Motorcycling has lost one of its fastest, gentlest racers. Rest in peace.
Le Mans always feels sombre. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the fact that motor sport’s worst accident happened at the French track, when more than 80 people were killed during the 1955 24-hour car race. Or perhaps it’s something to do with the overbearing pits complex – a vast, brutalist concrete monstrosity that would look more in place on the Maginot Line than at a racetrack.
Even when the sun came out on Sunday, MotoGP went racing under the darkest of clouds. Racers are programmed to compartmentalise pain, whether it’s physical or psychological. They know what can happen, so when it does, they may be upset but they won’t be distracted from their chosen course.
Last weekend was different, however. Nicky Hayden lay in an Italian hospital under the bleakest prognosis. Everyone was in limbo, from the paddock community to his family and loved ones, waiting in Italy or in the USA. Only on Monday, when the paddock was moving on to its next race, did the news of his passing break.
Nicky was a great racer but possibly an even better human being. Often it’s the other way around with people who fight their way to the top. To climb that high without losing your humility and your humanity is an impressive achievement.
The day Nicky won the MotoGP world title was almost certainly the greatest day of the four-stroke MotoGP era. Sunday the 29th October of 2006 had it all: drama, an underdog comeback and the feeling that you can make anything can happen, no matter how impossible it may seem.
Hayden went into the season finale at Valencia eight points down on Valentino Rossi, the winner of the previous five premier-class titles. Surely there was no way he could overtake the big man. Not only was he down on points, he qualified fifth, while Rossi sat pretty on pole.
The result was surely a foregone conclusion, but in fact no, because this was motorcycling’s Muhammad Ali/George Foreman moment.
Nicky made the impossible happen with sheer strength of will. He got a great start from the second row and muscled past Rossi as they motored towards turn one. The pair actually touched as they peeled into the corner. That was some statement from the little guy.
The whole race was like a movie: the reigning champ floundered and slid off, but remounted and got his head down once again. Nicky and his Honda RC211V worked their way into third place, so Rossi would retain the title if he could fight his way back into eighth. The tension was ridiculous. No wonder Nicky poured out his emotions on the slowdown lap, weeping and whooping as he rode around. In parc fermé he joined Troy Bayliss, the other underdog, who had just won his only MotoGP victory during a weekend off from his World Superbike day job. And then there was Rossi: magnanimous in defeat and at least happy it was Hayden who had taken his title.
It was one of those days when you go looking for grand old quotes that mean more than anything I could write. I found this from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If. “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same… yours is the earth and everything that’s in it.”
Nicky was like that. Neither triumphant results nor disastrous results changed him. Throughout his 13 seasons in MotoGP he was always personable and amenable. He wasn’t one of those riders who thinks he’s better than the everyday mortals around him.
Some riders treat journalists like house flies; an inevitable annoyance to be swatted away whenever possible. But Nicky knew he had made a kind of Faustian pact with us. He was flying around the world, getting paid to race the greatest motorcycles ever built, so it was only to be expected that people would want to know what he was up to. Thus he was a true gent with the press corps.
On a good day he bubbled with enthusiasm, but he rarely claimed responsibility for his own successes. He would recall how his father Earl and mother Rose had failed to fix a leak in the roof to buy him some new tyres. He knew full well that he wouldn’t have been anything without all the people who had helped him ride that long road, all the way from the family home in Kentucky to the MotoGP pit lane.
On a bad day Nicky would quietly explain to us what had gone wrong and why it had gone wrong. The sense of failure hurt him so much that he would often come close to tears, his eyes watering, his bottom lip trembling, as we sat there awkwardly, gazing at our notebooks and voice-recorders.
Sometimes a journalist would break the silence by asking him how tough it must be to lose like that. Nicky’s reply was always the same, “it ain’t diggin’ ditches”. He knew he was one of the luckiest people on the planet, win or lose.
Everyone in the paddock liked Nicky – which might just be a first in any form of racing – but the women adored him. He was a good-looking young man. Female paddock staff swooned when he came in the room, not just because he was so easy on the eye, but because he was so easy-going, so charming, so unspoiled by the curse of the racer’s ego.
When my first child was born in 2007 he sought me out in the Valencia paddock to give me an Earl’s Racing baby-grow. I’ve been doing this job for 30 years and no other rider has done anything like that. I was gobsmacked.
Nicky did struggle in the seasons after he won the 2006 title. The 990cc RC211V was the bike for him: big gobs of horsepower and not a lot of electronics, so he could fling the bike sideways and ride it with the torque. The 800s that followed were not his kind of bikes. They were all revs, corner speed and electronics; which didn’t work with his technique, derived in American dirt track.
During those difficult years, some so-called fans took it upon themselves to criticise Nicky. After all, they said, he’s only won three Grands Prix and one MotoGP title; which is a bit like goading a footballer by saying he’s only scored three World Cup goals and picked up one World Cup.
Nicky climbed to the pinnacle of motorcycle racing – you don’t get any further than wearing the MotoGP crown on your head, whether it’s once or half a dozen times.
Our thoughts are with Nicky’s loved ones. A great man has left them and the rest of us.
From the Archive (February 2016): Nicky Hayden by Mat Oxley
Last of the Americans