Last weekend’s World Superbike race at Laguna Seca was one of mixed emotions for American race fans. On one hand, it was an opportunity to say goodbye to Nicky Hayden, a man who left this life too soon and was revered at this iconic race track.
On the other hand, it was a chance to see another American, Jake Gagne, make his debut in World Superbike as part of the same team of which Hayden was a member.
As I walked around the track, there were tributes to Nicky everywhere. The number 69 was ubiquitous throughout the weekend, with flags, banners, t-shirts, and stickers displayed by proud fans who now miss him so much.
Both Chaz Davies and Toni Elias flew Hayden flags on their respective victory laps; a moving tribute to a man they held in such high esteem.
Additionally, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca sponsored a track walk in memory of Nicky. Hundreds of fans lined up to remember Nicky and support the memorial fund that bears his name.
Both American Honda and Laguna Seca had murals, on which fans could leave messages of remembrance for Nicky and words of support for those he left behind. Nicky’s impact on road racing, and American road racing in particular, was obvious throughout the event.
While the memories of Nicky Hayden were palpable throughout the weekend, Jake Gagne quietly went about the business of adapting to a new team, learning a new motorcycle, and racing in a new series.
I asked Jake about the emotions of the weekend and being on Nicky’s old team to which he replied, “it was emotional. Nobody can ever fill Nicky’s shoes. He’s the man, and we all love him, and I was thinking about him a lot this weekend.”
“I saw so many people with Nicky shirts and things; you’d think he was still here because he’s got all the support in the world, and I could feel a little bit of that coming my way, being the American here and flying the American flag.”
Jake then discussed the level of support he received from the Laguna Seca fans. “Just the amount of support I got, how many pictures I took, how many hands I shook, ummm, it was seriously unreal.”
“Like I said, you know, even after a tough race today, it all washed away on that cool down lap, just cruising around and waving to everybody, and hearing the roars through my helmet, it was unreal; seriously,” he continued.
We then turned to the topic of the differences between the MotoAmerica Broaster Chicken Honda and his Red Bull World Superbike machine.
“Obviously, the Pirelli vs. Dunlop is one difference. How you set up the bike is completely different, the engine was way different, with quite a bit more power. It’s the fastest thing I’ve ever ridden.”
Gagne then went into detail about how the electronics and suspension are different on a World Superbike, “I’m not really used to having any electronics at all, so that was a lot to learn, but the team made it easy on me.”
“And obviously the suspension. Going from Penske stuff to Ohlins stuff; that’s a whole different feel. Everything is different. It’s still a Honda, but it’s got different clamps, different handlebars, different seat and gas tank, and different foot pegs, so it’s a very different motorcycle.”
“Obviously, having all of the information and the data; I’ve never seen that much data before, so that helped me a lot. We were even looking over the weekend at data from Nicky last year.”
“Nicky went really fast here and had some good rides. To be able to see what a world champion was doing, and where we can improve; it’s cool to have that.”
Overall, Gagne had a good introductory weekend, coming in 15th in both races and earning his first points in the World Superbike series.
As this article goes to press, it is unknown whether Jake will continue to race for Red Bull Honda, but I sure hope he gets a chance. He was humble, grateful, and worked well with his team. All attributes that Nicky Hayden would have been proud of.
Photos: © 2017 Andrew Kohn / Asphalt & Rubber – All Rights Reserved