Nicky Hayden

Nicky Hayden, Motorcycles, Class of 2021

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.

By Chris Jonnum

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.