With the story I’m going to tell you, you’ll understand why I will never forget when, how and where I met Nicky Hayden. It was Friday, November 1, 2002, at the Cheste circuit in Valencia.
I must admit that in those years I did not follow or pay much attention to the AMA Championship, but I knew of Hayden’s existence for several months, especially since after the summer of that year HRC announced that he would be an official rider and teammate to Valentino Rossi on the Repsol Honda team. But my knowledge about Hayden and my interest in him was not because of HRC's announcement, but because my daughter Sara, who was just 14 years old at the time, started hounding me about a charming, handsome, and very nice American rider who was entering the World Championship. This was Nicky Hayden.
Sara came with me to a few GP races, the very first of which was final race of the 2002 World Championship. It was Friday, November 1st, around noon as we were walking through the paddock that my daughter went crazy. Crazy the way children do when they see something they want (and sometimes not only children). Very excitedly she said: "Patito, patito...there’s Nicky Hayden." Patito was a word that Sara used with me when she wanted my attention, when something was urgent, immediate. Honestly, I would not have recognized Hayden among the thousands of people who are usually in a paddock, and there are even more in the Valenica paddock. He was dressed in civilian clothes, wearing nothing that would indicate he was a future official HRC rider and, truthfully, even if he had stepped right in front of me, I wouldn’t have known who he was.
Hayden walked the paddock alone. No one recognized him. We approached him and I introduced myself. I told him that I was a journalist for the World Championship, and then welcomed him and congratulated him on his signing with the official Honda factory team. Very attentively, Hayden asked me: "What did you say your name was?" I repeated my name and he, asking my permission, took my pass and looked on the back of it where your name and the media outlet you represent are printed. Then I explained that it was my daughter who had recognized him, and he immediately asked her, "What's your name?" "Sara," she replied. Never again—and we saw each other many times and he always asked about her—did Hayden ever need reminding of my daughter's name.
During that weekend we ran into him again several times. Whenever we saw him, he was alone, and when he saw us he acted like he had known us all his life. He called my daughter by her name and between them, because Sara spoke English much better than mine, they had good chats. The impression I got from the "Kentucky Kid" couldn’t be better. I was impressed. We were impressed.
A few months later, as early as March 2003, IRTA practice was held at Montmeló. It was Hayden's long-awaited entry into the official HRC team. Because of this they had set up a big media tent, and we saw practically every media person who was involved in the World Championship in it. Once the speeches from the jefazos (the heads of HRC and those of Repsol) were complete, the question and answer session began. I didn’t count, but if there were 25 questions, all 25 were for Valentino Rossi. Bored of the same old questions, and seeing that absolutely no one present would ask the youngest AMA champion in history anything, I approached one of Repsol's bosses, Javier Inclán, and asked, "Javier...this is so boring. Will you allow me to stir things up?" And Inclán answered, "Stir things up as soon as possible."
Authorized by the boss (I didn’t want to stand out or fool about at a worldwide presentation), I asked for the microphone. I was almost at the back of the tent. When they gave me the microphone I said, "This is a question for Nicky Hayden…” Until that moment, Hayden was looking down in his lap. Upon hearing his name, he startled, lifted his head, and listened. I said, "Nicky: My daughter, who is 14 years old, and who you already know, is in love with you, and knowing that I would see you, she asked me to ask you two questions. One, if you have a girlfriend, and two, if you like Spanish girls?"
Well...You can imagine the general laughter. The veteran MotoGP journalists asking the greatest of the greats, Valentino Rossi, about technique, forecasts, and expectations for the championship...and some nut comes in and presents these questions to Nicky Hayden. Hayden, of course, answered the two questions as honestly as he could, but the atmosphere had gone from tedium to general commotion, so that was the end of the presentation.
Years later in 2006, Hayden, who at that time was a candidate for the championship and who had Rossi on an opposing team (Hayden’s teammate at Repsol Honda was Dani Pedrosa at this time), returned to win again at Laguna Seca. Following the post-race press conference, I approached Hayden and, opening my backpack, showed him a pristine American flag. I told him, "Nicky, here you had 25,000 people wanting to give you an American flag for winning the race. Starting today, this flag will come with me to every race, and I will give it to you the day you win the World Championship." Hayden smiled, something normal in him, and thanked me for the confidence I had in him.
A few months later and after the fiasco with Dani Pedrosa in Estoril, I kept my bets on Nicky Hayden. I showed up in Cheste with my American flag in my backpack. Rossi was leading the last GP and many people would laugh their asses off at me because I was still betting on Nicky Hayden as champion. One said that my choice was more based on the friendship my daughter Sara had with Nicky than the objectivity of a journalist who should know something of this. And although my confidence was hard to explain, I had my arguments.
I went, as always, to see the race on the track. That time I went with my friend Vicente, a good friend of Alex Crivillé who is crazy about motorcycles. He and I were rooting for Hayden. I carried the American flag in my backpack and, before leaving for the track, I passed through the Repsol box and asked for a roll of duct tape; by chance, I saw a plastic broom and quietly stole the stick portion by unscrewing it from the brush.
Out of respect if not superstition as well, I didn’t mount the flag on the stick until the last lap. As you know, Rossi had crashed in the first few laps, but I'm not one who anticipates a victory ahead of time. As Hayden entered the last lap, I took the flag out of the backpack, shaking with nervousness, and asked Vincente for help to tape it to the stolen Honda Repsol broom stick.
We were on the little straight between turns 1 and 2. As I had some "experience" in doing what I was about to do (I had already given the Spanish flag to Dani Pedrosa the three times he became World Champion, and also to Alvaro Bautista), I identified and asked the marshall for permission to enter the track. And there was Hayden, already World Champion. He saw me. He stopped. We hugged each other, and I gave him the flag. Hayden was crying like a little boy. And so was I.
A little later after the post-race press conference, I approached Hayden and we hugged each other. After thanking me for the flag, he said, "I only have this to give you…" And he gave me a small white towel with Circuito de Cheste printed on it, one he had been drying sweat off with during the press conference.
During the chaotic and ungoverned moments after the press conference, I talked to Tommy Hayden, one of Nicky's brothers. I explained that I was the one who had given Hayden the American flag, and I wanted to get it back. Between the parc ferme and the press room, the flag had been left somewhere. Tommy said, "I'll get it for you." He found it and brought it back to me. I still have it, and right now I have no other wish, no other emotional need, than to get it to Hayden’s family. If it were possible, I would go to Owensboro myself and give it to them personally.
And speaking of flags, Owensboro Mayor Tom Watson has just ordered the flags in Nicky Hayden's hometown of about 60,000 to fly at half-staff until further notice. My own flag, that of friendship, of emotion, of the sorrow that I feel, of admiration for an authentic person, the flag I raised to support a down-to-earth star, will wave at half-staff for Nicky Hayden until my memory, if it ever fails me, somehow begins to erase the memory of someone as endearing and unforgettable as Nicky. The other flag, the one I gave him in Cheste, will hopefully be wherever his family is.
At difficult times like these, emotions surface and get mixed. I can never forget that whenever I went to the circuit at Philip Island in Australia, I would visit a beach near the track where there is a moving sign memorializing someone who died there. That heartfelt sign finishes with a wish: "Fly High.”
Fly High, Nicky Hayden.