Suddenly an eruption of flash bulbs and the shuffle of journalists rising to their feet announces the entrance of the person they’ve been waiting for. A young man is ushered to a microphone at the front of the room. For the next 20 minutes, blinded by the bright TV lights, he graciously answers the myriad, sometimes awkward questions fired at him in broken English from a host of interpreters. This has become a regular post-race routine now for Nicky Hayden, the reward—and perhaps bane—of consistently finishing on the podium in the most vaunted motorcycle racing series in the world. Looking out at the sea of international press representatives intently scrawling down everything he says for quoting in magazines, newspapers and on television sets around the world, somewhere in the back of his mind he must be thinking that this is a long way from stripping tobacco on his uncle’s farm in Owensboro, Kentucky. (Click image to enlarge)
At 25, an age where many American males are still searching for their way in life through the fog of post-college fraternity partying, Hayden is shouldering the responsibility of several major corporations’ multimillion- dollar investments played out on an international stage. Hayden plies his trade as a motorcycle racer at the pinnacle of the sport—the elite, premier class called MotoGP, a world of two-wheeled competition so fiercely exclusive there are less than two dozen riders from an international field who can lay claim to membership.
MotoGP is motorcycling’s equivalent of Formula 1. In countries all over the world, the series enjoys the same kind of pomp and spectacle as its four-wheel counterpart, combined with the level of fanaticism and devotion fans have for their beloved soccer. Each race is like the Super Bowl, except it’s played out 17 times per year.
The MotoGP season runs from March to October, like a high-tech, globetrotting circus with teams setting up their proverbial tents and magic show at the finest race circuits in 15 countries around the world. Hayden will travel to Spain, Qatar, Holland, France, China, Australia, Malaysia, Britain, Germany and America, among others, to compete, and he will double those air miles with the training, testing and personal appearances he makes the rest of the year. The flight schedule alone is enough to humble the stoutest of individuals.
Honda plucked the young Kentuckian from the AMA Superbike series after he won the championship in 2002, making the decision to sink millions of dollars into a multi-year deal to harvest Hayden’s immense talent, grooming him for the world scene and a MotoGP title. Before a staggering global audience of nearly one billion people, Hayden performs his magic aboard a 240-horsepower, 320-pound factory Honda RC211V, taming the beast with a smooth, poetic finesse that betrays the breathtaking speeds he is traveling. Hayden’s one-off, hand-built Honda is a million-dollar masterpiece of carbon fiber and titanium perfected in the wind tunnel and the secrecy of clean rooms. It will touch nearly 215 miles per hour on the straights—at that point machine and rider are traversing 300 feet of pavement in a single second.
Contrary to what some people may think about the wisdom of those who willingly climb aboard such missiles, the men who pilot these exotic machines are not hoodlums hell-bent on fulfilling a death wish. These are world-class athletes at the peak of physical fitness who possess incredible mental strength, a calculating calm at speed and an innate understanding of what makes a motorcycle work. They live at the edge of tire adhesion where every aspect of what they do is a precisely controlled science.
When the circus comes to town for a race weekend, the teams quickly set to work. The moment the bikes take to the circuit on Friday morning, Hayden begins dissecting the track, methodically unraveling its secrets, finding and exploiting the invisible line and last second brake points that will render the fastest lap. It rarely comes easily. Race circuits notoriously carry mysteries and quirks in their mirror-smooth pavement that only reveal themselves at speed. The idiosyncrasies lay dormant and benign until velocity awakens them, attempting to bite back and wrench the handlebars out of the hands of the riders who have a split-second to finesse them back on line.
Photograph by Andrew Northcott. (Click image to enlarge)
Hayden is more than simply a racer. He must be part engineer, tire specialist, and suspension expert—a flesh and blood computer capable of translating every aspect of what his factory Honda is doing to the team of technicians and engineers who will work to fine tune it to the specifics of the track, honing and adjusting everything, down to the density of the air entering the combustion process as measured by a barometer. Even the choice of tire compounds is a science unto itself. With 240 horsepower, the mighty Honda will easily devour its rubber during the course of a 28-lap race and cause even more dramatic slithering and sliding for the rider to control. Hayden takes all of this into consideration. The test sessions continue on into Saturday qualifying, the riders continuing to lower their times. A margin as incremental as one second can separate the lap times of the entire field.
The precious moments when Hayden’s not on the bike or working with the technicians, he must be a public relations man, spokesperson, ambassador, celebrity and—like it or not—sex symbol (Hayden was recently named one of the 50 most eligible bachelors in America by People magazine). Fans travel thousands of miles and arrive a week early at events to see their heroes, reaching over police protected barriers in the pits to touch the revered gods of pavement.
Hayden celebrates his home-country MotoGP victory at Laguna Seca in 2005. (Click image to enlarge)
On Sunday, all the travel, the work, the testing, and the training comes down to one 28-lap race in front of a crowd of 100,000-plus spectators, with tens of millions viewing on television worldwide. They will watch as Hayden invokes precise inputs of throttle, clutch, and brakes, using his body as a counterweight, shifting his mass in corners to fight the g forces. He will wear through his inch-thick plastic knee sliders, the result of scraping them against the pavement of corners at speed. Each lap of the circuit becomes a carefully choreographed ballet. When you understand the artistry and concentration that goes into riding at this level, it becomes as precise and as beautifully powerful as Tiger Wood’s swing.
After Hayden has found that elusive combination of fast line, braking points, suspension setting, tire choice and engine mapping, he must hit his marks, corner after corner, lap after lap, perfectly for 28 laps, unfazed by 20 of the world’s best riders doing everything in their power to disrupt his magic. They are there, breathing on him, pushing him, watching and waiting for that one mistake that will let them past. They are driven by the same zeal, the same obsession to win. One mistake can spill the dream onto the pavement, reducing all that beautiful technology to a skidding, tumbling paperweight. Or, Hayden can find himself standing atop the podium under a shower of champagne and the flashbulbs of the press conference.
Respectful and loyal, Hayden is quick to credit the dozens of people behind him. But eventually, at every race there comes that ominous moment when the final warning horn blasts and the crews of technicians must clear the grid, leaving Hayden alone, sitting astride his Honda. The hopes and dreams of his team, the sponsors, and the millions of dollars they’ve invested, literally resting in his hands.
Hayden stays at the circuit, long after each race is over, to sign autographs for his adoring fans. Not until the last one has been signed and the last photo has been taken will Hayden head back to the hotel to try and unwind a little before catching a flight the following morning. Next week he’ll be in another time zone, at another circuit, where the MotoGP circus has landed, ready to do it all over again.