It was not a day to be in full leathers. The mercury was hovering just above 110 degrees as a scorching mid-summer sun baked the desert sands surrounding Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Heat waves distorted the scenery and masked the distant horizon, and stepping outside into the stifling air was like being blasted in the face with a propane heater. No motorcyclist in his right mind would look forward to these conditions.
Yet there was Nicky Hayden, already having claimed 11 wins in the 14-race AMA Superbike season, sitting atop a CBR600F4i dressed head-to-toe in full leathers, engine heat boiling out from beneath the fairings up onto his legs and torso. Sweat beaded inside his helmet as he listened intently to the observations of three-time Grand Prix World Champion Freddie Spencer. As technical consultant to American Honda's road racing team, Spencer had been working with Hayden for a year-and-a-half. Now, three weeks before the 2002 Laguna Seca Superbike round, the two were working hard on the science of race tire management and getting the bike transitioned from midcorner to exit. A few moments later, the CBR sped off down pit lane and Hayden continued lapping, applying the techniques he'd just been discussing with Spencer.
"By the time we were getting ready to go in," said Spencer, "Nicky had logged over 130 laps. I thought he was getting a good grasp on the things we had worked on, and it was getting to the end of the day. But then I mentioned a few other things-one other thing to try. I was going back to the garage, I was done for the day. But what'd he do? He stayed out and ran another 30 laps. That's the thing about Nicky; it's not just that he has ability-he has heart and dedication."
That dedication is paying off. Hayden became the youngest-ever AMA Superbike champion in 2003, and now finds himself in what is arguably the most coveted position in motorcycle racing: He's contesting the MotoGP World Championship on a factory Repsol Honda RC211V alongside current World Champion Valentino Rossi. In his move to MotoGP, Hayden finds himself working with yet another motorcycling great, five-time World Champion Mick Doohan. Not every racer gets the opportunity to work with a world champion. Starting this year, Hayden will have worked with two.
Hayden has been fortunate to be surrounded with some very wise, experienced people during his career. His father, Earl, has been with him from the start, and for the last three years it's been guys like Merlyn Plumlee, Dan Fahie and of course, Freddie Spencer. Now Mick Doohan will oversee Hayden during his quest to become World Champion.
"I'd met him a few years ago and kept an eye on what he's been doing, and he seemed to be a good, levelheaded young kid, with a great desire to go racing and win," Doohan explained on the phone from Australia. "And I felt he deserved a shot."
Spencer and Doohan are two of the most well-respected names in motorcycle racing. They have each eclipsed the record books and risen to the top of the sport during their respective careers. Spencer took the Honda NS500 triple to a title in 1983, then won double championships two years later in the 250 and 500 classes, a feat still unequaled today. Mick Doohan overcame a career-threatening leg injury at Assen in 1992 and moved on to take five consecutive championships on the NSR500 starting in 1994. Before retiring in 1999 he racked up more 500cc wins than any other rider in history, save the legendary Giacomo Agostini. When you consider the sources, the praise and confidence with which Doohan and Spencer describe Hayden is nothing short of impressive. It's clear they have plans for this kid-big plans.
Three-time world champion...
Three-time world champion Freddie Spencer (right) listens intently as Hayden talks bike setup with mechanics Merlyn Plumlee (center left) and Mark Braunwalder (center right).
Had it been up to Doohan, those plans would have been set in motion a year ago. "In 2001 I mentioned to Honda that for 2002 we should put Nicky on a 250," explained Doohan. "I went out and saw him at the Laguna Seca Superbike event, and he was interested, but at the end of the day [the decision] sat with [American Honda]. They didn't want him to leave because of what he was doing for them, but I felt that if he stayed there too long it would probably hinder his progress. It would have been good last year to put him on a 250 and learn the circuits and learn the European life, because he hasn't lived outside of the U.S.A. before. It would have just made it a little easier progression for him."
Hayden has now gotten a taste of the jet-setting GP life. In the first two months of 2003 he got his passport stamped more times than most people will in two years, circumnavigating the globe for testing and PR appearances. It's been quite a departure from his youth, when he would run laps until dark on the family homestead in Kentucky with brothers Tommy and Roger Lee. It was back in those early days that Freddie Spencer first took notice of the middle Hayden during a club race at Oak Hill Raceway in Louisiana. "I met Nicky when he was about 11, and started following his progress," said Spencer. "He's just a good kid with a lot of potential, ability and dedication. It started out with me talking with him a little in 2000, and in the beginning of 2001 I started helping him and was involved with the American Honda race team and somewhat specifically with Nicky."
These were the beginnings of a relationship that would eventually culminate in an AMA Superbike championship, but not before a long, intensive road of training and experimentation. Spencer helped hone the youngster's riding technique and race craft on a motorcycle. "I had Nicky come to [Freddie Spencer's High Performance Riding School] quite a few times. He approached it like any other student would. He has a willingness to learn and he wants to improve. Obviously I worked with him individually as well, on an advanced level to help him better understand the bike, bike dynamics, suspension and the relationship between him and his crew."
Five-time world champion Mick...
Five-time world champion Mick Doohan will shepherd Hayden in his first MotoGP season.
During his racing career, Spencer was known for his keen riding instinct and natural ability to push a motorcycle hard from the first lap. He could dissect its performance quickly and offer suggestions for improvement. These are principles he still teaches today, and the program he developed with Hayden concentrated on these strengths. "During a race weekend, there isn't time to make drastic changes. But when you step out of that environment, in testing, there's more freedom to make big adjustments and then understand how the bike responds to them. With Nicky we would put the bike in an extreme state of rebound, or compression-any number of areas-and then he would have to feel how the changes affect the bike and then try to ride and adjust to it. That way, if the bike's not perfect but you're still able to ride around the problem week in and week out, you have an advantage. Obviously you want the bike set up properly so that it complements you, but if you can't then you'd better be able to work around it and push hard to be competitive, especially at the world level."
As their work together progressed, Spencer could tell that Hayden's confidence level was allowing him to experiment with all sorts of riding situations. "Nicky has an 'I can work around this' attitude," continued Spencer. "I knew that he had so much feel and the ability to do it-it was just a matter of him being able to confirm it. Nicky needed to understand what the bike was doing and how changes affect its behavior, because at the world level the team's expectation of your ability to convey that information is very high. If a rider comes in and says, 'I don't know why it's doing this,' or worse yet, gives the wrong information, he can become his own worst enemy. And then his confidence suffers."
Before Grand Prix's move to four strokes, the biggest hurdle for a rider entering the class was the intimidating nature of the ill-tempered 500cc two strokes. Whether a rider was moving up from 250s or Superbikes, there was no way to predict how well he would fare on a beastly 500. With the introduction of four strokes, the ability and talent it takes to ride a GP bike quickly is no less daunting. But the gap, in terms of power characteristics, between the new MotoGP bikes and Superbikes has been narrowed. In the end, the task is the same-you've still got to ride the thing.
"I think the transition from Superbike to Grand Prix will be a little easier, but more importantly it will be more familiar," Spencer explained. "And that becomes a confidence issue for the better, because when a 500 would bite a guy a couple of times, he'd struggle. That's why there are very few guys that could ride a Superbike and ride a Grand Prix bike well over the last 20 years. There was such a huge difference.
"With the RC211V, Honda's done a great job with the chassis and power delivery. It's a lot smoother and a lot more tame even though it has more horsepower. But still, it's so fast, and things happen much faster. You have to prepare earlier to be on your line because you're going to get there so fast that you'd be out of position before you even realize it. That's an adjustment. There's also the amount of options available, from tires to setup to weight distribution-there are so many choices to make it better. And it's easy to go the wrong way."
Hayden will be in the shadow of teammate Valentino Rossi, the four-time World Champion who's proven himself a presence both on and off the racetrack. Doohan believes this should be looked at as a positive. "Some people might see it as a downside that he's with Valentino; I think it's a good thing. We at Honda don't expect him to race with Valentino, but he can learn a great deal just by being with him, by watching what he does and seeing how he approaches things and also his mental application. He can only benefit from it. Nobody expects him to go in there and challenge [Rossi].
"At the moment most of the development is going Valentino's way," Doohan continued, "but certainly they're listening to Nicky, and if he wants something changed and it's not completely out of the ballpark, I'm sure they'll make some changes for him. But really, until he starts beating Valentino, the development will stay with the number one winner. It's mainly Valentino's show there at the moment, but that's why Nicky's there too, to give Valentino a hurry-up over the next few years and try and take that away from him. Then all of a sudden Nicky's the man developing the bike. But for now I'm sure he'll be enjoying it, and I'm sure he's going to cope with it quite well."
Behind every great rider is an equally impressive team, and Hayden will be in the experienced hands of the same team that won a championship with Alex Crivill in 1999 and helped Tohru Ukawa to third place in the standings a year ago. "Nicky has to pull the team together so they work like he wants them to work," said Doohan. "And I'll be working with him. Normally I don't attend all the races, but Honda wants me to attend 99 percent of them this year to try and help him out and help the team blend as a whole. I'll be there mainly just to offer some advice, not to stand on his toes. He's got a great deal of ability but if I can help him shortcut a few problems then that's what I'm there for. Also to make sure that everything's working well and perhaps to keep the mental side of things in check so he doesn't get frustrated with something that he doesn't need to be frustrated with."
"Nicky is strong, mentally strong," Spencer concluded. "And I want to see him accomplish everything he's capable of. He just has to stay focused, have a plan on what he wants to get out of the day. You can let all the surrounding stuff interfere or not. In Nicky's case, his desire in wanting to be The Guy, the World Champion, will override everything else. It's single-mindedness. You have to have that ability to stay focused on that desire to be the best."
Doohan has realistic expectations for Honda's latest recruit, with no illusions of it being an easy stroll to the top step. "It's going to be tough for him, but if it were easy there wouldn't be any satisfaction in it for him, now would there?" he asked rhetorically. "I think if he can finish the season in the top five, it'd be better than anyone had hoped for. And if he can finish on the podium in one of the races, again, that'd be more than you could hope for. I believe his strength will be in the races. Some of the guys put a lot of emphasis on qualifying but accelerate backwards from qualifying to the race, and he'll still be moving forward. Obviously it would be great if he could win a race and finish in the top three this year, but I think a realistic goal is to finish in the top five, then perhaps for 2004 win some races with a chance of going for the title, and perhaps in 2005 getting the title.
"Nicky is going to go there and realize that it is another challenge, and the competition is a step higher than what he's used to. The racing will be the same, but more intense sometimes. Instead of one or two guys being quick, there'll be a whole bunch of them. So he just has to settle into a rhythm and not get too excited, and that's why you can't buy the experience of what he'll get finishing races over the next 12 months. I hate the term 'learning year,' because he's going out there to race, but he'll be learning every lap of every race. That's all valuable information that'll be working for him at the end of the day."
The list of riders who have attempted to compete at the top level and failed is extensive. Past Superbike stars, 250GP World Champions, you name it. So how will Hayden, with his considerable talent, work ethic and enthusiasm, ensure a long run in racing's most prestigious class? Never one to mince words, Doohan gave his take on it. "I think a lot of people fall all over themselves when they don't accept that perhaps the challenge is a little more than what they thought. And that's the main thing-accept the challenge and get on with it. This is a whole different playing field."
This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Sport Rider.