Until Nicky Hayden showed up in MotoGP, there was little anybody could do about Italian legend Valentino Rossi’s dominance on motorcycle racing’s biggest stage. But the kid from Kentucky with the aggressive riding style honed on the dirt tracks of middle America managed to halt Rossi’s five-year winning streak in 2006.
Hayden, who died in Italy this week after being struck by a car while training on his bicycle, burst onto the MotoGP scene at age 22 in 2003, a year after becoming the youngest-ever champion of the domestic AMA championship in the United States. There is much to remember him for: his positive attitude, relationship with fans, advocacy for American dominance in MotoGP, and how for a time he disrupted the sport itself.
“Any young American coming in, let’s be honest, 90 percent of people want to see you fail,” Hayden told The New York Times in 2007. “That’s just a reality, and nothing I did at first was ever good enough. Over time, I’ve got things straight.”
Hayden was named the rookie of the year, and after a sophomore slump came in third in the championship in 2005. By this time, his Honda teammate Rossi had switched to Yamaha to win his fourth and fifth championships.
But in 2006, Hayden was a model of consistency and managed to get to the second-to-last round with a comfortable championship lead over Rossi. All he needed were solid results for that race and the next, and he would be the next champion. That’s when disaster struck.
Hayden’s rookie teammate, Dani Pedrosa, made an ill-advised passing attempt in the Portugal race and ended up wiping both Hondas out. Hayden was apoplectic, raging in the gravel trap about what was likely a lost championship.
But then, in the final race of the year, Hayden pulled out a third-place finish while Rossi surprisingly crashed. Hayden was suddenly the seventh American world champion—and the last one to date.
Sadly for Hayden and his fans, that was also the high-water mark of his MotoGP career as engine rule changes and a series of uncompetitive bikes prevented him from regaining his past glory over his next eight seasons as a MotoGP rider.
In 2007, MotoGP shrunk the maximum allowable engine size to 800cc, down from the precious 990cc. Hayden said at the time that the loss of power did not suit his riding style that depended on his back wheel breaking traction like it had when he was growing up.
“I come from dirt tracks, I need to make the bike skid by using the throttle,” Autosport quoted Hayden as saying in 2008. “To do that you need a lot of horsepower and great acceleration.”
“The decrease in power and the different power output have put me in great difficulty,” he said.
While Rossi was able to adapt his riding style to the new rules to win two more championships after Hayden and and an upstart called Casey Stoner won in 2006 and 2007, the American struggled.
Hayden left for a five-year stint at Ducati, which had more power, but proved near impossible for riders—including, eventually, his old friend Rossi—to tame.
The Italian manufacturer wanted to move Hayden to World Superbikes, where Ducati was on the cusp of fielding a competitive bike—something that was not in the cards at the time in MotoGP.
But Hayden insisted on staying in MotoGP, later switching to a satellite Honda team even though the bike was not competitive. Hayden told me in a 2015 interview that he saw it as something as a patriotic duty to try to remind the MotoGP world that American riders were up to snuff.
“There was a time when I was growing when Americans dominated Grand Prix racing, and that’s certainly not the case right now, which something I don’t particularly like,” Hayden said.
“I feel some pride and responsibility to keep carrying the flag and representing our country until we’re ready to develop some young talent to come in and take my place,” he said.
Hayden said it was no coincidence that his helmet designs showed off increasingly prominent American themes over the course of his career.“It’s a world championship, so America’s got to be represented,” he said.
Despite Hayden’s hopes for an American resurgence, his death leaves both major international series, Moto GP and World Superbike, without a single U.S. rider the top level.
Hayden often made the long trek home to Owensboro, Kentucky, and reveled in the exploits of his motorcycle racing family (Nicky and brothers Tommy and Roger famously came in first, second and third at the Springfield TT).
Hayden began riding at age 3, and it wasn’t much later that his father, Earl, began taking him and his brothers racing. The Haydens would travel all over the region to race on the dirt at county fairs, on tracks and at unsanctioned indoor outlaw events.
In 1996, the AMA banned Nicky Hayden from amateur dirt track events for six months after it was discovered that his father had registered him as two years older than he really was, so he could get a head start on competitive racing.
Hayden finally did make the move to World Superbike last year with Honda, and gave his fans something to cheer about with a gutsy win in the rain in Malaysia and a podium finish at Laguna Seca, where he draped himself in the Stars and Stripes.
This year was supposed to be the next step up for Hayden and Honda, but delays caused by earthquake damage in Japan put off the development of the new superbike, and Honda is struggling.
Hayden didn’t sugarcoat the team’s troubles, but always seemed to be able to draw back on a bottomless reserve of optimism, good humor and a quick smile.
These days it’s near impossible to imagine any U.S. rider being offered the huge jump from the domestic series (now called MotoAmerica) to a championship-winning factory MotoGP team like Hayden was.
But the Kentucky Kid grabbed the opportunity that was presented to him, and for a short time overcame doubters to defeat the biggest star motorcycle racing has ever seen.
Even though rule changes and team politics might have worked against him in the long run, Hayden remained one of the most popular members in the paddock for rival racers and fans alike.
Watching races broadcast from far off lands just won’t be the same without Hayden’s famous No. 69 looming on the grid, because it always seemed that the Kentucky Kid was on the verge of a return to his former greatness. Now we’ll never know.