalities in MotoGP who manage to be both respected and beloved. His character, comprising full doses of heart, charm, and stoicism, lends great PR value to any brand associated with The Kentucky Kid.
As talented riders have come and gone at Ducati, each believing he could do what Casey Stoner did only to learn the sad truth, Hayden has remained since 2009 as the hard-working, brand-loyal, street-bike-selling spokesman — never complaining, never biting the hand that feeds him, and always giving 100% on a bike that can’t win without Stoner aboard.
Where will he land next season? Just about to turn 32, Hayden isn’t a prime candidate for teams hoping to discover the next Casey Stoner. But any team wanting to thrill their sponsors and increase their fan base would be wise to consider adding him to their roster.
Will MotoGP survive the loss of Nicky Hayden if he goes to another series? Of course. It has survived the loss of Casey Stoner. But it is also less of a show for the loss of the Australian champion. 2013 has shaped up to be a fantastic season with many compelling stories. But imagine what 2013 would be like with Stoner on the grid, too.
For the first time in years we’d have five riders who might win a given race. We might not be singing quite so loudly the praises of Mark Marquez, but imagine how loudly we would be singing if Marquez were getting the same results with Stoner as a competitor.
If Nicky Hayden is allowed to slip away from MotoGP, the series will be less compelling because that loss, just as whichever series picks him up will benefit from his involvement. At a time when MotoGP is struggling to grow its popularity, to let one of its most popular riders escape would be a huge mistake.
Scott Jones is a professional photographer who covers MotoGP and WSBK for racing industry clients as well as racing websites and publications in the U.S. and Europe. His online archive is available at Photo.GP, and you can find him on his blog, Twitter, & Facebook.
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Photo: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved