Owensboro-native Nick Hayden died on May 22, 2017, following an accident in Italy. This article “Nicky Hayden, ‘The Kentucky Kid,'” appeared in the June 2009 issue of Kentucky Living.
When fans call you The Kentucky Kid and you race throughout the world on a motorcycle at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour, you better believe you have to be good, real good.
That’s what 28-year-old Nicky Hayden from Owensboro does, and as a professional motorcycle racer, who started out in the sport long before he was big enough for his feet to touch the ground while seated, he has become one of the biggest names in the sport.
Nicky was back home in Owensboro, or OWB as he calls it, taking the name from the local airport, on a summer break from an 18-race schedule that begins in March and ends in November.
“I travel 11 months a year,” he says. “But I love coming home to my family. Family’s important to me. Growing up here with my two brothers and two sisters, I have everything I want. My mom was from a big farm family, 11 brothers and sisters, so my family has always been close. I don’t want to live in Monaco or anywhere else like that.”
Nicky’s parents, Earl and Rose, once upon a time, enjoyed the thrill of going fast on motorcycles themselves. Earl raced often and won on dirt tracks, while Rose competed successfully in ‘powder
puffï’ leagues, but when their family began to expand, they turned to introducing their three sons to the sport.
While older brother Tommy and younger brother Roger have had successful professional riding stints, it’s Nicky who has risen to world-class status winning the MotoGP or Grand Prix, the sport’s most elite level of motorcycle racing. As the World Champion in 2006, he has picked up several other accolades that might be expected for a handsome bachelor who hangs out with jetsetters throughout Europe and the United States.
Nicky often finds himself far removed from his Owensboro home in order to race against riders from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Australia, and other countries throughout the world. But it’s his return visits to Kentucky and his family and friends that help him keep his Daviess County values.
Swerving through curves, routinely leaning his motorcycle so far on its sides that the friction from the asphalt eats into his knee pucks, Hayden and his cycle appear to defy the law of gravity. Riding on the edge of traction, the slightest loss of concentration and his race is over.
Motorcycle racing, considered by many to be a daredevil sport, has gained its popularity on dirt tracks throughout America over the years. But with the strong influence of his parents, one question begs to be asked. Considering Owensboro’s reputation as a hotbed for stock car racing, how did the Hayden family stay focused on motorcycles?
With Owensboro names like Waltrip, Green, and Mayfield, all established NASCAR stars, it seems like it would have been easier to catch on with automobile racing.
But Hayden’s star was growing at a much earlier age than it takes to get a ride in a car at Daytona.
By the age of 17, and still in high school at Owensboro Catholic, he was racing factory Honda RC45 superbikes and winning. In 2002, at the age of 21, he won the Daytona 200 while becoming the youngest ever to win an AMA Superbike Championship. He was years removed from the days when his parents would hold his bike in place for the start of a race because he was too small to touch the ground.
Soon after, Honda tapped The Kentucky Kid to join what many in the business consider the elite team in MotoGP racing, Repsol Honda. Earning rookie-of-the-year honors on the circuit his first year, his racing togs began to take on more sponsors than an Indy car. A jewelry line, clothing, sunglasses, tires, energy drink, watches, and, of course, Repsol, an oil and gas company operating in more than 30 countries, cover almost every inch of his protective racing ware.
With his boyish good looks and success as an international motorcycle racer, it was of little surprise when Hayden was listed among People magazine’s 50 Hottest Bachelors in 2005.
That was followed by appearances on the Today Show, Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, and a two-hour documentary on MTV appropriately called The Kentucky Kid, which chronicled his 2006 championship season. “It gave us good exposure in a market we hadn’t been in,”says Nicky.
Rubbing elbows and shaking hands with the likes of Michael Jordan, Brad Pitt, and Tom Cruise, and seeing your picture on a full-page Honda ad and in USA Today, further points out the two worlds Nicky lives in.
It did not come, however, without some difficulties and second-guessing. Family closeness made Nicky’s travels throughout the world difficult at times, especially that first year in MotoGP competition.
“It was another world to me,”recalls Nicky. “I was learning the bike, my team, the hectic travel schedule, and everything that went with it. My two brothers and I always trained, practiced, and rode together and then the next year I was out there by myself.”
With Nicky and his family growing up on Rose’s home-cooked meals, the sudden change in culinary choices as he traveled presented some problems.
“Oh, yeah, food was definitely an issue,” his voice rising to emphasize the point.It’s not much fun being on an airplane with food poisoning. There have been several nights I have gone to bed hungry, and when I was in China I lived on watermelon for a while.
“At the races I stay in a motor home at the track,” he says.
One of the perks of racing at this level is that a motor home is delivered to each of his European races. It also includes an English-speaking satellite television that he says helped to overcome his loneliness.
The entire setting is thousands of miles removed from his Daviess County home, and thousands of thoughts about those days when he couldn’t wait to finish high school and race motorcycles. It was his only thought.
“I did just enough in school to get by to keep my grades up so my parents would let me race. I’m not proud of it, but I was so involved with racing it’s about all I could think of,”he says.
The brothers would fly out to races all over the U.S. and then catch the red-eye flights back in order to get back to school. It was difficult to stay focused on academics. In his junior year of high school, he had signed a six-figure contract and was driving a new truck. It was easy to see why the 17-year-old was not fully committed to school. In his words, the library and any required research were not a priority.
Racing motorcycles all over the world, Nicky has lost count of the number of countries he’s visited. Not only is MotoGP racing fast on the track, but off as well. Nicky and his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa, from Spain, travel with a sizeable entourage, finishing one race and immediately heading to another, much like a circus breaking down the Big Top and moving on to the next gig.
“We have about 75 people that go everywhere with us,” Nicky says. “We have our own chef who prepares all of the food for the team. Then there are the mechanics, agents, trainers, engineers, tire, and hospitality people. It’s a lot of people.”
Make no mistake about it, MotoGP racing is big business. The custom Honda motorcycle, according to Nicky, cost in excess of a million dollars to build. The titanium and carbon racing machine is so aerodynamically designed with the very latest in technology that every piece, including the nuts and bolts, is custom-made. For sure this is not an assembly-line product. Weighing 325 pounds and sporting somewhere around 250hp, this mechanized piece of art can blast from 0 to 60 in less than three seconds.
Sponsors pay big bucks to have their names associated with The Kentucky Kid. With it comes a certain amount of pressure to excel. Following his world championship 2006 season, Nicky finished eighth in points. And at the end of the 2008 season, the result was the same, eighth.
“After being a world champion, I put pressure on myself,” he says. “I hope my best years are ahead of me. This is a good age in this sport for riders.”
When listening to Nicky talk about his racing future, it takes awhile before he says what he wants to do when his riding days are over.
Somehow, the subject just doesn’t easily come up unless someone else asks about it.
“I really don’t have a plan B,” he says. “I know I want to race well into my 30s.”
For sure Nicky doesn’t have to look very far to see the personal devastation this daredevil sport can dish out or how quickly it could end. Back home in Owensboro last July, Nicky was enjoying several days of a summer break far from MotoGP. Also there were Tommy and Roger, who both ride on the AMA Superbike Tour. But they were home not because they necessarily wanted to be. They were recovering. Roger, who rides a factory bike for Kawasaki, had crashed several weeks earlier in Alabama, breaking his pelvis and vertebrae. A week later, Tommy, a rider for Suzuki, took a hard tumble in California, breaking bones in his back and puncturing a lung.
“It was crazy,” says Nicky.”The next week I went down in Portugal but was not seriously injured.”
For the most part Hayden has avoided serious injury. In August 2004, however, while training in Italy near Milan, he broke his right collarbone. Following surgery that involved inserting a plate, he was back racing in a few weeks.
Tragedy did strike the Hayden family. In May of 2007, Nicky’s second cousin, 10-year-old Ethan Gillim, died as a result of a motorcycle accident in a race in Paducah. Ethan had started racing when he was 4, and in six years attained 18 national dirt track titles.
The Haydens’ all three brothers are professionally represented by a management company, International Racers, out of Irvine, California. At the level Nicky is racing, the company has a full-time agent who accompanies him during the season in order to maximize the promotional opportunities for their star client.
A season of MotoGP consists of 18 races held in 16 different countries, and in 2008 two of these races were held in the United States, in Laguna Seca, California, and Indianapolis, Indiana. Throughout Europe, the sport has almost a cult-like following. Televised races attract in excess of 300 million viewers for each event, and another 200,000 frequently show up to see the races live.
“For sure the U.S. market hasn’t been tapped,” Nicky says. “I know there is an effort now being made to do it.”
To help promote that market, just before last year’s Indianapolis 500, Nicky blasted two laps around the 2-1/2-mile track, giving car race fans a sampling of what was to come later in September with the 14th round of the 2008 MotoGP.
What will help increase the visibility in this country, perhaps, is for more American riders to achieve success. Currently there are only four, including Hayden, on a circuit dominated by foreign riders and sponsors.
As they should be, all of the Haydens have been well-compensated for their successes. Many Americans may be surprised to learn that Valentino Rossi, considered to be the best motorcycle racer in the world, earns a reported $30 million a year.
At the end of 2008’s season, a new twist emerged with some big changes. For some time Nicky and Honda had been at odds, first about the way the manufacturer set his bike up and then it was a tire issue. They wanted Bridgestone tires and Nicky likes Michelin.
Soon the split became too much to overcome and now The Kentucky Kid rides for Ducati, an Italian bike company. He and Australian Casey Stoner are Ducati’s featured riders, with Nicky kicking off the 2009 season on his 100th GP race with a new bike, a new team, and a new color.
As Nicky updates his fans on a video on his Web site, www.NickyHayden.com, “Honestly, I think red is a good color for me. I think it could be a good look and anything up front looks good. I mean, I could be up there in pink polka dots if you’re winning races, I think you could pull it off.”
With Nicky now on a Ducati, Tommy a Suzuki, and Roger a Kawasaki, the three have always been there for each other. All have achieved success in one form or another. The goal, of course, is to be good enough and fast enough to get a podium. In motorcycle racing terms that means first, second, or third. All three have had their share, but like any competitive athlete they want more.