Nicky Hayden Retrospective Part 2: The Winding Road To The Top

As a tribute to Nicky Hayden, who tragically died last week, succumbing to the injuries sustained in a cycling accident, we have been running a series of three articles over the past couple of days, by WorldSBK commentator and Paddock Pass Podcast member Steve English. You can read his tribute to Nicky here, and the first part on Hayden's early years in racing here.

The final part of Steve's tribute to Nicky Hayden examines the American's path through racing, from flat track to road racing, and his success in the AMA series. The lessons learned there, and the determination and talent he showed would eventually take Hayden to MotoGP. Written before Hayden's tragic death, the quotes from Nicky and from his father Earl are both still in the present tense. But Hayden's story is such a powerful one, it deserves to be heard as it was told.

The winding road to the top for a champion

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's 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 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 championship trophy 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 ten.

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 championship before winning the Supersport crown the following season.

At the same time Hayden was also racing in the Grand National class in American 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 become world champion since he was a child, the decision was largely made, but nonetheless it wasn't an easy one to make.

“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. 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 a 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 Superbike crown with nine wins, beating 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 was 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 race craft and things like that.”

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 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 ProAm. 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 and that was. 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.”

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.

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Comments

I was at Del Mar the year that Scott Parker barely beat him at the line for the mile win. That was a trademark Parker move. Just ask Chris Carr, who has been a victim of that same move many times. I was also there the year Nicky won the short track national. He put on a master class that night. He destroyed the field. I have never seen anyone ride that hard, at that track, since. 

It feels horrible to know he is gone , but nice to read about him and picture him in those glory days...Seeing him race and make a needle threading pass right in front of us at VIR in his SB Championship Final is something I will never, ever forget. All those mornings getting up early to watch the GP race and pulling for him so hard....and the disapointment of the Ducati years, and Nicky never letting his frustration show, just putting his head down and working harder. ..That was Nicky.

"The first offer I got to go to Europe was where I was going to have to leave Honda and sign with Yamaha."

The article speaks of Hayden getting offered a MotoGP ride with Yamaha, and Honda wanting him to stay in AMA for another year. Then the article says, Hayden couldn't say no to MotoGP and made the switch. 

But he didn't sign with Yamaha, he got a factory Honda. Where / when / how does that fit in with the article? Could someone fill in the blanks for me? Did he turn down a Yamaha MotoGP ride, and did Honda suddenly agree with him and give him a factory ride? 

It feels like a long, long, loooong time ago someone from outside the MotoGP paddock could get a factory ride on a championship bike. :-/ 

My memory is pretty fuzzy but I believe American Honda had a lot of influence on Nicky getting into MotoGP on the factory Honda.  It's possible they flexed that muscle in order to retain him in the Honda family.