Prosperity. Positivity. Hope. Many things were bought to the MotoGP and World Superbike paddocks but it was Nicky Hayden who did it better than anyone else. From long hair to man-buns, hardcore riding to effortless speed, Nicky Hayden brought a breath of fresh air with him wherever he ended up. From his first MotoGP race at Suzuka in 2003, to his last WSBK race at Imola in 2017, the effervescent American was a charmer in every sense of the word. The world of sport warmed to him and now the world of sport mourns him.
The first time Nicky Hayden was a name amongst the racing world was in 2001, after a stellar season in the AMA Superbike championship. Finishing 3rd behind the likes of championship victor Mat Mladin and runner-up Eric Bostrom was by no means something to be ashamed of – and of course, Nicky being Nicky, he wasn’t. The 20 year old Kentucky rider was starting to become a bit of a pest within the AMA hierarchy. But it was welcome. His warm personality and constant smile was something that disguised his fierce, tenacious nature on circuit. The reason for the number 69 was because he crashed so much as a kid, he needed a number that he could read upside down. If that wasn’t a personality, then seriously, what was?
In 2002, Hayden became AMA Superbike champion, beating Mat Mladin to take his first big championship victory. Not only did he win the championship, but he won the Daytona 200, the motorcycle racing world’s answer to the Indy 500 or the Monaco Grand Prix. His efforts were rewarded with an outing in World Superbikes, at his home round at Laguna Seca, California. Finishing a strong 4th in race one before a collision in race two saw him finish in 13th, us as motorcycle fans knew we were witnessing something special. This young rider was sending shockwaves in all championships, rocketing through every paddock he welcomely stepped foot in.
2003 would see Nicky Hayden make the big time. Not only had he joined the MotoGP family but he joined the Repsol Honda Team and Valentino Rossi in a season that would be remembered for a variety of reasons. Finishing the season in 5th position meant that not only had he become Rookie of the Year, but he had beaten proven talent such as former WSBK champion Troy Bayliss, reigning WSBK champion and fellow countryman Colin Edwards, WSBK superstar Noriyuki Haga, Alex Barros, reigning 250cc champion Marco Melandri and fellow American John Hopkins. Hayden was ruffling feathers in the biggest possible way. Taking his first podium at Motegi and following it up two races later at Phillip Island, the talent had been showcased in great quantity.
Despite another two podiums in 2004, Hayden slipped down the leaderboard to 8th. But, it would be 2005 when The Kentucky Kid earned his corn. A return to Laguna Seca for the American Grand Prix would see Nicky Hayden dominate. Having not had a podium all season, times were looking hard. Pole position followed up by a classy, exuberant race win gave him America’s first win in the MotoGP era and Honda’s first ever at Laguna Seca. It was this race where a zest of Kevin Schwantz would come in, with the wild celebrations at the crowd’s demand. He was a hero. Hayden would go on and take five more podiums that season, finishing in the bronze medallist position at just his third attempt.
2006 was always going to be special. Hayden started the season with four podiums and never dropped below 5th before his first race win of a truly unforgettable campaign. A last lap dual with Colin Edwards will go down as the day that America conquered The Netherlands. Taking his 2nd ever win after a rare Colin Edwards crash on the last lap at the chicane, we once more saw that emotion which Nicky emitted every single time he achieved his goal. Three races later and he did it again, his third and final MotoGP win at home again. 2006 was turning into a Nicky Hayden year but in Portugal, we saw emotion that Nicky had never shown before.
Rookie teammate Dani Pedrosa wanted good results and needed them to stay in the fight for a top three placing. A pass on Nicky Hayden at the parabolica interior would send Repsol Honda spiralling to the ground, both on track and off. Management watched on in disbelief. All the effort of 2006. All the graft of the team. Every droplet of sweat and molecule of tear shed. It had all come to seemingly nothing. Dani Pedrosa wiped out his teammate with just one race left after Portugal. The swearing erupted from championship challenger Hayden. Fingers pointing and feet stomping. Tears streaming. Hayden wished he was only dreaming. A little boys dream to reign supreme was lying amongst the bits Repsol Honda in the gravel. Would this be his last chance?
“Valencia 2006” – a sentence that every MotoGP fan gets goosebumps thinking about. All Valentino Rossi had to do was beat Hayden, or make sure Hayden did not finish in a position that was worth nine points more than him. But even five time champions make mistakes. Rossi crashed in the race, all but gifting Nicky Hayden the title. Whilst the Ducatis of Troy Bayliss and Loris Capirossi took first and second, Nicky Hayden finished third, enough for him to take the crown and the crowd by storm. Screaming his name they were, in awe at what they just witnessed. One of MotoGP’s finest 45 minutes. As former commentator Charlie Cox would say, “the only thing predictable about MotoGP is that it is completely, unpredictable!”.
Defying the odds after despondently marching through the gravel across the border in tears of dejection two weeks previous, Nicky Hayden now celebrated in front of the longest continuous grandstand in the world, basking in the Spanish sun as the burnouts came surplus to requirement. And instead of tears of dejection, it was tears of joy. From the dirt tracks of Owensboro to the Grand Prix circus on the world stage, The Kentucky Kid had accomplished his childhood dream and ambition in becoming MotoGP world champion.
Never once did he give up or question his ability. He never once was put off by Valentino Rossi’s hoards of fans or by the status of the man he was battling with. Nicky displayed one of MotoGP’s most determined rides ever, with his natural charismatic style blending with his on track resilience to conquer the world and reign the two-wheeled King.
And that is how I want to remember Nicky Hayden. Not as someone who would only go on to achieve a handful more podiums. Not as a rider who was struggling on uncompetitive machinery in World Superbike. But as the champion of our hearts. The champion who was as common as the rest of us, just with that flamboyancy and individualism only Nicky could make work. A people’s racer with just one desire, he leaves us with some fantastic, irreplaceable and unforgettable memories. His ‘happy-go-lucky’ aura captivated millions of fans from across the planet as we watched one rider chase a dream before watching the same rider realise his dream had become a reality. Living on in our hearts and riding on above with some other stern opposition, you can be sure that Nicky Hayden will be remembered as a true legend, both on track and off it. The Kentucky Kid will never be forgotten, even if his visor has come down for the final time.
Kiko Giles @MotoGPKiko