He just can’t help it! When you ask Nicky Hayden to talk about racing, he immediately breaks into a smile. He’s 32 now, but he still grins from ear to ear like a 10-year-old boy pedaling fast on his bike. It’s just that Hayden’s bike is really fast! He was clocked at a head-spinning 217 miles per hour in Barcelona, Spain. That’s roughly a football field in one second!
To the motorcycle racing world, Hayden’s known as the “Kentucky Kid,” with 380,000 Twitter followers and fans across the globe. Yet he might pull up next to you on Frederica St. sometime or be in the aisle across from you at Best Buy, (that actually happened to me once). He’s accepted the world championship trophy from the President of Italy, been followed around by an MTV film crew, and was invited to a private audience with the Pope. But before all that, he grew up racing at Windy Hollow and other local dirt tracks before becoming the youngest racer ever to win the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) Superbike Championship. Then Hayden conquered the world. Literally!
I caught up with Hayden on a rare trip home (he’d been gone since January 1st to test his bike with his new team) to ask about the upcoming season. His Kentucky accent is mostly gone, but there still remains a slight, subtle drawl and plenty of Southern charm. Sitting at the kitchen table of his west-side home, Hayden says “I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I have a house in California so I can train in the winter and a motor home in Europe for when I’m racing. But Owensboro is my home. I come from a big family. It’s always nice after 3 ½ months on the road to have a home and family to come back to. I like it out here on the west end. It’s where I grew up.”
If you’re like me, you’ve probably always heard about the Hayden family and knew that they raced motorcycles. But MotoGP isn’t wildly popular here in the U.S. like it is overseas. So just in case you need a quick course in MotoGP 101, Owensboro Living wants to get you up to speed for the 2014 MotoGP season.
[tw-divider]What is MotoGP?[/tw-divider]
“GP” stands for “Grand Prix.” MotoGP is the world championship for the highest level of international motorcycle racing. In layman’s terms, that means really long races on really big bikes that go really fast.
If you’ve ever seen it on TV, it’s the kind of racing where the bikes lean almost all the way to the ground in the turns. That’s why the riders wear plastic “knee pucks” that glide across the concrete to protect their knees.
Races are a set number of laps which can differ at each track, ranging from 95 km (60 miles) to 130 km (81 miles). The 2014 season has 18 different races in 14 countries on four continents. The only two MotoGP races in America are April 13th in Austin, Texas and August 10th in Indianapolis, which is Hayden’s home track.
[tw-divider]Rise to Stardom[/tw-divider]
So how does a boy from Owensboro become world champ? Lots of practice, lots of hard work, and lots of passion. “After racing for 12 years in MotoGP,” Hayden says, “I still want to do it. I still have a passion for racing.”
That passion was instilled in Hayden at a young age. You could even say it’s in his blood. His parents, Earl and Rose Hayden, both raced back in their days, and all five Hayden kids raced too, starting when Tommy (the oldest) was barely three years old.
“Racing is a way of life for us,” Hayden explained. “We grew up doing it. My cousins raced. My dad’s brother, Marty, raced and his kids raced. People ask me what I’d do if I wasn’t a racer, and that thought never crossed my mind. I never had a plan B. From the time I literally was old enough to understand life, I knew racing was what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be.”
Once Earl retired from racing, he built a half-mile dirt track on their property so the kids could practice every day. “I remember coming home after school and riding every day,” says Jenny (Hayden) Hansler. Nicky recalls, “We would have a lot of fun. My dad would set up races, like 6 laps, and line us up at different starting points to try and make it a close finish on the last lap.”
Being the middle child in a racing family turned out to be a good thing for Hayden. “For me especially, I had a brother a little bit older and one a little bit younger to chase; one to push me and one to pull,” he explained. “It’s always important to learn how to defend and not just ride over your head, but also to win a race. I was lucky to have both opportunities growing up.”
With Earls’ stopwatch in hand, they would run countless laps, three or four hours a day, four to five days a week. All that practice made the Haydens competitive at the weekend races. Tommy, then Jenny, then Nicky, then Roger Lee started winning quite a bit. Jenny quit racing to pursue tennis, but by the time the boys came of age, they all three had factory rides and contracts waiting on them.
Fast forward a few years. Nicky won the AMA championship in 2002 and then moved on to MotoGP. Tommy won AMA championships in 2004 and 2005. Roger Lee won it in 2007. Collectively, they’ve won just about every championship you can win in motorcycle racing. In fact, they once came back from road racing to finish 1st, 2nd, and 3rd at a dirt track race in Illinois; the only time in history three brothers have all placed on the podium.
[tw-divider]Across the Pond[/tw-divider]
After that 2002 AMA championship, opportunity came calling for Hayden. Yamaha made him an offer to come over and race for their MotoGP team, but because he was still under contract with Honda, they had first right of refusal. If Honda had it their way, Hayden would have stayed in America one more year to defend his title. But Honda knew it was always Hayden’s dream to race GP, so instead of letting him go elsewhere, they switched him over from AMA to MotoGP. For Hayden, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. His childhood dream was coming true!
Although Hayden won MotoGP “Rookie of the Year” in 2003, the transition took a few years for him and his team to be competitive. “Honestly, it was a bit of a culture shock,” says Hayden. “The bike was different, the tracks were a little different, the team was European and the staff was mostly Japanese.” By 2005, a new crew chief was in place, and things started improving by the middle of the season.
“I’ll never forget when Nicky won the world championship in 2006,” says younger sister Kathleen (Hayden) McFAdden. “I was at UK, so I couldn’t fly over to see that last race. I was the only one [of the family] not there, so when he won, he called me from the podium.”
It really was the stuff movies are made of. MTV camera crews followed Nicky that whole season as the young American battled the seasoned Italian defending champ, Valentino Rossi, for the title. The championship came down to the last race of the season. When the final lap was finished, Nicky Hayden became only the 15th American to ever win the world title. Hayden carried the American flag around the track for his victory lap, unable to contain his emotion. Valentino was one of the first to congratulate the new champ.
[tw-divider]not always easy[/tw-divider]
Racing for a living may sound like a storybook life on the surface, but it certainly has its downside. Hitting pavement at 200mph is a daily threat and all three Hayden boys can show you their scars to prove it. Plus, there’s a lot of being away from home and the long racing season can be a real grind.
“Going to Europe at a young age for me, truthfully, was an adjustment,” Hayden says. “Being away from the rest of the family was hard, because you do miss a lot of things like birthdays and holidays. Now especially with my nieces, it’s hard.”
Having a MotoGP race this close to home is a pretty big deal. When Hayden started racing GP, they didn’t race in the States, so the closest race was in Brazil. Then they started racing in California, and eventually added Texas and Indianapolis. Now we can drive four hours to cheer him on at Indy.
What can you expect at a GP race? “TV doesn’t do it justice,” Hayden said. “You gotta see it live to really get the full experience! Especially to see how fast 215 (mph) really is.”
With its storied history, the Brickyard is the perfect place to watch a race. GP runs on the same course the Formula One cars race; a road course winding through the infield that follows a little bit of the oval and catches the front straightaway.
[tw-divider]2014 and the Future[/tw-divider]
Hayden recently switched teams, now racing for Aspar, a Honda satellite team. For him, coming back to Honda felt like “coming home.” There were a few changes to the bikes in the offseason, mostly electronics. Pre-season testing didn’t go as smoothly as hoped. Always optimistic, Nicky is looking forward to working with his new team and facing the challenges ahead.
Time will tell if this is Nicky’s last contract or not. He’s now approaching the age that most riders think about retiring. As far as slowing down? …Not so much! “I really don’t think much about life after racing,” Nicky admitted. “I know it’s winding down, but I’ve still got a couple more years left. I still love the sport. I’ve still got a passion for it. And I’d like to stay involved in the sport after my racing career. We’ll see what happens.”
To learn more about MotoGP, they have a very interactive website (www.motogp.com) with videos, the schedule, FAQs, and apps to follow the riders as the season progresses. If you want to experience MotoGP action live, Nicky’s home race is Saturday, August 10th in Indianapolis.
- 1999 AMA Supersport Champion & Grand National Dirt Track Rookie of the Year
- 2002 AMA Superbike Champion
- 2003 MotoGP Rookie of the Year
- 2005 Third in MotoGP World Championship
- 2006 MotoGP World Champion
- 2007-2013 Finished in Top Ten in Championship standings 6 times
- Total of 28 Podium Finishes in MotoGP
Favorite Film: Days of Thunder
Favorite Actor: Denzel Washington
Favorite Athlete: Michael Jordan
Favorite Musical Artist: Jay-Z
Favorite Vacation Destination: Florida Beach