Former MotoGP World Champion Nicky Hayden might be the last and best American motorbike hero.
Thursday, July 26, 2012
Nicky Hayden tucks into a 350-pound Honda RC211V motorcycle so tightly it’s hard to tell where the machine stops and the man begins. With the finger dexterity of a orchestral violinist‚ he squeezes his brakes at just the precise amount and dives into the 10-story, left-right chicane drop at the turn 8 Corkscrew at Laguna Seca.
His specialized rubber tires make contact with the track with just the width of a credit card as he speeds down the hill at almost 100 miles per hour. He flies out of the Corkscrew, banks long and left along the Rainey turn, navigates a short right at 10, brakes hard into the final turn, cranks back on the throttle and blurs across the finish line with no one in front of him – as was the case the entire race.
But that was 2005. Hayden, now 30, says that first of two consecutive wins on his home country circuit was poetry. He was on the best bike in the sport – Honda’s engines took the championship every year from 1994-2003, except 2000 – and maintained complete command throughout. In a sport dominated by Europeans and Australians, Hayden was leading an American revolution of sorts: At the first Moto Grand Prix the U.S. had seen in a decade, he won by almost two full seconds. With the help of Colin Edwards, the first two podium spots were claimed by Yankees, an accomplishment about as common as a dust-free day of camping at Laguna Seca.
The next year it was a different story, with the same result.
“Everything was the opposite that weekend,” Hayden says. “It was hot and we were having problems with the tires. We really were not fast until the race.”
Hayden was the slowest of four Americans to qualify, starting Sunday’s race in sixth. Then the starting lights went out and the bikes were off. The Kentucky Kid – a nickname referring to his Bluegrass State beginnings and being the youngest AMA Superbike champ ever – tucked in, cleared his mind and jumped to third place by the second corner of the first lap. From there, Hayden says, he just concentrated on riding consistently smooth laps. Halfway through the race he hunted down Suzuki rider Chris Vermeulen, who started the race from pole position, and never looked back. He went on to win by an even larger margin than a year earlier, four seconds over Spanish rookie and Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa.
“I somehow was able to pull it all together and make it happen,” Hayden says. “Just talking about it now, it gets me excited.”
That year, Hayden reached the podium 10 times – winning twice – clinching the MotoGP championship in the final race of the season and snatching the crown from Italian superstar Valentino Rossi, who had at that point won five consecutive world titles in the premier class. That championship win in 2006 makes Hayden the last American to win the championship and the last world champion of the larger engine bike, which, dramatically enough, returns this season even bigger.
Since 2009, Hayden has been aboard the Italian-factory Ducati GP12 bike and, once again, as in his 2003 rookie season with Honda, he is joined by now-nine-time world champion Rossi on the Ducati team. Hayden ranks as the top American rider in a 2012 season halfway through its 18 races. He lingers in eighth place overall, eight points shy of Rossi in sixth.
This weekend in Monterey will mark the first of two consecutive races in America. The second is the classically flat Indianapolis track on August 19.
Hayden loves returning to race in California.
“It is a track I like a lot and it’s been good to me over the years,” he says. “A home-field advantage helps to know a few things newer rides can take some time in getting set up.”
Hayden’s wins in Monterey follow a tradition of Americans winning at home. World Champion American and resident of the Highway 68 corridor Wayne Rainey won three consecutive races here from 1989-1991.
“Laguna is such a mentally demanding track and winning there made it that much more special,” says Rainey, who also won three consecutive world titles from 1990 to 1992.
At 2.2 miles, Laguna Seca is not only the shortest track on the MotoGP circuit, but easily one of the most technical. No two turns are alike. The wildly diverse contours, U-turns and elevation changes of the layout make it difficult to master.
“It’s a track you really have to be out ahead of,” Hayden says. “It’s very technical.”
He knew success here before MotoGP, winning the American Motorcycle Association Superbike race in 2000. Once he jumped onto a more powerful bike, the track seemed a lot shorter and his approach changed.
“You have to be pretty aggressive and attack the corners,” he says. “Once you get to the Corkscrew, it’s about connecting the turns.”
And not tripping on the tiny margin of error in the huge turn 8 drop.
“You really have to get on point at the top of the Corkscrew and be able to open the gas and feel the momentum [of the bike] and take it all the way to the finish,” he says. “Your whole lap is pretty much ruined if you get off course from turn 8. There is no place to gather back up without losing a bunch of time.”
Hayden’s world title in 2006 marked the end of an era: Powerful, 990-cubic-capacity engines were abandoned for smaller rides. This year a 1000cc engine was introduced, but Hayden says it shouldn’t be a big concern for the experienced riders.
“We won’t see a big drop in lap times,” he says. “You’re never full throttle here or using maximum power.”
But for racers who have never been to Laguna Seca before, the big engine on a small track could spell trouble.
“It will definitely be interesting and the track will definitely feel a little bit tighter,” Hayden says.
But he says for him the biggest issue is the Monterey coastal fog.
“The temperature changes so much from when we practice in the morning to when we qualify and race at 2pm,” he says. “Even in the afternoon, when the track has warmed up, some of the turns in the shade can catch riders off guard.”
Racing’s in Hayden’s blood. All of it.
His father Earl – who raced dirt track for 20 years – jokes that was a goal in marrying a woman who also raced.
“I wanted to have a pure racing bloodline,” says Earl from the Hayden home in Owensboro, Ky. His wife Rose raced in America on a 125cc.
From the bloodline flowed victory: Both of Hayden’s brothers were also successful in AMA and have a history of success in Monterey. The eldest Hayden brother Tommy, 34, won the AMA Supersport championship in 2004 and 2005. In 2011, he sped to victory in the AMA Superbike race at Laguna. The youngest brother Roger Lee, 29, finished below second place only once in four of five Supersport starts at Laguna and won the Supersport championship in 2007.
“I always tried to make it a family sport and we always did it together,” Earl says. “Having them all do it makes it really special.”
Hayden’s father has been in the team garage for many of Nicky’s races. He was with the pit crew in 2005 at Laguna Seca.
“It was really great. He really went out there believing he could win,” says Earl. “It makes it unreal and worth it.”
As for Monterey this weekend, Nicky anticipates a positive result in front of his home crowd: “Your home race always brings out the best in you.”
Earl experiences a similar lift, but feels the key is overall integrity. “I always have hope that he’ll do well at Laguna,” he says. “Good things happen to good people.”
THE RED BULL U.S. MOTO GRAND PRIX qualifying practice happens from 1:55pm to 2:55pm on Saturday, July 28, with the final race 2pm on Sunday, July 29, at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. 1021 Monterey-Salinas Highway. $45 presale, $60 gate/Saturday general admission; $55 presale, $70 gate/Sunday general admission; $75 presale, $90 gate/2-day (Sat/Sun) general admission. $50/3-day Paddock Pass. 800-327-7322. Visit www.mazdaraceway.com for more information.