It was October 23, 2011, still only minutes after Marco Simoncelli’s life had slipped out of him on the asphalt between Sepang International Circuit’s 11th and 12th corners. Pit lane was silent, engineers reverting to numb muscle memory to carry out their duties while riders simply sat and stared, their faces blank with incomprehension. A small group of reporters approached the Ducati Team garage, recorders and notebooks in hand and, catching my eye, apologetically gestured at the young man in the box’s west corner, his red leathers still literally dripping sweat. Understanding their need to file stories on deadline, and my own role as press officer, I reluctantly turned to him: “Nicky, I’m sorry to ask, but do you feel up to giving a comment to the press?”
Without hesitation, he got to his feet, strode across the garage, and spoke at length with the appreciative reporters, his trademark Kentucky drawl only quavering slightly as he paid tribute to a fallen fellow racer. During a horrible, vexing occasion when less-than-admirable behavior would have been understandable, Nicky simply did his job, to the best of his abilities and without protest.
For better or worse, working hard was the only way Nicky ever knew. Earl tells stories of his middle son refusing to come in from training sessions on the Haydens’ Owensboro, Kentucky, backyard track until it was too dark to ride. (That's how it got its Sunset Downs name.) Even when he became a world-famous factory racer, Nicky would invariably turn the most laps of any rider during the unglamorous, monotonous days of testing, not even pausing midday for lunch in the hospitality, but instead wolfing down mouthfuls of pasta from a paper plate while studying timesheets in the garage. (“I don’t get ready,” he liked to joke: “I stay ready.”)
Only once that I’m aware of did Nicky’s single-minded devotion to racing momentarily waver: In 2001, his dirt track teammate, Will Davis, was killed during a Saturday-night Grand National Championship race in Sedalia, Missouri, the same weekend that Nicky had an AMA Superbike round in Colorado. “The next morning was the only time I ever woke up and didn't care about going to the track,” Nicky told me for our 2007 Hayden biography, From OWB to MotoGP. But after a forthright conversation with crew chief Merlyn Plumlee (who himself would pass from cancer in ’07), Nicky won the Pikes Peak national and then commemorated the moment by riding a lap backward and then taking on Davis’s “Chasing a Dream” motto for himself.
I don't think anyone ever loved riding more than Nicky, but as his willingness to be interviewed at Sepang demonstrated, it wasn’t only the relatively enjoyable work of turning laps that he readily assumed. He embraced the entire job of being a professional racer, even the menial promotional duties. Having worked with him as a journalist, author, and fellow team member, I’ve had countless occasions to experience his punctuality and engagement during such tasks, to the point that I’ve been inspired to try elevating my own level of professionalism. When Leukemia unexpectedly took my mother just over a year after Simoncelli’s death, I remembered Nicky’s actions in the Sepang garage and tried my best to perform my duties for him, the team, and my family, even in grief. I like to think his way of repaying those efforts was his staunch availability for the PR favors I regularly asked since then, even after we both left Ducati and went our own ways following the 2013 season.
I’m convinced that Nicky’s 2006 MotoGP World Championship serves as a monument not to exceptional natural ability, but to how far hard work and belief in oneself can take a person. I’m also convinced that, had someone been able to get a 5-year-old Nicky off Sunset Downs long enough to make him an offer--that one day he could be a beloved World Champion with his own statue and a day named after him, but that in return he'd have to work harder than anyone else and then depart this earth at age 36—he’d have readily accepted. It’s fitting, then, that when it came time for Nicky to submit that second remuneration, he was doing his job, devotedly following a training regimen on an Italian road in the midst of a difficult season—still Chasing a Dream.
As it happens, I too was occupied carrying out my obligations the day Nicky died, as I was working a press launch for a Honda side-by-side vehicle at a Texas ranch. Media functions are absurdly busy events for marketing folks, and like every fan of The Kentucky Kid, I was deeply affected by his passing. Still, I again thought back to that 2011 day in Malaysia and gamely shouldered the extra tasks of penning an obituary and press release, and of preparing a tribute video.
The year since then has been marked by occasional moments of profound heartache, along with the colossal workload familiar to anyone who has started a business. Fortunately, I’ve noticed that the latter seems to have helped assuage the former.
Thank you for your example, Champ, and happy Nicky Hayden Day. I hope I’m making you proud.