Bull's-Eye for the Tommy Gun
Snapped up by Rob Muzzy from the AMA dirt-track series to join the Kawasaki team in '97, Hayden struggled to get comfortable with his new ride, finishing his debut season in 12th spot, and 11th in '98.
With Mladin and Spies gone, Hayden realizes that it's his time to be the Yoshimura team leader, a role that he's ready and willing to accept.
Although probably the most reserved of the Hayden brothers, Tommy still couldn't help acknowledging that he'd finally gotten the monkey off his back on the cool-down lap at Fontana.
Nicky Hayden has always used his older brother as a sounding board for everything from technical to professional issues, so he's always there to support Tommy whenever he has a break from the MotoGP schedule.
Nicky was right there at Fontana to share in his brother's joy at finally winning an AMA Superbike race. The Hayden clan is very tight-knit and supportive of each other.
Hayden looked like he had the second superbike race at Daytona in his pocket coming out of the chicane on the last lap, but ended up getting nipped at the line by National Guard Suzuki's Jake Zemke by a gnat's eyelash.
Hayden (22) was always in the thick of the battle for the lead in both races at Daytona, but despite his best efforts, he ended up just off the top step of the podium each time.
As part of the dominant Yoshimura wrecking crew from '07-'09, Hayden often completed the podium behind seven-time AMA Superbike champion Mat Mladin and two-time AMA Superbike champion Ben Spies.
Hayden and his crew chief Daisuke "Dice K" Hashimoto communicate well, helping them get the Yoshimura superbike more dialed in to Hayden's liking.
Hayden stalks Graves Yamaha's Josh Hayes (4) in the second race at Fontana before taking the lead and pulling away for his first superbike victory after 13 years of trying.
Tommy Hayden waited until the final race of the season to crash for the first and only time during '09. The spill came late in the second doubleheader race at New Jersey Motorsports Park on Sunday, when Hayden was chasing both Josh Hayes and the biggest payday of his career. His bonus for finishing second in the championship would dwarf anything he'd made to that point. But more important than the money was winning his first superbike race.
Hayden had led early and later dispatched his teammate-seven-time AMA Superbike champion Mat Mladin-before making his move on Hayes late in the race. He'd just passed the Yamaha rider on the 21st lap when he lost the front after tipping into a top-of-third-gear right hander. "I just got up the inside, rather than just getting beside him, I kinda went in a little too deep," said Hayden at the end of the day. "Then I had to go inside a little early, so I had a better lean angle to brake harder. The track falls away a little there; just lost the front on the off-camber. It's disappointing, but I left it all out there."
The worst part of the crash was that there was no quick shot at redemption. The season was over. He wouldn't be able to exorcise the demons until Daytona-six months away. "That last one, having to sit on it all winter, that was pretty painful," Hayden admits.
"About midway through last year, I really felt like I should've won some races," recalled the eldest Hayden brother, looking back at his '09 campaign. "I mean, Mat (Mladin) passed me on the last lap at Fontana last year and I felt like I was definitely faster than him that weekend. My bike was set up better. I should've won that one." But he didn't. Nor had he won in any of the 120 superbike races dating back to his rookie season of '97, when Rob Muzzy saw a talented dirt tracker who he thought would make a future roadracer. In the ensuing 13 years, during which he was in and out of the Superbike class-this is his ninth year in the premier class-Hayden won a lot of races and a pair of Supersport championships. But he never found the key to getting to the top of the Superbike podium.
The 2010 season sees a number of changes, the most important being that Mladin is no longer racing. The all-conquering Rockstar Makita Yoshimura Suzuki team now has a new leader. "I don't think it really changes anything, but I'm aware of that kind of responsibility or whatever you want to call it," Hayden says of stepping into the role. "That's something that I'm ready to accept and want to accept and feel like it's my job."
Hayden gets along with teammate Blake Young, the Wisconsinite protégé of Kevin Schwantz, but they couldn't be more different. The veteran Hayden is more methodical in his approach, mapping out every part of the weekend, honing his riding technique, studying the computer graphs deep into the night. "I think [he] just kinda flies by the seat of the pants a little bit," says Hayden of his 22-year-old teammate. "Just tries to always kinda make it happen, so to speak. Sometimes that works for people just fine, it's just a little bit of a different approach."
Hayden also has a vastly different personal life. He and his wife, Christie, have two young daughters, Olivia and Klaudia, the younger of which was born just a month after the end of the season. Married life hasn't affected his racing at all. He trains in the morning, while Christie looks after the children and on the weekends "I'm at the track and riding and during the weekends, I don't even think about it. Unless someone reminded me or something, it wouldn't even cross my mind."
He also doesn't think it will impact his attendance at the GPs, where he is his brother's closest confidante. Tommy has always been a sounding board for Nicky, regardless of the issue. Whether it's technical or professional, the tight-knit family thinks as one. When he has the chance, he travels with Nicky, debriefing after the tests and races, poring over the data that Nicky brings back and watching replays of the races. When he's not with Nicky, Tommy tries to watch as much as he can on his laptop. His is an analytical mind that understands racing as much as anyone in the paddock. When he doesn't have a recorder in his face, he's as voluble as anyone, but becomes more reserved on the record. Earl Hayden taught all of his sons to be approachable in the best and worst of times, and Tommy is no different.
As similar as they are, they're also quite different. Nicky is more expressive, Tommy more reserved, with youngest brother Roger Lee somewhere in the middle. The differences between Nicky and Tommy were on vivid display at Laguna Seca last year. Tommy had jumped the start and was put on the back row. Then came the pace car debacle, when race officials sent the car into the path of the Superbike field as they were cresting turn one flat out. Nicky was livid, his outburst seen live on the Dorna feed; Mladin screamed and cursed at race officials. Meanwhile, Tommy sat placidly on the pit wall. "I wasn't happy about it, but we still had to race," he now says. "I mean, what were we going to do at that point? The car had already pulled out in front of everybody. I definitely wasn't happy about it, but I still had to race and things like that. Afterwards I wanted to talk to them and wanted to discuss that issue, but I mean, at the time, I don't see how jumping up and down and yelling could've helped me when the race started." Also weighing on his mind was his jump start, "because I felt pretty fast there and thought I had a good chance to win and kinda blew that. Lots of different emotions."
When the 2010 season began, Graves Motorsports Yamaha's Josh Hayes was the presumptive favorite. Then a fried clutch in the first race at Daytona put him out and suddenly the field was wide open. Jake Zemke stepped up on the National Guard Suzuki to take a win in his very first outing on a chilly Thursday afternoon in Daytona. The race was close; the top five finishers-Zemke, Hayden, Foremost Insurance Ducati's Larry Pegram, Jordan Suzuki's Aaron Yates, and Young-were covered by .307 seconds. Zemke won the race by taking the unconventional approach of leading out of the chicane for the long run to the finish line.
The next day Hayden tried the same tactic. Leading out of the chicane, he looked to be on his way to winning his first race when he felt the pull of Zemke from behind. "At Daytona you feel it," Hayden said of the effect of the draft. "It's hard to hear it; there's so much noise from speed and stuff. But you can feel it." The difference at the stripe was .009 seconds. And once again Hayden was the runner-up.
"I wanted to win, I tried everything to win," he said. "Could've went either way. Just lost in the drafting battle there. I wouldn't change anything [except] try to get more of a gap on the last lap. I was riding pretty hard. I did a pretty fast lap. We were just a little short there. We weren't quite ready, I don't think, for top speed as much as we should've been." Hayden said it was a combination of engine power in the wrong place and gearing. "With the rules, just a lot of compromise with what we have now. We can move power around and stuff pretty easy. It's not easy to gain power, but we can move it around. I think we kind of made a little mistake there."
"I knew I [had a] race in two weeks, so [it was] a little easier to get over," he said of the two races. "I mean I still did all I could do. I don't know what I could've done different. Wasn't going to do any good to mope around and pout about it. So I just tried to concentrate on getting ready for Fontana."
Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, is the home track for a number of teams, including Yoshimura Suzuki. The team tested there twice during the off-season, and last year Hayden finished a close second to Mladin in both races. This was a track where he knew he could do some damage.
But the damage was done to him on Saturday, when the howling winds blowing in from the mountains forced a postponement of all racing activities until late on Saturday afternoon. When the race was finally gridded, the winds had died down to about 30 mph, but even that was too much for Hayden. "The wind, I struggled with it," he admits, after being very fast in practice and qualifying. "I mean, compared to everyone else I was slower, if you compared the times to what I'd been doing all week and what everyone else was doing all week. What I did in the first race, I don't really know why, it just seemed like it was affecting me more." The lateral winds affected him most; his bike was wheelie-prone, and he had a hard time staying in the throttle and driving off the corners.
Pegram won Saturday's race, denying Zemke his third win in a row by a scant .094 seconds. Yates and Hayes were less than a second behind, with Hayden's teammate Young about six seconds back after some mistakes dropped him from the lead pack. Hayden finished more than 12 seconds behind the winner, his worst finish in ages.
"I just wasn't happy with the whole race Saturday," he said. "I was sleeping on the line...got a bad start. Let some guys ride around me in Turn One, and then just kinda rode poorly the whole race. I wasn't happy with my performance. I knew I should've done better than that."
Overnight he and the team turned the bike upside down, completely changing the Öhlins front fork internals, as well as the geometry and engine mapping. "We definitely made some changes in different areas on [the engine management] side and it did seem to help a little bit. But I think it was just a combination of things. The forks, we changed the geometry a little bit. We changed quite a bit. Nick always jokes with me; he said, 'Y'all changed more stuff than I do, and you ride a Superstock bike.' It seems like this bike is kind of finicky. We kind of saw that last year. It takes a little bit of changing to get it work at each track."
Hayden and crew chief Daisuke "Dice-K" Hashimoto communicate well and Hayden is getting more of the benefit of Peter Doyle, Mladin's former crew chief who now handles Young (while also serving as the team manager). But one of the biggest additions to Hayden's team is his electronics technician, Toshimitsu Baba, who came from Suzuki's World Superbike team. Baba immediately opened up a whole new world for Hayden, who's been quick to embrace it. Hayden learned how versatile the engine management could be in mapping back end control for corner entry, spin control, wheelie control. "Not so much turning it on and off or up and down-more like in depth. What kind of percentages and different things and the great detail of different areas of the track, and different graphs and stuff for us to be able to communicate on how to make the adjustments." Every part of every corner and every gear can be mapped to make maximum use of the limited power afforded by the restrictive technical rules.
Hayden immediately felt better in Fontana's Sunday morning warm-up, setting his fastest time of the weekend. He was always within striking distance of the leaders during the race, and when Pegram crashed out of the lead group with nine laps to go, it became a two-horse race. On the 18th of 21 laps, Hayden passed Hayes and pulled away, the margin of victory of .485 seconds-ironically the largest of the year, and quicker than Saturday's race by 14 seconds.
"It's a bit of weight off my shoulders to get that out of the way," said Hayden about his maiden Superbike victory. "Especially after [Saturday]. I was pretty discouraged [that] night. Hats off to the team for making the changes. I made some changes myself and did a lot better. Josh gave me all I could handle and I think letting him set the pace, I was able to conserve my tire a little bit. I made my move and tried to make it happen and it worked out. It feels really good. It's been a long time coming for me. We got this first one out of the way and hopefully they'll get easier. We'll see."
Hayden has been racing long enough to know it won't get any easier. But is this Hayden's best shot to win the title? "I think so," he says candidly. "I don't see why it wouldn't be. I feel like I'm in a great position at this point." Hayden was consistent early in the season and he thinks "that's what it's going to take. I just have to keep those up. If I can keep winning some races...consistency, I mean, that hasn't been a problem in the past. If I can keep that part of what I have and incorporate a few more wins, I'll be in there."