Remembering Nicky Hayden, the man who kept coming back for more
You couldn't take the racing out of Nicky, and you certainly couldn't take Nicky out of racing
Life has a cruel way of making its point.
Nicky Hayden spent a great chunk of his time going around racetracks at tremendous speeds, cheating death where it was practically lurking at every corner, weekend after weekend.
So it got him where he would've least expected it: when he was on his bicycle, on a coastal road, doing not even half the speeds he'd do on an average Grand Prix weekend.
But to reduce this piece to the what and the how and the why of the tragic accident that took his life would be doing a disservice to Hayden. What really happened, who crashed into whom and who was at fault are expected questions the world will eventually find the answers to. Now is not the time for those. Now is the time to celebrate the competitor and gentleman that was Nicky Hayden.
My first –– and rather hazy –– memory of him is from way back in 2004, when I'd just about grown old enough to be able to grasp motorcycle racing. Hayden wasn't even in podium contention: the best he could hope for was fifth. It was clear that he had real pace, and his determination to finish fifth manifest itself in his on-the-edge riding. For fifth place.
Hailing from Owensboro, USA, Hayden was –– like several great motorcycle racers from America –– firmly rooted in the dirt track world from a time when he was so young, his feet didn't touch the floor when he was sat on the motorcycle. Dirt-track racing was part of the Hayden bloodline. Nicknamed "Mr Dirt" because of how good he was at dirt-track racing at the age of 12, Hayden was always destined to make his way into road racing. Riding at local competitions led to Hayden competing in the AMA Supersport championship, which he won in 1999, and onwards to the AMA Superbike championship, which he won in 2002, stopping Mat Mladin in his hunt for a fourth successive title.
With the kind of speed and talent Hayden possessed, it was only a matter of time before someone in the Grand Prix paddock noticed him. And sure enough, the call came.
When Hayden stepped into the brutal world of MotoGP as a frizzy-haired 20-something in 2003, his new teammate Valentino Rossi was on a tear. He was a quick rookie all right, but in his first season at the pinnacle of motorcycle racing, Hayden had to sit back and watch Rossi complete a hat-trick of championships astride the Honda. As for himself, Hayden didn't do badly at all –– he finished the year fifth in the rider's standings with two podiums to his name.
2004 was disastrous in comparison, with five retirements in 16 races. That's zero points from more than a quarter of the championship. Hayden made amends in 2005, securing his first premier class win at Laguna Seca, and ended the season third-best. And then came 2006 –– in the most dramatic of season finales, Hayden beat Rossi to the crown. With a third-place finish at Valencia, he ended The Doctor's dream of winning the title for the sixth time on the bounce. He was finally, as he'd dreamt of as a pre-pubescent, the champion of the world.
2006 was also the year Hayden won his last MotoGP race.
The following year, MotoGP had a smaller 800cc engine, and the change didn't work for Hayden at all. He endured a wretched title defense –– if it could be called that –– to end the year in eighth, watching on helplessly as Casey Stoner waltzed home with his trophy. And it was about to get worse.
You see, Hayden was from a line of racers who did not depend on rider aids to make life easier for them. As years went by, MotoGP started becoming a game of electronics, and Hayden ultimately started going backwards. Three podiums in 2007, just two in 2008. He went from being Honda's #1 rider to playing second fiddle to Dani Pedrosa, and soon enough, he'd decided to move to Ducati, where podiums became even harder to come by.
Trying to tame the monster that was the Desmosedici, Hayden could only manage three podiums from 2009 to 2011. Reunited with Rossi –– who had to deal with misery of his own –– in his quest to get the Desmo sorted, Hayden dropped further down the order. In his five seasons as a Borgo Panigale gun, Hayden finished no higher than 7th overall in the championship. At the end of 2013, Ducati had decided to move on, and there were clearly no factory seats left for Hayden to move to. At this point, he could've chosen to walk away, having made an enviable amount of money and won the highest honour.
But that was the thing with the Kentucky Kid. He just kept coming back.
In his final two years in MotoGP, Hayden raced for the cash-strapped Aspar squad. So what if it meant riding a pared-down, not-as-fast-as-the-rest 'Open' class bike? It was still racing. Predictably, it didn't go too well. And even then, Hayden wasn't done. If MotoGP wasn't working out, there was always World Superbike. He made the switch in 2016, and went on to win a race in his debut year. Wins in MotoGP and WSBK? Only 15 other riders have managed to do that.
When Honda needed someone to fill in for MotoGP, Hayden just couldn't say no. They called him, and he answered. Twice. Last year, he rode in place of Jack Miller, and filled in for Pedrosa as well. In what would turn out to be his last MotoGP appearance, Hayden rode brilliantly at Phillip Island to hold ninth place till the very end, but he was taken out by, of all people, Jack Miller. For someone who hadn't ridden a MotoGP machine in a while (and adapting to the physicality of it isn't child's play), it was a genuinely remarkable effort.
Hayden never lost touch with his true self. Not even after tasting the sweetest of victories. Deep down, he held the ones who helped him get to the top closest to his heart.
As a bonus for winning the 2006 championship, Hayden was awarded a BMW Z4 M Coupe. Instead of tucking it away into his garage and probably not looking at it ever again, he sold it, split the money and placed cheques in the books he gifted to his crew members for Christmas.
And he was grateful for it all. Grateful to his family, his friends, his team, even his fellow riders –– he never indulged in chest-thumping or even hinted at proclaiming that he was the best racer on the face of the earth. But he was almost exclusively special in the way that he was liked by everyone –– including the men he fought tooth and nail with on track. Hayden was emotional and uninhibited in the way he conducted himself, most of which was with elan and that cheeky grin none of us will ever forget.
Irrespective of the result, Hayden didn't stop. He raced the weekend that preceded his accident, and if he had a say in the matter, he would've kept at it for as long as he could. It is, perhaps, this quote from a MotoGP.com interview that sums up his approach best: "I'm just a bike racer. If you give me a chance to ride a motorcycle, I'm not going to say no".
Keep it pinned, Nicholas Patrick Hayden.