Nicky Hayden wasn’t your usual MotoGP star. From the moment he walked into the MotoGP paddock at Suzuka in the spring of 2003 to the moment he left in November 2015, he was unfailingly polite, humble and charming.
There was nothing alpha-male about him, at least nothing you could see from the outside. But the heart and emotion he put into racing was something else.
When things weren’t going well for him, his media debriefs could be traumatic affairs. He would sit there, explaining why things weren’t going right until the frustration bubbled over and his eyes welled up. His emotional involvement was amazing. Other racers don’t do that kind of thing; instead they sigh or get angry or blame their problems on the people around them. Hayden never did that.
He gave his heart and his head to motorcycling from an early age. Like most racers he was fully enthralled by the “elation of rapid movement through space”. When he was racing, it was everything to him, to the point where he didn’t know when to stop.
When he went testing – a job that most racers consider a tiresome but necessary evil – he always rode the most laps and was always the last man back in the garage. Some years ago, when hard-working MCN journalist Matt Birt was at his desk, typing out another story during another winter test at another far-flung racetrack, Valentino Rossi came walking by and said, “Matt, you are the Nicky Hayden of the press room!”. In other words, even Rossi knew that no one worked harder at their racing than Hayden.
At Indianapolis in 2008, when Hurricane Ike arrived with full force, the MotoGP race was red-flagged after twenty laps. There was no doubt whatsoever that the race needed to be stopped: the wind and the rain were biblical; vast signage hoardings had been ripped from their moorings and swept into the sky, to land who knew where.
When the red flags came out Hayden was running second, just behind Rossi and ahead of Jorge Lorenzo. This podium finish was a big deal for the Kentucky Kid because Indy was his only real home race, a three-hour drive from his hometown of Owensboro, rather than the usual Transatlantic trip of two or three airport connections and a rentacar.
I ran down to the Repsol Honda garage to talk to Hayden and congratulate him. But he wasn’t in the mood for high-fiving. He was sat in his chair, tearing off his waterlogged boots and gloves and replacing them with clean, dry kit. He said he was getting ready to go again if the wind and rain abated, ready to go and risk it all in his quest for the winner’s trophy. The runner-up’s trophy was of no real interest to him. I looked outside to see flotsam and jetsam flying past the garage door, like the world was about to end. It was one of those moments when you understand that these people are very different to the rest of us.
Who knows why Hayden had such heart. Most likely, it was his family. He came from what must surely be a unique familial situation: a family of seven, all of whom raced motorcycles: dad Earl, mum Rose, brothers Tommy and Roger-Lee and sisters Jenny and Kathleen.
Rose knows that all her kids are special. Tommy and Roger Lee have both done great things in U.S. racing, but Nicky always stood out.
“Nicky’s got that heart, he will stretch that neck out just a little bit further,” she said a few years ago. “Since he was young all he’s done is eat, sleep and breathe motorcycles. Tommy and Roger Lee have done great things too, but Nicky’s always the last one to quit. His work habits are fantastic, he’s just got that extra drive. After a weekend, all he wants to do is get back on that bike. Some people think ‘oh, I’ll rest for a couple of days’. Not Nicky, all he wants to do is to get back on that bike as soon as possible and get it figured out.”
In fact one thing did mean more to Hayden than motorcycles; his family. After his cycling accident, Kathleen made public a note that her big brother had sent to her after he secured the 2006 MotoGP title at Valencia. Kathleen was the only member of the Hayden clan who wasn’t there on the big day, because she had to stay home at college. The note was accompanied by a photo of Hayden, in the Valencia parc fermé, phoning Kathleen. “This was me calling home to lil’ sis,” it read. “Telling her I was a world champ. And to me, so are you.”
Hayden always knew that two wheels can be dangerous. Daijiro Kato lost his life during Hayden’s Grand Prix debut and he had lost several other friends. When his MotoGP career ended in 2015, after two frustrating seasons on the category’s short-lived and low-tech Open bikes, he could have gone home to Kentucky, safe in the knowledge that he will forever be in the pantheon of premier-class championship winners. But he wanted to keep racing, so he took a step back into World Superbikes and kept at it with the same monumental dedication.
Hayden was a special racer: gentle off the bike and a beast when he was on it. He always raced hard but he always raced fair.
“I don’t know anyone in the paddock he wasn’t friends with,” said Cal Crutchlow. That’s what made Hayden truly unique: a genuinely sweet man, from the outside and all the way to the inside, who could beat the best and still be friends with them.