Desire, Talent & Determination
The makings of Nicky Hayden, America's homegrown future Grand Prix hero
April 06, 2005
All contributors: Lance Holst
Nicky Hayden's winning smile has flashed from atop the AMA victory podium seemingly all season long. With nine Superbike victories this year and 17 total in his brief three-year stint in the seat of a factory Honda RC51, he's already third on the all-time AMA Superbike win list. At 21 years old, Hayden is the youngest Superbike Champion in the 27-year history of the sport, and just earned the most coveted ride in the world of roadracing: a Honda V5 RC211V factory Grand Prix bike.
Nicky's winning smile (and...
Nicky's winning smile (and riding ability) started at an early age, and remains the same today.
Riding since the age of three and racing since he was five, Hayden is no newcomer to winning races or championships. His rapid rise began 18 years ago on the 25 acres of farmland near Owensboro, Kentucky, where his family--including two brothers and two sisters--lived in a 100-year-old farmhouse. At that time, the family business was raising racehorses, as Nicky's father Earl Hayden, a former dirttrack racer, explains: "I bred 'em, raced 'em, trained 'em, and (mother) Rose exercised 'em. Rose was actually going to be a jockey, and then we got married and I kept her pregnant all the time. We had five kids in seven years, so that was kind of fun," he adds with his trademark broad grin. "When we started dating, we went to the races. And back then if the girl went with you she had to race. She raced five years and only lost one race."
Some think it's more than mere coincidence that Earl's success breeding thoroughbreds preceded Nicky, older brother Tommy (24) and younger brother Roger Lee (18) all going on to be factory-sponsored roadracers. "I kind of joke about that," Earl admits, "but horses, you train 'em almost like athletes. There was things that I did teachin' them to win, like in the morning's practice with my horses, I always wanted them to have a neck in front. Get 'em used to winnin'. My best horses [were] the ones with big hearts and my wife [has] a big heart. I had to catch that bloodline 'cause I wanted some fast kids...you know when you go to go buy your horses it's all bloodlines." Nicky gives his father a bit more credit, adding, "He used to race, and even once he quit, he helped some pretty fast guys. I think when we were kids, instead of guessin' at everything, he knew little things [that would] get us going. He knew when to move us to the next bike and things like that. It wasn't just all luck, he knew the right things to do."
He's sitting with the AMA...
He's sitting with the AMA Superbike #1 plate and the Honda CR450F dirttracker with which he won four AMA Grand National dirttrack races in the `02 season.
The Haydens have ridden motorcycles for as long as they can remember--maybe longer--and Nicky showed a keen desire before that. "When he was a little kid in diapers he'd stand out by the barn, just begging me to raise the barn door up so he could just get in there and sit on them," Earl recalls. Most kids might be satisfied to simply ride, but for Nicky that wasn't enough. "When he was real little, I had to tell him a bedtime story every night. So I would have it in Spain or someplace, and it was comin' off the last corner and it was King Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, [Randy] Mamola and I might throw in Jay Springsteen and I don't know who all, but just the most famous guys out there. And they're coming to the finish line and it's a dead heat and [then] King Kenny won it, with Nicky Hayden second and Wayne Rainey third. And he would cry and cry until I'd tell it to him again, and he would not let me leave until I told it that he won. I mean, I'd have loved to just be mentioned in that breath with all those guys, but I'd have to tell [the story] that he won."
Sideways and then some, Nicky...
Sideways and then some, Nicky describes the benefits of his dirttrack background as, "The big thing is just being comfortable with the bike sliding and being a little bit loose."
Earl's easy-flowing stories keep listeners smiling and laughing, but he does get serious at times, and one of the things he is serious about is his love of family. "I want all my kids to come back from the races on Monday, and sit down at the kitchen table and get along. Now when Tommy and Nicky was going for the championship in 600 (Ed. note: AMA SuperSport in '99, when the two battled tooth-and-nail for the title), they might sit at opposite ends of the table...." To maintain that harmony, Earl explains, "One thing I want to make sure ...is that I never compare my kids to each other."
While all the brothers display uncanny talent, it's Nicky who has risen through the ranks the quickest. Without playing favorites, Earl offers an explanation: "The best thing Nicky ever had goin' in his life is a brother who was three years older than him that he could chase every day of his life. And Tommy was so mentally smart, [that] it really pushed Nicky. One more thing was [Nicky's] work habits. It started when he was three years old. He'd be the first one out in the morning and he would cry when I'd make him quit at night."
This early photo shows older...
This early photo shows older brother Tommy and sister Jenny (racing wasn't just for boys with the Haydens) alongside Nicky in their early dirttrack days.
The brothers (and sister Jenny, too) were all racing dirttrack, and winning by the age most kids enter kindergarten, dreaming of someday becoming AMA Grand National dirttrack champions. Then someone they looked up to ironically change their direction. "Scotty Parker (Ed. note: multi-time Grand National champ) one time at Lima, Ohio," Earl says, thinking back, "he said, `Earl, go home, sell all your dirtbikes tonight and go roadracing. I'm the only factory Harley guy out there.' When Scott said that, well, we come home and bought YSR50s the next week."
With the foundation laid, it was still up to the brothers to deliver, and they did. After years of YSR50, RS125 and TZ250 racing at the regional and sometimes national level, they finally broke into the big time. Rob Muzzy, a man known for spotting talent, shocked the roadracing community in '97 when he hired Tommy as teammate to multi-time AMA Superbike Champ Doug Chandler. Later that year, Nicky turned 16 and raced a few AMA events on a Muzzy-prepped (but privately run) ZX-6R. Like brother Tommy, Nicky showed immediate talent and determination, but ended up in the dirt a few too many times. Nonetheless, the HyperCycle Suzuki team signed Nicky for 1998, and he quickly caught everyone's eye at the fourth round of the AMA championship at Willow Springs, where he won both the 600 Supersport and 750 Supersport classes. From that point on, everyone knew who the young kid from Owensboro was.
When multi-AMA Grand National...
When multi-AMA Grand National Champion Scotty Parker told Earl Hayden to "go home, sell all your dirtbikes tonight and go roadracing," because factory dirttrack rides were getting scarce, Earl put his kids on Yamaha YSR50s the next week.
Nicky was signed by Erion Racing for the '99 season, and was immediately groomed for a future Honda Superbike ride by being given a handful of rides on a factory RC45, just like Ben and Eric Bostrom before him. Nicky won the AMA 600 Supersport Championship that season--just beating out brother Tommy--and won every Formula Xtreme race he finished (but lost the title to teammate Kurtis Roberts due to a mechanical problem in the first round). It was a nearly flawless season, and launched Nicky into immediate Superbike stardom.
Despite his dedication to racing, Nicky graduated from high school that year. He finally got to move out of the bedroom he shared with Roger Lee, and moved into his own room above the Hayden's newly built six-stall garage, where he still lives today. Tommy has a house a few miles up the road, and sister Jenny lives in an apartment a couple of miles in the other direction; both spend a good part of their day with the family. "He comes in through that door for breakfast," Rose says of her oldest son, "and leaves out that door after dinner."
While some rising stars might feel self-conscious living at home, Nicky seems comfortable and looks at it practically. "Some days I think I'm going to move out tomorrow," he admits, "but really I've got it pretty easy here. It's real easy to stay focused. When I leave town, I just go. I've got my own little place here where I can come and go as I want, pretty much. My mom, she does check up on me some. I don't have to find someone to come and get my mail, or water my grass or anything like that. I don't have to find somebody to cook for me or do my laundry. I'm kind of a `momma's boy' anyway. I think in a lot of ways it's good for my career because it's easy and it gives me more time to work on my bike and practice and stuff."
Nicky raced a Honda RS125...
Nicky raced a Honda RS125 for Southwest Motorsports in WERA competition early in his career, showing surprising speed and catching the eyes of those paying attention; one was Arai helmets, who contracted the Hayden brothers from then on.
In Nicky's rookie Superbike season, he finished ahead of veteran teammate Miguel DuHamel (the winningest AMA Superbike rider ever), won four races, and came up just eight points short of Mat Mladin for the championship. Honda knew they had their man. Former Honda team manager Gary Mathers, the man who recruited Hayden,explains: "Aside from having what it takes to put his head down and run as hard as he has to on a given day, Nicky has all the qualities the marketing/sales people are looking for: a friendly smile, willingness to do the PR responsibilities, [plus] a good understanding of that side of the business and why it's so important. Companies like Honda must have this kind of a return for the huge amounts of money it takes to go racing. In addition to having what it takes to ride the bike, [Nicky has] family values, an appreciation for equipment and the effort it takes to prepare it. He is a really decent young man with a great competitive spirit, wants to do the right thing both on and off the racetrack, has the all-American look, and he's not afraid to pick up the phone and say thank you! He's all a team can ask for."
It may be 90 degrees F. with...
It may be 90 degrees F. with 90-percent humidity, but Nicky just loves to ride. Here he nails the triple jump on the Hayden's supercross-spec training track on their ranch during his daily "workout."
The World Superbike race at Laguna Seca this past July gave Nicky his first taste of racing at the world championship level, and it left him hungry for more. "I loved Laguna, I just had an awesome time," Nicky enthused. "My learning curve went up. It was my first time racing with a lot of those guys. Even though you watch 'em on TV, you don't really see. Laguna is a hard place to pass normally, but those ]WSB] guys weren't having any problem. Give them any little inch and they'd make it stick. They would make room where there wasn't necessarily any. They wouldn't wait for you to make a mistake, they would just make a hole."
"In the first leg, I felt really good to start from the fourth row, and at the end I caught up to [take] fourth [place, behind Colin Edwards II]. That's what I like is being at the end of the race and still charging, not going backwards. The first leg I wanted to do good and get a good finish. The second leg, I was ready to try to put on a show and make somethin' happen, and it caught me off-guard. It's something I learned from. I got an awesome start and I was up to third or fourth. On the first lap, I kind of relaxed too much, and one guy came by me going into [turn] three and kind of got me off-line. By the time I looked up at the end of the first lap I was back to seventh. I seen the guys at the front getting away, and [Noriyuki] Haga was kinda coming backwards. I thought I had to go to the front right then and there, and was like, `Whoa, I gotta go, I gotta go now!' I [outbraked Haga into turn 11] and was tryin' to get stopped so that he didn't square me back up, and I just stayed on the brake a little too long [and fell]. And unfortunately he ran over my bike [and crashed as well]. I was bummed about that. That was the one thing I didn't want to do was take out any regulars or get in their way."
One of the things that Honda Superbike chassis mechanic Dan Fahie thinks sets Nicky apart is his ability to learn from other riders and apply it. Without him saying as much, it's obvious that two riders in particular impress Nicky: Haga and Anthony Gobert. "Haga was baaad!" he says with obvious excitement. "Like when he was going to the front at Laguna in that first leg, some of the stuff he was doing was real impressive. I mean, the lines he would run from the Corkscrew to the bottom of the hill--I've never seen anybody use that line. Just the way he would bring it back up [to the right] from the bottom of the Corkscrew and drive down the hill. He did different things that I've never seen anybody do before. Probably the biggest thing is I seen him pass in areas that I've never seen anybody pass in."
After a close battle with Gobert at Sears Point in 2001, Fahie recalls, "He [Nicky] came in and he was madder than a hornet that he lost by inches. I mean he was really pissed off. Then about an hour later, he had simmered down and thought about it and said, `Man, that's the funnest race I've ever been in.' He said, `Gobert's one of those guys that you show him something once and you'll never have an opportunity to make a pass there ever again because he will go faster there. He learns so fast. If he's behind you, he'll take your line and if it's better he'll use it right away at the heat of the moment, in battle.' And Nick had never really been around a guy with that much savvy. The thing that [Nicky] didn't really realize at the time is that that's [how] he is. He's no different."
Now that Nicky's headed for the Grand Prix series, there are people second-guessing whether the timing is right or not. Though he feels Nicky might be heading over to Europe a year early, Mathers, his former team boss who's worked with many of the greatest talents in the sport, has this to say: "I think Nicky has the potential to be as good as Spencer, Lawson, Rainey, Shobert and others at that level. If he continues as he has been for a couple more years, he'll have the experience and confidence to be as great as any before him."
Ultimately of course, Nicky will determine his own future, and of that he thinks the choice is quite clear. "A big thing that Merlyn (Plumlee, his crew chief) said is really keep the learning going strong. If I stay here a couple more years, am I really going to just keep going like I am now? After riding Laguna [World Superbike] I realized what I learned racing with all those boys and realized that I need to keep going. I know it's a big challenge and I've got a lot to learn and a lot to see. I know it will be a really different lifestyle and a big adjustment but the sooner I get used to it, the sooner I learn to like it. I feel like you get the opportunity to go race GPs, there's no way I could say no. I gotta go for it. It might not ever happen again."
You can bet Nicky Hayden is going to make the most of his opportunity.
With three factory riders...
With three factory riders in the family and over 50 years of competition between them, the Hayden family definitely doesn't have a shortage of trophies and race memor-abilia. This is but a small sample of their collection in a corner of the Hayden compound's workshop.
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