Remembering Nicky Hayden – Becoming A Champion

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Like the article that preceded it, there is a backstory to this story and the photos that go along with, which I wanted to share with our readers.

As some of you already know, Steve sat down with Nicky at the Assen round for the World Superbike Championship, with them having a long conversation about his earlier racing career. 

We originally planned to publish this story later in the year (maybe around the Laguna round), to showcase how Nicky came to be a World Champion, as he hunted for wins in the WorldSBK paddock, but with his untimely passing we wanted to share it with you now, as our last feature about the life of Nicky Hayden.

The photos are my own, shot at the 2013 MotoGP rounds held in the US, where at Laguna Seca, Nicky debuted his “Born to Ride” Arai helmet. While not the most recent photos of Nicky Hayden, the shots seemed like fitting photos to include of The Kentucky Kid, as the world continues to share the #RideOnKentuckyKid hashtag on social media. -JB

The choices we make can have consequences for years. Nicky Hayden’s choices as a teenager led him on a path to a world championship

In all walks of life, the decisions that you make at an early age can have untold consequences in later life. Whether it is the college you decide to attend, or your first job, there are certain moments that become cornerstones of your life.

For most people, the choices can be corrected over the passing of time, but for a motorcycle racer with a short career they can have huge consequences.

The pressure on young shoulders, once racing transitions from a hobby to a career, are huge. Families stake their financial future on a child in the hope rather than expectation that it will all work out.

In the current economic climate, this risk is huge, but it has always been the case. The Hayden family rolled the dice on their sons’ racing careers, and with a world title on the mantle back home in Owensboro, Kentucky it has worked out well for Nicky Hayden.

“I turned pro when I turned 16, and it was lucky that I was able to get a ride almost straight away,” said the 2006 MotoGP world champion. “I had three races as a privateer to make an impression, and we were racing from our van where we drove it across the country. Luckily I made an impression and for the next year Suzuki picked me up.”

It was an impressive performance at the final race of the year, at Las Vegas, that made the lasting impression for Hayden.

“The last race of that season was in Vegas, and honestly that was something else! People sometimes talk about pressure, and that was real pressure for me.”

“In the first two races of the year, I did okay considering I was a complete rookie, and I think I might have got seventh, but knew that I had those three races to show what I could do.”

“In Vegas, I really had a good weekend. I qualified on the front row of the 750 race, and I ran in the lead group. I actually got taken out in the 750 race, but I was riding my 600 in it and that been a good showing.”

“I was able to run at the front all weekend, and it was enough that the phone was ringing after that weekend. I could take my pick for which manufacturer.”

The move to Suzuki saw Hayden race a supersport machine for the 1998 season, and make his world championship debut in the class at Laguna Seca.

Hayden would line up on the fourth row of the grid, alongside Wilco Zeelenberg and James Toseland, and impress the regular field before retiring from the race while running inside the Top 10.

It was clear for all to see the potential that the “Kentucky Kid” had from the outset, and he would go on to claim five wins during that season in the AMA Pro Supersport Championship, before winning the Supersport crown the following season.

At the same time Hayden was also racing in the Grand National class in AMA Flat Track, but he was aware that he would likely have to make a decision about his career path.

With the goal having been to be world champion since he was a child, the decision was largely made, but none the less it wasn’t an easy decision.

“At the time I was doing a lot of dirt track racing. I loved dirt track, but it didn’t take long when I started road racing to know that it was the right direction for me,” explained Hayden. 

“I kind of knew straight away, and even though I loved dirt track, I also loved road racing. I liked the fact that the tracks were lot bigger, and that there was more to them.”

“You had lefts, rights, up-hills sections. I also loved that there were no rain-outs! All I wanted to do was ride, so as a kid I hated rain-outs at a dirt track meeting.”

“It was pretty clear the future was probably better for me in road racing. Scott Parker once told my dad that he was the only factory rider in dirt track at that time. There was only one….and my dad had three kids all looking to race.”

“There were more opportunities in road racing, and I’m happy with the decision that I made, but I like them both. I kept racing dirt track until 2002, my last year racing in the US, but in that final year I was doing it a lot less.”

“I always wanted to do more dirt track because the AMA schedule wasn’t too big, I think it was eleven rounds or something. I thought for a kid that racing eleven times a year is not a lot of experience. I just wanted more than that.”

“And at that time people still thought that dirt track experience was so important for throttle control. On the 500GP bikes people used to say that the only way to be a 500 racer was that you had to be a dirt tracker. I think that’s changed now with four-strokes and electronics and better tires, but it still was a good experience.”

With the goal being to develop himself as a rider to be capable of making the switch to Grand Prix racing, Hayden was on the right path and his 2002 season would be the springboard to a move to Europe.

That final year in the US saw Hayden claim the AMA Pro Superbike crown with nine wins, to beat Eric Bostrom to the title. Hayden was 21-years-old and the youngest rider to win the title, but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that he would make the switch.

“The AMA was always just a step for me, because my goal was always to go to Europe and try to be world champion,” admitted Hayden, but he still had a decision to wrestle with.

“I liked racing the AMA, but I wanted to be in MotoGP. At that time [2002] the AMA series was big and the money was good, and so was the racing. The first offer I got to go to Europe was where I was going to have to leave Honda and sign with Yamaha.”

“At the time, I knew that Honda really wanted me to stay another year in America, and I thought maybe I should stay for one more year. At the time I was happy, and I was winning races and loving life. I also still got to do some dirt track and I was winning some of those.”

“At the time, the Factory Honda team and Gary Mathers had built me a dream team there, working with Merlyn Plumlee. There was a lot of reason to stay but I said that this call might not ever come again. I couldn’t say no to it.”

“I think that I probably would have stayed another year, if I had been guaranteed that for 2004 I would move to MotoGP. Honda wanted me to defend the AMA title, and they probably would have given me that guarantee, but I just wasn’t going to live with any regret thinking that I had a chance to turn down a factory ride at MotoGP. You don’t do that.”

Having the inner belief in himself to turn down the AMA offers and take the opportunity to ride a MotoGP bike was ultimately the right choice.

The cut and thrust world of the Grand Prix paddock was a world away from what he had grown up surrounded by, but his American racing education had thought him more than enough to know how to deal with any issues that may arise.

“In dirt track you go up against tough riders in a very tough environment. Dirt track is a great school for a rider, but it’s not just about getting the experience of throttle control and the technical stuff, it’s also because dirt track is just a tough world.”

“When I was sixteen/seventeen, going and racing Jay Springsteen or Scottie Parker and guys like that it was great for me. I learned a lot about racecraft and things like that.”

Moving to MotoGP, Hayden would join the Repsol Honda team and be paired with Valentino Rossi as a rookie. It was going to be a baptism of fire for the American, but the experience of flat track racing and going bar-to-bar against the likes of Parker on a Mile was something that stood him in good stead.

Having such a varied career in the United States meant that there was little that would faze him for the move to Europe, in terms of what to expect from the tracks.

“I had raced on every type of track, and I did my first mile when I was I was sixteen at a pro-am. I did those amateur miles before I could make my first Grand National Mile start the next year.”

“I knew what to expect, and when you’re seventeen you don’t think about anything other than the race. I went to my first mile and it didn’t feel like nothing to me because I was a kid. It’s just another race for you and you just tuck in longer during it!”

The innocence of youth made those early moments on the fearsome miles comfortable, but Hayden has always said that one of his few regrets in racing was that he never completed the Grand Slam by winning on a road course, short course, half-mile, mile, and TT at the Grand National level.

Leaving the US as a 21-year-old, Hayden was short of winning on a mile; and while it’s a regret, his American racing career was hugely successful.

“I’ve had so many great moments in my career. When I was racing in the US, I won the Daytona 200; I was also the youngest rider to ever win the AMA Championship; and that was great because that really was one of my goals as I was coming up.”

“The Springfield TT, in 2002,  where it was me and my brothers getting one, two, three was probably the coolest moment for me. It was really cool for me when the three of us were on the podium together.”

Photos: © 2013 Jensen Beeler / Asphalt & Rubber – Creative Commons – Attribution 3.0

The untimely passing of Nicky Hayden affected motorcycle fans around the world, the team at Asphalt & Rubber included. To work through the grief, we are going to take this week to celebrate the life of The Kentucky Kid, sharing with you our thoughts and images from the years we worked with Nicky. We hope you will enjoy these “Remembering Nicky” posts, as we all continue to hold him in our thoughts.