Monday, May 22, 2017

Nicky Hayden

As a motorcycle journalist, I’ve written about other deaths – but few of them affected me as much as Nicky Hayden’s. Not that we were friends by any means, but way back in the late ’90s (it was the year he replaced an injured Miguel Duhamel on a U.S. Honda factory superbike) I interviewed him for the U.K. magazine ‘Bike’.

I got the editor to assign a story on Nicky by convincing him the kid was the Next Big Thing to come out of the ’States. He was so, so young; but he didn’t just grow in stature, he grew into it. I was vindicated when he went on to win the U.S. championship and then, in 2006, the World Championship.

I’m not going to sugar-coat this: as World Championships go, his was underwhelming. I suppose there were mitigating circumstances; he won while carrying a heavy development load on a bike that probably wasn't ready for prime time. Whatever; I had the occasion to interview him every few years and he was always gracious, patient, and forthright; and he was (much) more than usually available.

I included a chapter in my latest trivia book on the subject of the elite group of American riders who’ve made a ‘Grand Slam’ by winning at least one premier-class U.S. ‘National’ on a short track, a TT course, a half-mile, a mile, and in road racing. I ended that chapter with a note that if anyone was going to do that again, it would most likely be Nicky; he only needed a ‘mile’ win. I asked him about it once, and he admitted that the thought’d crossed his mind. But he was quick to tell me that he had no illusions about how easy it would be to return to the Grand National Championship and immediately win.

“You know,” he said, “Those tough old dogs have been racin’ for gas money every weekend.”

That was the kind of quote that made journalists love him.

I’ll leave the eulogizing to others who knew him far better. But I always felt the mark of the man was how he dealt with adversity, in the form of the intractable Ducati MotoGP bike.

Today, when I read that he’d died, I went back to the results of the 2011 & ’12 MotoGP seasons, when Hayden’s teammate at Ducati was Valentino Rossi; perhaps you’ve heard of him.

Over the two seasons they were teammates, there were 34 races in which both riders were entered. Nicky out-qualified Rossi 20 times. His average qualifying position was more than one full grid position ahead of the Italian.

Over those same two seasons, there were a total of 26 races in which both riders finished. Nicky finished ahead of Rossi nine times.

Let that sink in for a moment: On equal equipment at Ducati, Hayden out-qualified the greatest rider of his generation. And flat beat him more than a third of the time.