MCN looks back at the in­cred­i­ble ca­reer of the late, great Nicky Hay­den

Motorcycle News (UK) - - Sport - By Mat Oxley MO­TOGP EX­PERT

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 20 laps. There was no doubt 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.

A unique fam­ily

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 risk it all in his quest for the win. 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 from the rest of us.

Who knows why Hay­den had such heart. Most likely, it was his fam­ily. He came from 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 US 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 get back on that bike as soon as pos­si­ble and get it fig­ured out.”

Hard but fair

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 and com­plete col­lege work. 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.”

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 ded­i­ca­tion.

Hay­den was a spe­cial racer: gen­tle off the bike and a beast 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.

‘I don’t know any­one in the pad­dock who he wasn’t friends with’ CAL CRUTCHLOW

‘ Nicky was a gen­uinely sweet man – from the out­side, all the way to the inside. He could beat the best and still be friends with them’

Nicky Hay­den al­ways made time for his fans Charm­ing, cheeky and gen­uine, Nicky never got too big for his boots Nicky al­ways en­joyed strong sup­port

Nicky Hay­den nearly al­ways wore mo­tor­cy­cle racing leathers and a big goofy grin

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