Remembering Nicky Hayden – Growing Up a Racer

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There is a backstory to this article that I wanted to share with our readers, as we originally planned to publish this piece a couple weeks ago, as something for our A&R Pro readers, to showcase the upbringing of Nicky Hayden, and his early racing career.

Steve and Nicky had been working together on several pieces – we will share the another with you later today/tomorrow – about his career, and we delayed this one because Nicky said that he had a bunch of old photos we could use with the story.

Getting the photos and finally ready to click “publish” on A&R, I woke up on the morning of Wednesday, May 17th with plans to start the day with this great story by Steve, only to read first the horrible news about Nicky’s accident.

Throughout the week that followed, it seemed inappropriate to share this retrospective with our readers, as Nicky clung onto life. Now today, as his family and friends remember him in Owensboro, we wanted to share Nicky’s story with all of our readers, as we say goodbye to The Kentucky Kid. -JB

Growing up in Kentucky, Nicky Hayden was a motorcycle racing protégé from an early age, but winning hasn’t come easy to the Hayden family.

Over the last 15 years, Nicky Hayden has become one of the most recognisable faces in the motorcycle racing world. He’s morphed from the Kentucky Kid to an old hand of the paddock, and now the Kentucky Legend.

But where did that legendary status come from? Hard work, dedication and an insatiable love of racing are the traits that have made Hayden famous, but the cornerstone has always been family and loyalty.

“I grew up in Kentucky, where horse racing was really big, and my dad always jokes that with horses you’ve got to have the right bloodline,” said Hayden. “Both my mom and dad raced, so maybe he really was looking for a good bloodline!”

“My earliest memories are of bikes and racing. Whether it was being at the track, or just riding at the house with the family. I never thought as a kid ‘I’m not sure what I want to do in life.’ I had one goal from a very young age, and I absolutely loved racing.”

That love of racing was clear from an early age for all to see and his father, Earl Hayden, nurtured that from the outset.

“Nicky loved racing from before he was even three-years-old,” commented Earl. “He’d want to hear bed time stories about racing, and just want to sit on a bike whenever he could, or go to the barn and look at the bikes.”

“He’s always loved racing, but his work habits were always there. Even from when he was a little kid, he was the first one at the track, and the last one to leave.”

That work ethic would stand him in good stead throughout his career, and for Hayden it was clear that from an early age he needed to approach it as a career.

Never feeling pressured from his family to be successful, the pressure came from within, because he could see the cost and the burden that racing could place on their resources.

“I had some talent and it was very clear that I didn’t want to do this just as a hobby – I wanted to make a career out of it,” continued Nicky. “I treated it like that really from a very, very young age, and so did my parents. They never put pressure on me, but they also weren’t going to invest all their time and energy to do it.”

“If all we wanted to go ride around the yard as a hobby, they would have been fine with that. But when we were getting to the higher levels, there was definitely a change, and it was more than thinking of racing as a career, and not just a hobby.”

“I loved it growing up, and it made for some great memories for me and my family. I’m still doing what I love to do, and I’ve always enjoyed it.”

“In our family, mom comes from a farming family, where she’s one of eleven brothers and sisters. My dad worked in the car business, and also the horse business. He pretty well hustled and scrounged around for our racing, but we did have some help and some sponsors along the way that helped us.”

“With there being three of us racing, dad really said that one was a lot more expensive at times, but there wasn’t a big difference in the overall cost because you had to get to the tracks.”

“You had to have the van, but at least we would use hand-me-down bikes and leathers, and share bikes and stuff. Some of that certainly helped us.”

In some seasons they needed more help than others, and Hayden can remember one year that without the resources to go racing he had to stand on the sidelines. In some ways it hurt his riding, but helped his mental development and motivation, and proved to him just how much he wanted to be successful as a racer.

“It wasn’t always easy, and there were some years also where the funds weren’t good, and we didn’t do a lot of racing. I can remember one year, it was maybe 1994 when I was 12 or 13, and I didn’t race much.”

“It really helped me in terms of my personal development, because it was at that point when I was moving up to different bikes, and things were starting to get a little bit more expensive.”

“I realised that my mom and dad were completely on the limit with money, and things weren’t good. We were spending more time riding in the field at home, rather than racing, but I still did a lot of riding that year.”

“I was riding against my brothers, but not going anywhere to race. Honestly that year was not good for my development as a racer, but it was very good for my motivation.”

That motivation is something that Earl saw from a very early age with his son, and something that he knew could be nurtured. The best racers are born with a desire to compete and improve.

“There’s just something different about world champions,” assessed Earl. “It’s born in them, but they still have to work at it, and he’s worked hard at it all his life. He’s never taken any shortcuts with his racing and preparation.”

“I’d always tell him stories about Rainey or Spencer or Roberts, and from a young age he’d start to talk about winning a world championship. We never said anything like that to Nicky; it came from within.”

“We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but that was always the goal, and we did it step-by-step. I thought let’s conquer America first, and then try and conquer the world.”

Before conquering America Hayden had to conquer Owensboro, Kentucky and learn from his brothers. With Tommy three years older, and Roger Lee two years younger, the backyard sessions became crucial for their development as riders.

All three would go on to become AMA Supersport champions, with Roger Lee also joining Nicky on the MotoGP grid on two occasions.

Competing against one another and developing their skills was key to their development as riders, but so was a no-nonsense approach to what they were doing and the reasoning behind it.

“Racing at the same time as my brothers meant that at times the hand-me-downs were not always great, but I think when you’re a kid, you don’t need the best bike.”

“You need a good bike, but my dad used to say, ‘Don’t buy yourself time down the straightaway,’ because there’s going to come a time when you turn pro and everybody’s going to have a good bike. You need to learn to ride the corners.”

With their riding developing through training together, some sibling rivalry could be excused, but it rarely seems to have reared its head too often. But what was the key lesson learned in those sessions for Hayden?

“I was always chasing Tommy and trying to catch him. Roger is a little younger than me, and he was behind me pushing me. For me chasing Tommy was more important than beating Roger, because I got to watch and study him.”

“I could see what he would do in different circumstances. Even when he started going to the gym and started training, I was able to see what was happening there. It taught me a lot.”

Learning from one another, and being around each other, has been a calling card of the Hayden brothers, and for Earl that bond is something that he holds as pride of place rather than any successes they had on the track.

“Family has always been the most important thing for all of us, and with all of the boys when they had wins, they’d always say it was important because their family was with them.”

“I always believed there was another life after racing, and that’s your family, and he’s been really good with that. I’m proud that he’s a hard worker and a family guy that’s never forgotten where he came from. He’s still humble and that means more to me than anything.”

Photos Courtesy of Nicky Hayden

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.