• 2006 MotoGP World Champion
• 2003 MotoGP Rookie of the Year
• 1999 AMA Supersport Champion
• 2002 AMA Superbike Champion
• 2002 DAYTONA 200 winner
• AMA renamed its Horizon Award in his honor
“The Kentucky Kid” is best known for winning the 2006 MotoGP World Championship, breaking Valentino Rossi’s streak of five straight titles. Hayden emerged in 1997, winning the inaugural AMA Horizon Award in recognition of his flat-track prowess. In 1999 he was named AMA Athlete of the Year after capturing the AMA Supersport title and his first Grand National win. Three years later he became the youngest ever winner of the AMA Superbike Championship, including victory at the 2002 DAYTONA 200. Hayden joined Repsol Honda for the 1973 MotoGP season, where he took Rookie of the Year honors on his way to fifth overall. His first MotoGP victory came at Laguna Seca in 2005. In all, Hayden would win three MotoGP races, five poles, set seven fastest laps and stand on the podium 28 times. Hayden scored a Superbike World Championship victory in 2016 in Malaysia. He was killed bicycling in Italy in 2017. That year, the AMA renamed the Horizon Award in his honor. Hayden was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2018.
By Chris Jonnum
Pumping his fist as he revs his minibike down the weed-pocked front straight, he crosses the finish line and circles back to grab the checkered flag from his father Earl’s outstretched hand. The Kentucky sun has set, but he takes one final victory lap around the little dirt track, grazing horses serving as stand-ins for an imagined roaring crowd. Endeavoring to heed Earl’s standing tenet to Always Show Respect, he only succumbs to a few seconds of sibling-taunting — no worse than older brother Tommy and younger brother Roger had exhibited during their respective celebrations in the hours since they returned from school — and then it’s off to the family’s nearby house, where he’ll soon drift off to reveries of racing glory.
Under the lights of Illinois’ Springfield Fairgrounds, he pulls a no-foot wheelie over the TT track’s single jump, celebrating his success, but also that of Tommy and Roger. The past week’s long days on the practice track and nights in the family garage have been worth it — he and his ragtag group of friends having shoehorned (and shoe-stringed) a historic Hayden family AMA Flat Track podium sweep into his fulltime 2002 factory road racing season, which will also see him win the Daytona 200 and be crowned the youngest-ever AMA Superbike Champion.
Three years into his MotoGP career, he tips his 990cc factory MotoGP bike down the Corkscrew, leans it through Rainey Curve and pulls onto Laguna Seca’s treacherous front straight. The world’s best riders trail in his wake as he flashes across the finish line, scoring an emotional first win in the World Championship’s 2005 return to the U.S. following an absence of over a decade. On his cooldown lap, he stands on the footpegs, fists raised triumphantly, white-clad marshals saluting him trackside with brightly colored flags. Following his celebratory podium dance, the American national anthem is played, and he closes his eyes, absorbing the moment while a single tear runs down his right cheek.
A long, steady round of applause accompanies his entrance to the Valencia press-conference room, the assembled journalists unable to maintain objectivity when greeted by the unlikely-but-popular 2006 MotoGP World Champion. Minutes earlier, he carried the American flag around the Spanish circuit while pyrotechnics painted the sky yellow in a celebration that organizers had assumed would be for Valentino Rossi. Now, leathers still soaked in sweat and champagne, he takes a seat and answers question after question, ensuring that his duties are completed before adding a personal note: “When you dedicate your life to something and the dream comes true, it just feels really good,” he says, voice quavering. “It’s a proud day for me and my family. Thanks to everybody who has ever helped me get here.”
He’s been gone for four years now, but he’s as beloved as ever. Fans still name their kids after him, and former colleagues and teammates still tell acquaintances how special he was. He’s the namesake for the AMA’s top amateur racing award and the inspiration for a charitable foundation that helps needy children in his beloved Owensboro. He’s also an official MotoGP “Legend,” a member of the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame and — now — a member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. He is Nicky Hayden.
During a three-decade powersports career, Chris Jonnum has served in editorships with Road Racer X and Cycle News, and as Ducati’s MotoGP Press Officer, before launching a marketing/PR agency supporting American Honda. He has also authored award-winning books on the Haydens, the Ducati Museum and Alpinestars.
Former motorcycle team manager Gary Mathers
(Mark Hicks Westside Photography)