I never met Nicky Hayden. Never even got close…although I did see him in the paddock at a MotoGP race once. From like 40 feet away. He was smiling.
Nicky was my generation’s hero. Guys like Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Kenny Roberts…by the time I was starting to figure out how awesome motorcycle road racing is, they were already elevated to the untouchable status of LEGENDS. But Nicky Hayden was two years younger than me, and he was practically a hometown boy.
I grew up in Indianapolis, and we simple Hoosiers loved to proudly proclaim that our track was Nicky’s “home track.” I was there (in the torrential rain and literal hurricane-force winds, courtesy of the remnants of Hurricane Ike muscling its way up from the Gulf) when Nicky took 2nd place at the inaugural Indianapolis MotoGP in 2008. He had given Indy’s four-wheeled race fans a preview earlier that year, lapping the 2.5-mile oval on his Honda race bike before the start of the Indianapolis 500, and christening the newly reworked road race course on a 1909 Indian the month before that. In a race-crazy town, he quickly became one of us. I even got to watch him turn some flat track laps at the famous Indy Mile in 2010. And yes, I own a DVD copy of “The Doctor, The Tornado and The Kentucky Kid.”
It wasn’t until I bought my 2001 Honda RC51, which I picked up barely used in 2004, that I even learned who Nicky Hayden was. Standing at the parts counter at Dreyer Honda on the west side of Indy (the oldest Honda dealer in the U.S., thank you very much), buying oil and a filter for my pride and joy, I noticed a poster on the wall of a racer on my bike (my bike!), leaned way the hell over and darn near dragging an elbow. Stepping closer, I read the name: Nicky Hayden. Apparently he’d won the 2002 AMA Superbike Championship—on an RC51.
As I made the full transition from commuter to sport rider, road racing became more and more interesting to me. And the name—and persona—of one Nicky Hayden was a constant. He stepped into the toughest ring of them all (MotoGP), battled the most dominant racer in recent memory (Valentino Rossi) and won.
But here’s the thing…it wasn’t just that he won. Nicky was a hero not just because he won, but because he did it with class, and spirit, and heart. Americans are accustomed to seeing sports figures behaving badly. Maybe we even expect it at this point. In some cases, it’s encouraged. Relished. While NASCAR drivers are climbing out of their race cars, stepping onto an active track so that they can make feebly threatening gestures at their nemesis, who is flying by at 190 mph, or striding Jerry Springer-style into their adversary’s pits so they can throw a punch in front of the cameras before being hauled off by their handlers—and America is eating it up—it was refreshing to see a well-raised Kentucky boy handling himself with admirable character on the world stage.
So Nicky was my hero. He was our hero. Relatable, likable, a true champion in every sense of the word. Ride in peace, Nicky.