Much More Than A Champion

Much More Than A Champion

As the editor of Cycle News in what now seems like a previous life, I lived in a world where I couldn’t play favorites. It was Journalism 101. But Nicky Hayden was my favorite. And I wasn’t overly concerned about hiding it. He was my favorite not because of what he could do on two wheels. He was my favorite because of the person he was off them.

He cared. And he didn’t have a problem showing it. The thing you quickly realized about Nicky was that it was never really about Nicky. When you chatted with him, whether for five minutes or an hour, the conversation centered mostly around you.

«How’s MotoAmerica doing? How’s the family? You still like the job?» That was the last conversation I had with Nicky as we pedaled bicycles a few short months ago near his off season home in California, along with his brother Roger and fellow racer and Kentuckian Jake Lewis. And it wasn’t just me. It was everyone. He rode next to me for miles, asking me about me. Then I watched and listened as he pulled up next to Lewis and talked to him about his coming racing season, about his training, his program for 2017. It was always about the other person. That was Nicky.

He also liked to have a little fun. But as much as he could dish it out, he could also take it. That same day at the Hayden’s home, Lewis was picking my brain as to who his competition would be in Superstock 1000 this year. Nicky overheard the conversation and then drawled, «Jake, I heard Casey Stoner might be doing a wild card at a few of the races.» Later that day, on our bike ride, I jokingly told Nicky that if he played his cards right I might be able to get him a Superstock 600 ride in MotoAmerica in 2018.

People gravitated toward Hayden because he had the sort of pull that’s difficult to describe. If he was in the room, you wanted to talk to him. He had that zillion dollar smile that didn’t just light up rooms, it lit up buildings, entire neighborhoods. And although he oozed star power, he didn’t come off like a star. Ironically, in Nicky’s case, the life of the party was the one who didn’t party.

I feel blessed to have been able to cover his career, to watch him grow from a teenager into a man. To see him grow from someone who had racing heroes to someone who was a hero to so many. I watched him grow from a young man whose lip often quivered from nerves in press conferences to a world champion who controlled the same room with quick wit and intelligence.

From the time he was 16 and finally old enough to get an AMA license that allowed him to compete in road race nationals, Nicky was a big presence. His talents were unmatched and he was filled with a burning desire to be the best. He didn’t have a goal of being an AMA Superbike Champion. He had a goal of being World Champion at the highest level a MotoGP World Champion. And he wasn’t settling for anything less. He went about checking those other steps off his list as quickly as he could (a supersport title in 1999, the youngest ever superbike champion in 2002) until realizing his life long dream by winning the MotoGP World Championship in 2006.

I recall in an interview with Earl Hayden from a few years ago when he told me about the bedtime stories he’d make up for young Nicky. The stories would be about dirt track racingand would feature Nicky vs. the all time greats, the Kenny Roberts», the Scotty Parkers, the Bubba Shoberts. And the stories always had to end the same way with Nicky winning. Or the kid would refuse to go to sleep. That’s what you call a lifelong dream.

And Nicky did things in style. When he won his first MotoGP in 2005, he did it at home, at Laguna Seca, and less than a week after the country celebrated Independence Day, and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Then he did it again the following year at Laguna, this time en route to taking the championship. I remember watching timing and scoring on my computer from that final race in Valencia in 2006, with my son at my side at our home, the outcome always in doubt, and the late Henny Ray Abrams giving us live reports as the laps ticked away. At the end of the race, a grown man and his 15 year old son danced around the family room like buffoons. Thanks for that, Nicky.

Nicky was eternally optimistic. He wasn’t always on the best equipment, but you didn’t know it. He didn’t complain, didn’t speak badly about anything or anybody. He just kept his chin up and kept working. And no one worked harder. Whether on his bicycle, in the gym, or during long, hot days of testing in places like Malaysia. He did the most laps, he did the most work. Always trying to improve.

But even in trying times, he never spoke badly of his sport, his situation or his rivals. In turn, I never heard anyone ever utter a bad word about him even in paddocks where gossip and chitchat can at times be overbearing.

Nicky was happy because he never lost sight of the big picture: That he had the greatest job in the world. He was getting paid to race motorcycles and he loved it. In fact, I don’t know anyone who loved riding and racing motorcycles more than Nicky did. But he also loved the winning so there was some frustration at times. Again, we didn’t know it.

A person is a byproduct of their family, of their upbringing. And Nicky Hayden comes from a family that’s as closely knit as any I’ve ever seen. He was a man who came from humble beginnings, from a family filled with love and respect, from a home where family really does come first. From parents Earl and Rose, two people who live and breathe family and motorcycle racing, to his fiance Jackie, who I only recently met, to his talented brothers and sisters, Tommy, Roger, Jenny and Kathleen, nieces and nephews Vera, Klaudia, Olivia, Kyla Jo, Kate and Coltmy heart is heavy for all of them. They’ve lost so much more than the rest of us. They’ve lost a beloved son, a fiance, a brother and an uncle.

The outpouring of emotion since Nicky’s accident a week ago has been overwhelming. He was loved. And deservedly so. If you didn’t love Nicky Hayden, you didn’t know Nicky Hayden.