As a tribute to Nicky Hayden, who tragically died last week, succumbing to the injuries sustained in a cycling accident, we will be running a series of three articles over the next couple of days, by WorldSBK commentator and Paddock Pass Podcast member Steve English.
The first piece is Steve's moving tribute and memories of Hayden from working with him in both the MotoGP and WorldSBK paddocks.
I've always been a fan of racing and from my earliest memories all I can remember is watching racing and loving it. From when I started watching motorcycle racing, I was drawn towards Flat Track racers from the United States. Perhaps it was because the risks they take are so similar to Road Racing in Ireland, or just their style on a bike. There was always an attraction for me towards Flat Trackers and as a child the riders I admired were Americans who grew up on the dirt. Whether it was hearing stories of Kenny Roberts and Freddie Spencer or watching Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz, the Americans held a certain mystique for me.
Nicky Hayden was the next of that lineage and coming into MotoGP as a 21 year old rookie - as well as being paired with Valentino Rossi, no less - I couldn't help but root for the underdog. Having been to Laguna Seca to see Nicky pick up a MotoGP win, I was firmly a fan of his by the time he claimed his MotoGP title in 2006. Like so many others around the world it was impossible not to like the rider and the man.
Over the last five years I've been lucky to be able to turn a passion into a career and work within the MotoGP and WorldSBK paddocks. They say you should never meet your heroes, but in the most cases the riders are humble and friendly. Nicky was no exception. From the first time of meeting him I've always found Nicky to be friendly, helpful and always willing to give a good quote!
I've been lucky to call Nicky a friend over the last couple of years and he's always been exactly what everyone says; one of life's true gentlemen. Family and friendship were always key tenets of Nicky's life and it was very rare that a weekend didn't pass without some sort of update on how his family was faring in Kentucky.
Updates from Kentucky were sometimes more than the usual, too. At one round I asked Nicky if he’d managed to watch the MotoAmerica round from that weekend and he had – although not conventionally: "Kinda? You know I couldn't watch it online and usually I'll Facetime with my dad so we can watch it together if I'm away. But for this race, I had to get him just to hold the phone to the screen!"
When Nicky claimed his first WorldSBK victory at Sepang last year and we were getting ready for the post race interviews, his first thought wasn't about the relief of finally winning a race once again - it was about his dad, Earl: “He's been going through a rough time lately, and I'm so glad that I was able to win this race for him.”
For the rest of his family - his mother Rose, brothers Tommy and Roger, sisters Jenny and Kathleen - it was always clear how close the family ties were. With fiancé Jackie at his side it was also clear that the future was as bright for Nicky off the track as it had been on the track. Nicky said that “family is either by blood or by loyalty” and with Nick Sannen having been a constant companion over the years, it was always clear just how much that support meant.
Humility is not a word often used with world champions but Nicky always had it in spades. Upon being told that he was to be made a MotoGP Legend upon retiring from the series in 2015, he turned to me and said, “I ain't no legend...but I'm not foolish enough to turn it down when it's offered!” He may not have felt that he left as big a mark as some other riders in the series but his mark on the sport was massive.
That mark was left predominantly by hard work and love of the sport. Nicky's work ethic has always been renowned as his calling card. That was no different once he moved to WorldSBK, but it did take some by surprise. Speaking to Nicky after his first test for the Ten Kate squad he quipped that the team were going to need to get used to his work ethic.
“It's going to take some time for the team to get used to me I think...I'm pretty intense about racing and when the track is open we have to be ready to work.” If that meant the team would need to scrap lunch break during a test that was a sacrifice that Nicky demanded from them. If the light at the end of the pitlane was green you better believe he was in the garage waiting to go out on track. That was clear at the winter tests at Jerez last November when a light drizzle had brought a stop to running and Nicky was seen getting more and more frustrated by not going out on track. When quizzed about this he said, “If it's wet during practice at Phillip Island do you think I'll be sitting in the box?”
The one time that you could guarantee seeing him in the box though was at the end of the day. Regularly you'd see Nicky sitting at the back of the Ten Kate garage well after the sunset working his way through session videos to pick up on anything that he had missed. In fact when he first joined the WorldSBK paddock this had become a bone of contention to some, with Hayden requesting session videos and in the opening rounds of last year he had plenty of running battles trying to get session videos as quickly as possible to watch Friday practice!
When asked about his working routine Nicky said, “I've always been like that to be honest. I love racing and I've got the best job in the world. I'll work as hard as possible to make sure that we get the results that we want.”
Getting those results was always the goal for Nicky and after his last race in Imola, where he was only able to finish 12th, finding improvement was once again the goal. The frustration of this year had been growing and in recent rounds it was clear that this was starting to really grind on him. Speaking after, he was once again focused on finding improvements and moving the team forward and getting back to the front of the field.
Nicky was one of motorcycle racing’s great ambassadors who gave so much to the sport. At this time the entire sport holds his family and friends in their thoughts. Godspeed #69, and thanks for all the memories.
If you would like to do something to honor the memory of Nicky Hayden, the family asked for donations to the Nicky Hayden Memorial Fund, a foundation which works to help children in the Owensboro community which he loved so much. If you would like to learn more about the family Nicky came from, you can buy 'The First Family of Racing', by Earl Hayden.