Eric Johnson’s “The Kentucky Child” ran within the September problem of Racer X Illustrated. Subscribe at present to learn this full function and for extra in-depth tales about Jason Thomas’ journey to Japan to shake down the all-new Suzuki RM-Z450, how two-stroke racing is selecting up momentum—lastly—in Lucas Oil Professional Motocross, Antonio Cairoli’s path to changing into considered one of Europe’s all-time greats, and way more.
After I came upon that Nicky Hayden had been gravely injured in a biking accident on the Rimini coast a handful of days after racing on the close by Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola, Italy, I used to be at a loss. As the subsequent few days glided by and extra info got here in from Maurizio Bufalini Hospital in Cesena, the phrase was issues seemed very bleak for the 35-year-old American World Superbike racer. Tommy Hayden, Nicky’s brother, and a good friend and co-worker of mine, was already in Italy and by his brother’s aspect.
A number of days later, on Monday, Might 22, Nicky Hayden handed away.
As I’m completely sure occurred with all of Nicky’s mates, confidants, and fellow racers, my thoughts wandered again to a specific time the place I shared an expertise with the Kentucky Child.
It was September, 2001, and I used to be lucky sufficient to be sitting round a desk in a bar deep throughout the MGM Grand On line casino in Las Vegas.
“That’s you, Nicky. You’re going to be the subsequent Valentino Rossi,” stated Ricky Carmichael, patting the younger street racing prodigy on the again. It was late September, and Carmichael, Hayden, and fellow Honda rider Ernesto Fonseca have been all sitting round that very same desk, on the town for American Honda’s annual supplier present. Collectively, the trio completely made up a big a part of Honda’s future in American motocross and supercross, U.S. Superbike racing and—finally—the MotoGP World Championship. “Valentino Rossi is the person in street racing, Nicky, and sometime you’re going to race in opposition to him,” continued Carmichael. And with that, the ever-friendly Hayden simply smiled and nodded in appreciation of RC’s phrases.
Seven race wins and 5 months faraway from the Carmichael and Fonseca spherical desk, Nicky Hayden clinched the 2002 AMA Chevy Vehicles U.S. Superbike Championship at Virginia Worldwide Raceway. At 21 years previous, he was the youngest rider to ever win the title. A 12 months later, he was off to MotoGP, the place not solely did he place fifth within the World Championship, he was named the MotoGP Rookie of the 12 months. The remaining was historical past.
A mere three years later, on Sunday, October 29, 2006, Nicky Hayden gained the MotoGP World Championship on a sunny afternoon in Valencia, Spain. Not a foul run in any respect for a self-proclaimed “hillbilly” from Owensboro, Kentucky.
Taking all this into consideration, I obtained to considering issues by way of and got here to the belief that if I had such recollections of Hayden, definitely others who got here into contact with him at or across the races did as properly.
Davey Coombs and I started to place an inventory collectively of individuals we each felt performed a key function in Hayden’s rise in each American and international bike racing, in addition to just a few racers Hayden was very near. As soon as the listing was full, it didn’t take very lengthy to trace down each considered one of them.
The primary telephone name I made was to Chad Reed. And I had a motive for doing so. Final 12 months, through the summer time break within the MotoGP World Championship, multifold World Champion Jorge Lorenzo got here to California on vacation. One factor on his to-do listing was to do some old-fashioned flat observe driving. To that finish, Yamaha Motor Company, U.S.A. constructed just a few bikes and met up with each Lorenzo and Reed out at Perris Raceway in Southern California. The pair rode many of the afternoon, and because the solar began to fade, Lorenzo and the Yamaha field vans took off. Not lengthy after, a small pickup truck with a closely modified Honda CRF450R fixed down at the back of it rolled into the Perris pits. Chad Reed noticed this and identified, “Hey, that’s Nicky Hayden.” Out to fulfill his brother Tommy, the 2 simply wished to get on the market and put in laps. No fame, no cameras, no vivid lights, no cash. They simply wished to journey. Typical Haydens.
Reed walked over to Nicky’s truck and the 2, together with Tommy and I, struck up a dialog. I’ve been round Reed and his racing exploits for 15 years now and it didn’t take very lengthy to see and listen to how a lot he revered and admired Nicky. That basically struck me that night. And Nicky, in his personal, inimitable approach, had a approach of charming Reed and people round him. I assume you needed to be there, however Reed, as did many others, knew fairly properly what Nicky Hayden had achieved and achieved throughout his nice racing journey.
As I continued to make telephone calls and arrange conferences to speak with the racing males who have been concerned in Nicky’s racing adventures, I marveled at how every considered one of them had their very own slant, observations, and anecdotes in regards to the final American MotoGP World Champion. Ray Clean, retired senior VP of American Honda, had a really heavy hand in working carefully with HRC to get Hayden to MotoGP. To Clean, Nicky had the whole lot wanted to not solely contend for a World Championship, however to additionally assist promote bikes in the USA. Apparently, Clean set it up for Hayden to go to the final spherical of the 2002 MotoGP World Championship at Valencia, Spain. At that cut-off date, Davey Coombs and I had determined to create Street Racer X and we have been there with Hayden in Valencia as he scoped issues out. On Saturday morning, Hayden requested me if I knew the place the press room was as he had his first official appointment to fulfill the MotoGP international press corp. I walked Nicky as much as the large (and smoke-filled) room teeming with 100 or so chain-smoking journalists and photographers (practically all of them Spanish and Italian) who, upon seeing the brand new “American” started shuffling towards him. After all, Hayden, whilst younger and unknown on this new world as he was, charmed the hell out of them.
After we caught up with Kenny Roberts to speak about Nicky, he was driving his motorhome throughout America. Arguably the best American bike racer to ever reside, Kenny was filled with reward for the child from Owensboro, insisting time and time once more what a real, real, pure racer he was.
Chris Carr, a seven-time AMA Grand Nationwide Champion, spoke not solely the flat observe and TT racing battles he had with Hayden, but additionally of his admiration for Nicky for being a flat observe racer at coronary heart.
“If there was anybody factor about Nicky the place he actually stood out above the remainder was the truth that he didn’t step on the place he got here from,” Carr advised me. “Many World Champion street racers prior to now got here by way of the flat observe ranks and, on their strategy to world glory, stated some less-than-stellar issues in regards to the sport of flat observe. Nicky Hayden wasn’t considered one of them.”
Jeremy McGrath introduced up what a “first-class” particular person Nicky was and talked in regards to the nice recollections he had of path driving with him and his brothers Roger Lee and Tommy. Gabriele Mazzarolo, proprietor of Alpinestars and longtime sponsor of Hayden’s, mirrored on the profound impact Nicky’s World Championship clinching journey at Valencia in 2006 had on had on him and his total firm.
Ricky Carmichael, one of many hardest working racers in all of American bike racing, introduced up a second he shared with Nicky at a MotoGP spherical in Barcelona, Spain: “After I was at Barcelona two years in the past for MotoGP, I requested Nicky how for much longer was he going to do that racing factor. He simply seemed and smiled at me and stated, ‘Man, I’m having an excessive amount of enjoyable, and I haven’t even thought of once I’m going to cease racing.’”
And the final particular person we spoke with? Valentino Rossi. Stated the nine-time MotoGP World Champion who misplaced the 2006 showdown with Hayden on the final spherical of the season, “Dropping a world title to Nicky was much less painful as a result of he was so cool.”