The throaty roar of an inline-four, the swish of a chequered flag, the camaraderie of riding together, and the legends and their greatest hits.

Remembering Nicky Hayden: Ride On, Kentucky Kid

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Nicky Hayden 1981–2017 [Image courtesy Red Bull Honda Racing Team, for editorial use only]

How do you write an obituary, a friend asked me on Friday.

I don’t know. I do know, though, that it is punishing. I have spent hours writing this, then deleting it, only to begin once again. And every time I have typed this out, the words have seemed so unreal that I have found myself closing the laptop and walking away.

So far, all there have been are a jumble of abandoned words, each trite and unworthy in its inability to express the gaping hole I have felt since I learned of Nicky Hayden’s death.

How do you write about someone’s life? How does one squish who he was and what he represented into a few paragraphs hoping to capture every facet of his personality? It’s impossible really. For, as a fan of the sport, one only has access to snatches of a life, the ones shown on television, or on race weekend at the track. Perhaps bits and pieces from interviews or documentaries and books. These words can never really recreate Nicky Hayden’s slow grin, that easy humor, the passion in his tone as he spoke of motorcycles, or his victory dance on the podium.

No, words can’t. But memories can.

Just listen to the riders at the World SBK paddock dedicate their wins to Nicky, and to those in MotoGP as they remember the former World Champion. It is a testament to the kind of man the American was. Stories upon stories, tweets, sound bytes, memories, all tell the story of a man who lived, truly lived his dream.

And it is always the little things that make a man special, make him into someone you’d want to know better. The memories are out there, slowly making their presence felt, drawing a picture of a rider who was more than his sport or his world title.

For me, Nicky was the champion, who took home the crown in 2006. He was the focused champion-to-be in Laguna Seca in 2005, the day he was unbeatable and scored his dream home win. There he was, once again in the fantastic nail biting Assen race that same year when, he took a win, after a memorable battle with Colin Edwards in the closing laps.

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Nicky Hayden, Andrea Dovizioso and Bradley Smith, Indianapolis, 2013 [Image courtesy Ducati, for editorial use only]

The podiums dried up soon after he was crowned king in 2006, but Nicky never stopped trying, giving it his all, during races, qualifyings, practice sessions and the tests. Like in 2013, when he pushed the Ducati to its limit during a race with Andrea Dovizioso at Indianapolis. The teammates were battling for 8th place, with all their might, only to be upped by a sneaky Bradley Smith at the very last minute. It was thrilling stuff, but it never occurred to Nicky that he was fighting for an 8th. He was racing the best race he could on that bike. And that meant giving it everything he had.

 

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Nicky Hayden gives teammate Valentino Rossi a ride at Laguna Seca, 2012. [Image courtesy Ducati, for editorial use only]

Then there was Nicky, the gentleman racer, pulling up at the tip of the Corkscrew in Laguna Seca, the year before, offering his teammate Valentino Rossi a ride back to the pits.

Finally, in October 2015, Nicky decided to leave the world of MotoGP behind, moving to the mad, crazy, absolutely bonkers world of the World Superbike Championship. He was going back to his old team, Honda, and the effect was almost immediate. There he was, that old Nicky, with four podiums including one win in Malaysia in 2016.

Through it all, he always had his family by his side. I have always loved how the motorsports world embraces the family, bringing them into its fold—the parents, the siblings, the children. More so for Nicky. It was obvious that his passion for racing, for giving it his everything, no matter how bad things were, for being 100% (even when his bike wasn’t), came from his family. And his fans loved that about him. It’s what made Nicky, Nicky.

There is this story of Nicky’s number, 69, that I heard when I first started following the sport. Earl, his dad, would joke, used to crash a lot while racing. That’s why he needed a number he could read upside down. Nicky never gave up that number.  

The Nicky though that I remember the most, is the one I glimpsed, briefly in Valencia 2012. I walked into the paddock, eyes wide, ignoring the drizzle and gray skies, unable to process the fact that I was truly in a MotoGP paddock. I spotted him a couple of times on a scooter in a Ducati jacket, smiling at fans, pausing briefly for a handshake, a photograph even, before whizzing by.

I saw him again, later, post a dreadful Qualifying that had left Nicky 7th on the grid. We are waiting though, outside the Ducati garage, crowded around, pushing against barricades waiting … just waiting. The crowd grew, the team walked out carrying bits and pieces of the bikes, washing fairings down, or hanging around, talking. Then, Nicky walked out, making his way to his trailer, when he heard the fans call his name. It couldn’t have been easy. It had been a particularly crappy day in office. But Nicky stopped, pivoted toward the voices, and then walked toward them. He signed photographs and caps, took pictures and spent time, smiling into a camera.

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Farewell Kentucky Kid. Ride on. [Image courtesy Ducati, for editorial use only]

That was Nicky, right there. He was the man who put in real sweat and hard work to reach the absolute pinnacle of motorcycle racing. A man who did not take it for granted, wasn’t complacent. Instead, he continued to work on becoming better at what he did. He never wrapped himself in the safe cocoon of superstardom. Instead, he embraced his fans, just like he did his friends. He was a Legend, on the track, sure. But more so, off the track. Race weekends will never be the same.

Ride on Kentucky Kid. You will be terribly missed.

See Nicky Hayden’s Final Ride Here

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Categorised in: 2017, Faces, Legends, MotoGP

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