MOTOGP » Nicky Hayden
Nicky Hayden grew up in the country in Owensboro, Kentucky, where his father built dirt tracks for the children to start practicing to ride as soon as they were able to walk .
Hayden’s family were already passionate motorcyclists, and heavily involved in the world of motor sport, long before the future MotoGP rider was born. Both his father, Thomas Earl, and his mother, Rose Marie Kamuff, had raced dirt track and Earl achieved some good results in mid-level competitions while Rose dominated the so-called women’s “Powder Puff” class for a good five seasons.
The five children, in age order Tommy, Jennifer, Nicky, Roger and Kathleen all learned to ride almost before they could walk and, although the girls later chose to pursue different careers, the three boys continued to ride, all becoming successful professional riders. Tommy currently race in the AMA Superbike Championship, Roger in the World Superbike Championship, while Nicky, who travelled to Europe in 2003 to compete in MotoGP for the first time, forms part of the Ducati Marlboro Team alongside Casey Stoner.
Hayden began his sporting career with dirt track racing, beginning at four years old at the Paducah International Raceway. From that moment on, he competed regularly in the category and spent nearly every weekend travelling to tracks all over the American Midwest with his family.
Although over time his passion transferred itself more towards road racing, Nicky and his brothers have always remained interested in dirt track, a world in which they all obtained great results. A highlight was the historic Springfield TT in 2002, where having all qualified on the front row, all three brothers stepped up to the podium! Nicky, Tommy and Roger Lee finished the race in that order, something that had never happened before in a professional AMA Dirt Track race. At that time Nicky was already one of the most talented riders in the AMA Superbike championship and was in contention for the title, a title that he won just a few months later.
Nicky began to ride mini-bikes at eleven years old, moving gradually from dirt to asphalt. He became a professional rider at sixteen, racing for Honda America and the following year, in 1998, he completed his first full racing season, finishing fourth overall in both the AMA 750 Supersport and 600 Supersport categories. In 1999, at eighteen years of age, he became the youngest ever AMA 600 Supersport Champion, fighting for the title against his brother Tommy. In the same year he also participated in 12 of the 18 Grand National dirt track rounds, taking the Rookie of the Year title in that series. In 2000, still with Honda, he progressed to the AMA Superbike category to finish second overall, just five points behind Mat Mladin. In 2001 he closed the season in third place while in 2002, as well as winning the prestigious Daytona 2000 race, he became the youngest ever AMA Superbike Champion, at 21 years and two weeks old.
2003 signalled a dramatic change of direction for Hayden. Pursued by both Honda and Yamaha for a ride in MotoGP, the young American chose to stay with the House of the golden wing and became part of the factory Repsol Honda team alongside World Champion Valentino Rossi. Catapulted into a completely new environment, so different to what he was used to, Hayden was immediately respected for his open nature and ready smile, as well as for his aggressive and spectacular racing style. In his debut year he achieved two podium finishes, at the Australian and Motegi GP races, and concluded the season in fifth position as Rookie of the Year.
2004 was a more difficult year for Hayden with results that see-sawed, and the season was complicated further when he fractured his collarbone during a Supermotard test. He finished the year in eighth place despite podiums at Rio and Sachsenring.
The 2005 season was much more positive. A crash in the first race was followed by a series of ever better results which culminated in his first MotoGP win at his home race of Laguna Seca. A further five podiums, in Germany, Qatar, Australia, Turkey and Valencia, saw Nicky close the season in third position.
2006 brought the first true moment of glory. He started the season strongly, with seven podiums in the first eight races, including the win at Assen, which took him straight to the top of the riders classification. This lead was strengthened by a second win at Laguna Seca, which left him 34 points ahead of Daniel Pedrosa and 51 ahead of Valentino Rossi. However, after the summer break, Hayden’s fortunes changed and he slowly lost ground, before a collision with his team-mate caused a fall at the Estoril GP. The unfortunate episode meant that Valentino Rossi had an eight point lead going into the last round of the season but nevertheless Hayden arrived in Valencia ready to play all his cards. On 29th October 2006, having reached the third step of the podium after Rossi’s fall in the closing stages of the race, the Kentucky Kid became World Champion.
In 2007 the GP category moved from 990cc to 800cc machines and Hayden was not immediately comfortable with the new bike. Despite great efforts to develop the RC212V, he was never able to truly fight to defend his title. The work completed during the year allowed him to reach the podium in Germany, Holland and the Czech Republic but he was only able to finish the season in eighth position.
2008 was another year of mixed fortunes for Hayden, especially at the start of the season when, despite several top five finishes, he failed to reach the podium. An injury to his foot, caused while he participated in a Supermoto race at the X-Games in Los Angeles, complicated things and forced him to miss the Czech Republic and San Marino GP races after the summer break. However, always ready to fight harder when the going gets tough, the American rider was back on form at the second of his home rounds, at Indianapolis, where in difficult meteorological conditions and in less than perfect health, he finished second behind Valentino Rossi. Another podium at Phillip Island and a series of strong results towards the end of the season allowed him to climb the leaders board to finish his final year with Honda in sixth position.
In 2009 Nicky Hayden joined Ducati alongside 2007 world champion Casey Stoner. The first race, at night in Qatar, is postponed for 24-hours due to torrential rain and Hayden, who fell in qualifying, finishes 12th. It is the start of a year of gradual improvement for Hayden who, with determination and hard graft, continues to pick up pace before reaching the podium at Indianapolis and closing the season positively.
Heading into 2010 with greater confidence on the bike, Hayden began the season respectably with a brace of fourth place finishes in four of the opening five events. Climbing onto the podium at Motorland Aragon, Hayden was a steady hand over the course of the season, lacking the outright pace of Stoner, but bringing it home enough to secure a vastly improved seventh overall.
Joined by former title rival Rossi for 2011, Hayden had something to prove against his high-profile team-mate and did a fine job of keeping him honest. A podium finish at slippery Jerez during round two laid down a marker, Hayden going toe-to-toe with Rossi aboard the troublesome GP11 and, despite the greater attention being paid to his team-mate, finishing just seven points behind at the end of the year.
With the media frenzy surrounding Rossi – particularly his struggles on the bike – continuing into 2012, Hayden maintained his relatively low-profile to post consistent, if unspectacular, results befitting of the troublesome GP12. A high-speed crash in qualifying at Indianapolis would break a run of points’ finishes, before a nasty-looking crash at Aragon (in which he was sent over the barriers) hampered him further.
In the end, Hayden would end the season ninth overall, but without a podium to his name for the first time since his MotoGP debut in 2003. However, with Rossi jumping ship in favour of a return to Yamaha, he will be retained for a fifth season on the Ducati, this time alongside the man that replaced him at Honda, Andrea Dovizioso.