Honda Crew Chief Merlyn Plumlee:
The Man Behind The Magic
Nicky Hayden's crew chief Merlyn Plumlee has worked with some of the top names in the sport: Fred Merkel, Doug Chandler, Scott Russell, Mike Hale, Ben and Eric Bostrom, among others. He revealed his thoughts on Hayden, from his distinct and experienced perspective. "He's the most unique of all the characters I've ever worked with. Most of the guys I've worked with have been pretty focused, I think all the good guys are. But Nick is probably the single most focused.
"The thing that's most impressive to me about him is the things that he'll do if you just tell him, `Look, this is better for your career.' He will do whatever it takes, whether it's changing riding styles, anything. When he first came on board, he was a really heavy rear brake [user]. He would wreck a brake rotor--every main event for sure--and a lot of times he'd wreck one in practice, and just melt all the seals out of the calipers. We were using a six-piston that time on the rear, which is two for the thumb brake, and four for the foot pedal. So we had this thing that looked like a Corvette caliper out on the back."Freddie Spencer, who works with Nick a lot, kept trying to get him off the rear brake.
But that was only having a medium effect on him. Then our Japanese liaison, just before the Mid-Ohio race last year, said, `You know, Nicky has to stop using the rear brake, or it will limit his career in Europe because they're not going to hang this caliper on the back of a Grand Prix bike.' And all it took was to tell Nick that. And we went to Mid-Ohio with a four-piston rear caliper, no thumb brake, and he never wore the brake pads out all weekend. He had no time to practice with it. It wasn't like we went out and tested somewhere for a day. We told him and that was it. His ability to change, to fix situations, is eventually going to really make him be, I would hope, world champion.
"His biggest strength would have to be pure, natural ability. There are some guys that ride off of just desire. Like I would have to say that Mat (Mladin) isn't blessed with a huge amount of natural ability, but he wants to win so bad that he pulls stuff out that looks like it's almost more than what he was designed to do; but he does it because he's Mat. I have a lot of respect for Mat, whereas Nicky just has this bag of natural talent. But other guys have got that too, and don't seem to be able to get the mix. It seems when they have all this talent, maybe they miss the intensity side. Nicky's got the talent of some of the other kids, but with Mladin's intensity towards racing. And I think that's his strongest point.
"He used to not be really good at set-up of the bike, and he realized that was going to be a limiting factor. Again, working with Freddie this last couple of years, he's gotten to where he's extremely sensitive. He can't necessarily tell you it needs a click of compression or this or that, but he now can feel tiny, tiny differences. Originally he couldn't tell us if we had the front wheel on the back and the back wheel on the front, he just rode the bike.
"A year ago we went out to Freddie's for a couple days, and just took the Superbike, a bunch of tires, and we didn't do anything but work on the feeling of the bike. Not trying to make it better--Freddie actually had this whole game plan of what we were going to try, and we actually made the bike bad. Like, okay, this is what too much compression in the front fork feels like, and this is what no compression in the front fork feels like, too much spring, not enough spring. And I think that was the real pick-up point for the improvement in his feedback.
"I think that was part of the change in him from last year to this year. He's a way different kid this year than he was last year. This year he's far more technical, he's winning far more on technical abilities instead of just his riding abilities."
On fitness: "One of the strong points about Nicky is his physical conditioning...it takes a lot of effort to make [the RC51] turn. He doesn't talk about it, but he works out a lot, and he's in really good shape, because he's always strong at the end of the race."
On ego: "I'm sure, deep down inside, he has to know how good he is, but he never comes in thinking, `I'm such the man.' [Not] even joking around. He keeps that entirely in check. And that must come from his upbringing because all three kids seem to be the same on that."
And the future? "I see a world championship, I mean without a doubt. Barring some unfortunate thing like getting hurt or something, I can't imagine him not being world champion."--Lance Holst