Nicky Hayden is MotoGP’s new paddock pin-up. Swooning PR girls secrete photos of him on their laptops, captioned ‘truelove’, female Dorna employees collapse into fits of girlish giggles whenever the Kentucky Kid wanders into view and a red-faced Spanish journalist asks the 22-year-old if he would accept his daughter’s offer of a date, during a Repsol Honda press conference!
Hayden definitely got a lot of attention from the ladies in his debut world championship campaign, but, like most things in life, he seems to take it all in his shambling, loose-limbed stride.
Not that his attractiveness to the opposite sex matters to anyone but him, but what does matter is that Hayden is more than MotoGP’s new pin-up, he might just be GP racing’s new Eddie Lawson. Obviously it’s way too early to compare Hayden with Steady Eddie, the most successful premier-class racer of the 1980s, but there are promising similarities. Like Lawson, Hayden is American, like Lawson he started out in dirt track and like Lawson he came to GPs wearing the US Superbike crown. But the crucial likeness is Hayden’s steady approach to racing that sets him apart from most thrusting youngsters.
Despite the pressure of riding for MotoGP’s best team, aboard the best bike and with Valentino Rossi for a team-mate, Hayden took his time in 2003, never trying to run before he could walk. Sounds easy, but all the evidence suggests that it’s not easy for talented youngsters, who have a depressing habit of trying too hard too soon, so they crash too much and lose the confidence they need to exploit their talent. By the very nature of their profession, racers have little or no patience, they want to get wherever they’re going – whether it’s to the next corner or to their first world championship – as fast as they can. And damn the consequences of getting it wrong.
Hayden sensibly used his MotoGP apprenticeship to gain confidence one step at a time: build some confidence, go a bit quicker, build some more confidence, go a bit quicker and so on. It’s the same strategy Lawson used when he came to GPs in 1983, and although it doesn’t grab overnight headlines, Hayden is creating a solid foundation on which he should be able to build next year, when he will know the tracks, the bikes and the tyres.
Hayden’s 2003 results aboard the RC211V may not have been as strong as Lawson’s debut season aboard Yamaha’s YZR500, but GP racing is different now. Back in Lawson’s era there was a handful of factory bikes on the grid, now pretty much every bike is a factory bike, with the top 10 separated by less than a second. That’s why Hayden didn’t set MotoGP on fire, but those in the know were impressed by his slow-burn campaign, because they looked deeper than mere results, noting during the closing stages of the season that his race pace was often within half a second of Rossi’s. At Motegi, where he scored his first top-three finish, he finished just five seconds behind winner Max Biaggi.
And unlike most quick kids, he doesn’t crash. Well, not much. Hayden fell five times in 16 GPs, despite having to learn a new bike, new tracks and new tyres. Compare that to Alex Barros (14 crashes), Marco Melandri (also 14) and Jeremy McWilliams (12). As Rossi’s crew-chief Jerry Burgess says: “Hayden is the stand-out guy this year. He’s not shown me anything that suggests he won’t make it all the way to the top. He’s a little bit not right on his corner entries but he’s got good machine control. He’s impressive.”
Off-track, Hayden’s and Lawson’s parallel lines peter out. Whereas Lawson never appeared to enjoy his racing, from the outside at least, and resented the media big time, Hayden had the time of his life last summer and doesn’t mind talking about it. His is a new attitude in the GP paddock; the latest generation of pro-GP racers like Hayden, Rossi, Troy Bayliss, Colin Edwards and the rest take their racing just as seriously as men like Lawson, but they look like they’re having a lot more fun. They seem to have got their professionalism in perspective with the rest of their lives, which some 1980s heroes never managed to do.
You come from a real racing family, right?
Yup, my elder brother Tommy (24) races 600s for Kawasaki in the States, my little brother Roger Lee (20) races for Erion Honda and my dad was a pro dirt tracker. My mum raced in local ‘powder puff’ races, that’s like chick’s racing, and my elder sister too.
You started out in dirt track, how come you switched to roadracing?
I quit doing dirt track full-time when I was 13, but I’ve still been doing some all the way until now. This is the first year I don’t actually race dirt track anymore. I love dirt track and I think it helps make me a better rider, but once I started roadracing I just liked it better, plus there’s a lot more of a future in roadracing. Unfortunately dirt track is pretty lame in America right now, it ain’t goin’ anywhere.
Tell us about the time you and your brothers monopolised the podium at a Grand National dirt meet…
Yeah, we got first, second and third in a Grand National in Springfield, Tennessee, last fall against (Jay) Springsteen, (Chris) Carr and all the top American dirt trackers. It was such a shocker!
You’ve had a slow-burn rookie GP season, while many youngsters are in so much of a hurry…
It’d be nice to have just dropped in at the front but that’s not what happened. Even when I first started AMA roadracing I didn’t just kill it. Honda pretty well told me they wanted me to learn, they didn’t want me tearing up a lot of equipment and they wanted me to stay healthy. But now it’s starting to feel right and hopefully when it clicks I’ll be there. They’ve not put any pressure on me, the only pressure comes from myself.
When did it start to feel right?
At Assen. I really liked Assen because it’s got banked corners that gave me a lot of feel from the front. I felt so good that weekend and I just kept building from there. Everyone said Assen is so hard to learn but I got up to speed quick and got a real good feeling. There had been a few races I hadn’t done a lot, so I had a little talk with myself and I’ve definitely picked it up since then. I’m excited about the last few races, hopefully I’ll start stringing them together.
Have there been moments when you’ve thought: I’m in too deep here?
Not to that point. Sure there’s been a couple of times where I’ve thought, man, I’ve got to get it together, like when I qualified 18th at Mugello. But I’ve never been to the point where I wished I was back home. I’ve had to prove I’m serious, that I’m not going to lay down just because a couple things didn’t go my way. I just kinda regrouped, I decided I’ve got to have more fun riding and not be so hard with myself. Just go out and do the best I can. That was on Friday night at Barcelona, I lay in bed and thought it all over, and from there each race has been better and better.
At the beginning of the year I was really lucky to have so many people helping me but maybe it caused me to think too much. Tady (Okada, former 500cc GP winner) and Mick (Doohan, five-time 500 champ) were helping me, and I was just thinking about it too much, instead of going out and doing what I do and just ride. That’s what I do now. I’m still serious, I’m still focused, but sometimes you’ve just got to do what comes natural and let it rule.
How have Tady and Mick helped?
When I was struggling those guys were really cool about not being too hard on me, just being honest. Also, they’ve helped at some of the tracks I’d never been to, just telling me what to expect, what to watch for. Like at Assen, it started raining on race day and I only got one lap in the wet before the race. They were like, ‘hey, this track’s good in the wet, you can push, but it does puddle here or there.’ So they’ve helped with that kinda thing.
Do you have access to Valentino’s set-up?
A little bit. I’m sure if it came to it I could maybe get everything but that’s not how my team works. Sometimes if I’m not sure what tyre I’m gonna race on, I’ll say to JB (Jerry Burgess, Rossi’s crew chief), ‘what’s happening here, what does Valentino think about this or that tyre?’ But I’ve hardly done that any. The team’s got a good chemistry, everyone gets along good, works hard, there’s a good morale.
What do you make of the other riders?
About what I expected. I raced World Superbike at Laguna last year, so I got a good idea where those guys are at and I knew MotoGP was going to be even more, with even more guys. I knew that racing at world level wasn’t going to be easy, just seeing how hard these guys push for the whole race. And it’s been even more than I expected. I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t like that. These guys are the world’s best, I’ve a lot of respect for them. In America the pace starts out really good but then guys drop off. But look at Brno, Rossi’s fastest lap was the last lap. They’re just really good and steady.
Has anyone amazed you?
Maybe I’ve thought that but I wouldn’t say it to myself – it’s not going to do me any good to sit in the motorhome and think these guys are unreal! Sure I’ve seen some stuff, I mean Biaggi is so smooth, even on his fastest laps he’s just glass. There’s a lot of guys, but one guy who’s really impressed me is Bayliss. No matter where he qualifies he goes to the front quick and just stays there. He’s impressive.
Have you learned anything, riding-wise?
Yeah, I’m a lot different now. At the beginning of the year I was still riding it like a superbike, keeping high corner speed. Now I’ve learned to get the bike stopped and turned, so I can then really use 200-plus horsepower. On the SP-2 superbike your line just follows the corner, on the RC211V you go deeper and square it off. I’ve learned other stuff too. In America I ran Dunlops and we would have two or three tyre choices, while now I have to test more tyres, so I’m getting better at picking stuff up quicker.
Why don’t you use high corner speed on the RCV?
The superbike doesn’t have the power, so you can carry that high corner speed and still open the throttle coming out of the corner with the thing on its side, whereas with this thing you gotta have it picked up, so you’re on the fatter part of the tyre. I’m still working on that. Also, in America the tracks are narrow, so when I got to some of the wide GP tracks I wasn’t using all the track I could. And in America you gotta stay off the paint, if you hit the paint it’s not going to be pretty, but here you’ve got to have the confidence to run out onto the paint.
Honda won 15 of the 16 races last season – are you surprised by how badly some of the other factories are struggling?
I don’t know, I’ve not thought too much about it, I just ride the bike. People struggle, you know.
You must be happy you didn’t end up riding for Yamaha [who had wanted Hayden for 2003].
You said it, not me!
What was it like getting back on a superbike at the Suzuka Eights Hours?
It was enjoyable, but not nearly as fast and not as much feel. I enjoy the 211 because it’s more fun to ride.
You seem very happy-go-lucky.
That’s my style, the way I’ve always been. I’m the kind of kid that likes to have fun. And to be here is awesome! The two-week break before this race (Estoril) was too long for me, I just wanted to start racing again. But that’s just me in general – I like to kick it and have fun, that’s when I ride my best.
What kind of race face do you put on?
I’m not the kinda guy who’s got to get himself motivated before the race. I’m already too excited, so I’m trying to relax, just chilling out and not getting nervous, I’m on the grid laughing because, hey, it’s the best part of the weekend. Qualifying has been my weak point, practice is cool but I can’t wait for the race, that’s when you get to go for it.
Would you call yourself aggressive?
Um, I don’t really know, I don’t think about it. I’ve never really felt what I would call myself. Maybe there’ve been some riders who’ve felt that, but not in a bad way.
What about your qualifying, how have you stepped it up?
It’s always been one area where I’ve been weak. I grew up in dirt track where you don’t qualify, you just have scratch heats, so even when I started roadracing in AMA I was never a great qualifier. Sometimes when I put on a soft tyre I don’t really go any faster, while a soft tyre really helps some riders. More than anything I think it’s knowing the limit. The Michelins I’m using are really good, especially the front, but when I want to go that little quicker, I don’t know how hard I can really push. I just haven’t done good in qualifying and I don’t have any excuses, but I’ve worked at it and my last race [Brno, where Hayden made the second row for the first time] was my best qualifying.
It may sound silly but during the summer break I took my lap-timer home so when I was riding my motocross bike or my flat-track bike, instead of doing motos and stuff with my brothers, we had our own qualifying sessions, just going for one hot lap and I think that helped.
What are your strengths as a rider?
I think I’m better in a race. When the race comes I always seem to find a little bit of speed. This year I’ve been getting really good starts which has helped me a lot. But I don’t think I excel in one area, like on the brakes or whatever, I just try to learn a bit of everything.
What do you make of Europe?
I didn’t know what to expect, so I didn’t really draw any pictures in my mind that would tell me it’ll be this or that. I just came here with an open mind to see how it goes. It’s been cool, the first two races in Japan and South Africa were pretty good but when we came to Europe everyone stepped it up even more, so I had to gas it up and try to raise the pace to their level. You know, these guys don’t play. Plus I’ve had a lot to learn: bikes, tracks and that. I’ve just had to find some speed and get faster.
What do you get up to between races?
I stay back in Belgium where the HRC race shop is. I always find something to do: go motocrossing, do some training, go to the gym, go running in the parks. I just kinda kick it, just try and have fun. One week I stayed in England with one of my English mechanics, another time we went to a world motocross round, but pretty much I’m just waiting for the next race.
Done any sightseeing?
I’ve been travelling my whole life so I guess I take it for granted, but sometimes I make myself see stuff. Like I drove from Belgium to Le Mans with a buddy, so we weren’t going to drive past Paris without seeing the Eiffel tower, so we went there and had dinner. Back home chicks ask me, ‘did you see this or did you go there?’ I do a little but not a lot. It may sound boring but I do a lot of the things I do just because I know that one day I’ll be sitting in a rocking chair thinking “Why didn’t I take advantage of being over there?”
Have you made friends in the GP paddock?
It’s different to what I’m used to in America, because I’ve known a lot of the people there since I was a kid and my brothers are there. In GPs I don’t really know a lot of people other than my team, so I pretty much hang out with my team and the guys at the Repsol Honda hospitality, just getting away from the racing. But as far as the riders go, not really. I mean they’re friendly. When I see ’em it’s, ‘hey what’s up? What’s happening? And what about this and what about that?’ But as far as going to play golf or hanging out, no.
And with Valentino?
We get along good, I have a lot of respect for him. But as far as hanging out, I don’t really hang out with him.
You’ve had a couple of close shaves with Max on track…
A couple of times on Friday morning he came past way closer than he needed to be, when I didn’t even know where the track goes. But it’s all good, I like that part of it really, I think it’s fun.
You mean it gives you something to go for?
Your family has been over for a lot of races, did you ask them to come over?
My mum and sister came over for the back-to-backs, while my dad’s come to quite a few, just because he wanted to. They’ve never been to Europe, so they wanted to come and check it out.
Does it help to have them around when you’re so far from home?
It doesn’t hurt, it makes it nice. Plus my parents gave up a lot to help me race. They could’ve spent money on themselves instead of buying me tyres, so I wanted them to come.
So you get homesick?
Not really. When the European races started in May I did struggle a lot. My results weren’t going that good, and you’re not going to be having fun when your results are bad. I’ve been home a couple of times in the breaks. I live in the east, so it’s not like coming from California. It’s a smaller time difference and four or five hours less flying time.
You said a while back that you reckon all the paddock VIP hospitality is a bit OTT…
Yeah, but when I first came here I was more impressed by the run-off on the tracks. Some of the tracks in America are a bit scary. They’re really on it here, it’s so much more organised. You don’t see bikes laying in the gravel traps for a whole session like back home. That’s impressed me more than how good the food is.
Have you been surprised by how little partying there is?
I didn’t really come in with any expectation of that but it’s pretty laid back. In America they get a little wild on Sunday night. Some races you better look out because some people get pretty crazy! Racing paddocks are serious places but that’s the way it is and I like to see people focused. But here everyone seems to know how to relax in the evenings, it’s pretty mellow. Sunday night everyone goes their own way but that’s cool. I’m not really a partier, I don’t really drink.
We heard a story about you and your brothers getting so rowdy on a plane that they had to land the thing…
It was landing anyway; the story got out of hand just like they do. It wasn’t as near a big a deal as it got made out. There was a bunch of racers on the plane, and it was just racers the way they are sometimes. I guess you’ve met enough. Any of the fast ones have a little bit of an edge to them. It was really rough as we were coming into land, so my little brother put his helmet on and the steward didn’t think that was funny. But my mom was on the plane and she wouldn’t let us do anything out of hand.
What about the girls over here?
I don’t have a girlfriend, I’m pretty much single, but there’s a lot of hot chicks in Europe, there was definitely a lot of talent in the Italian paddock, and in Czecho.
It doesn’t distract you?
No, I wouldn’t say it distracts me.
So they’ve not been throwing themselves at you?
(After much laughter). Well, I mean I’m just a 22-year-old guy, what do you think?
Who were your heroes as a kid?
My main guy was Bubba Shobert (the three-time AMA Grand National champ whose career ended after a freak accident at Laguna Seca). He was the guy who did dirt track then roadracing, he had a big future till he got hurt. When I was a kid I went to a pro-race, I was in the pits and he took extra time with me and my brothers, even though he didn’t know who I was, so from there on out he was my guy. I try to remember that when I see kids and fans, I always try to be nice.
Do you have a grand plan?
Yeah, my plan is to be world champion, and more than once, pretty simple really. I’m trying to put the pieces together, to understand the life, to understand the circuits and the bike. I know it’s not going to be easy.