Nicky Hayden’s life and career

If you ever doubt how far hard work and strong values can take a person, just take a look at the career of Nicky Hayden sometime. Though it’s a given that he’s blessed with plenty of raw talent, what really sets this American motorcycle road racer apart from his rivals is his work ethic. Few people want success in their sport as badly as Nicky, and that desire comes through in spades not only when he’s in front of an adoring crowd on a race weekend, but especially during the sport’s less glamorous moments: training in the gym during the off-season, putting in endless laps during winter testing, and studying data on the computer with technicians late at night in the garage.

That alone is impressive enough, but consider also Nicky’s personality: In an age when professional athletes regularly make headlines for fighting, going on strike, and just generally getting themselves in trouble, Hayden can seem an anomaly. Popular with fans and sponsors nearly as much for his charisma as for his on-track accomplishments, Nicky is as genuinely polite and respectful a person as you’re likely to meet anywhere.

If there’s anyone besides Nicky himself to thank for his dedication and charm, it’s got to be his family. The middle sibling in a family of five children (three brothers and two sisters), Nicky was born on July 30, 1981, to parents Earl and Rose. Home was (and has been ever since) Owensboro, Kentucky, which calls itself the barbecue capital of the world and is also the birthplace of actor Johnny Depp, as well as NBA player Rex Chapman and NASCAR drivers Darrell and Michael Waltrip.

Both of the Hayden parents raced dirt track, and their children—Tommy, Jenny, Nicky, Roger, and Kathleen—followed in their tire tracks from a very early age. Nicky was riding by age 3 and racing two years after that, and the kids would turn endless laps around a humble short track on the family’s property, with Earl’s ever-present stopwatch tracking their progress.

The family’s main source of income was Earl’s used-car dealership—2nd Chance Auto Sales (now called 3rd Chance)—where he still works to this day. The Haydens weren’t rich by any means, but as the kids improved in their racing endeavors, the family began straying further from home in pursuit of stiffer competition. Soon, they were traveling to big amateur dirt track races as far away as Illinois and Florida, Nicky always faithfully running the same No. 69 that his father had during his career (“I crashed a lot, so I needed a number that you could read when I was upside-down,” Earl likes to joke).

Although the Hayden boys weren’t exactly valedictorians, education was important for Earl and Rose, who made sure that the kids kept up with their work at the Catholic schools they all attended. All five would go on to graduate from high school, despite regularly missing school to travel to events, and despite the fact that the boys were racing professionally during their last couple of years of studies.

Along with his brothers (the girls eventually gave up racing and instead focused on more traditional sports), Nicky eventually added minibike road racing to his schedule, attending club races organized by CMRA, the strong Texas racing club. Next came 125cc two-stroke racing, initially in Texas and eventually in WERA, the national club-racing championship that’s one level below AMA.

When he became eligible to turn pro on his 16th birthday in 1997, Nicky followed older brother Tommy into AMA racing. He almost immediately made a name for himself, advancing through increasingly competitive satellite squads for the first few seasons before earning the ’99 AMA 600 Supersport crown and landing on the powerful factory Honda outfit for 2000. In the meantime, he continued racing dirt track when the road racing schedule permitted, now on the professional AMA Grand National Championship dirt track tour.

(Although he has since given up dirt track, don’t be surprised to see Nicky return at some point in the future; after all, he only needs a victory in a Mile race to earn membership in the ultra-exclusive, four-member “Grand Slam club,” for riders with at least one win in AMA Mile, Half Mile, Short Track, TT, and road race competition.)

In the 2002 season, Nicky won the Daytona 200 and became the youngest AMA Superbike champion ever, earning a promotion to the MotoGP world championship with the potent Repsol Honda factory team. He notched a pair of podium finishes in his rookies season, and secured his first win in 2005 at his home race, the Laguna Seca round; the following year saw him complete a lifelong dream by taking the MotoGP world crown after a season-long battle with Valentino Rossi. Hayden moved to Ducati’s factory team in 2009, and he continues to ride for the popular Italian manufacturer today. The 2012 season marks the one-decade mark for Nicky Hayden competing as a factory rider in the world’s top road racing series.

Though he can now legitimately be considered a racing veteran, Nicky hasn’t lost a single iota of that enthusiasm and drive that has served him so well since he first climbed on a PW50 in the driveway of his family’s Owensboro home. He still works as hard as ever, and why not? The approach has served him well so far, as he remains one of the top motorcycle racers on the planet, with one of the largest and most fervent fan followings in the MotoGP championship. Not only that, but the best may well still be yet to come.

When looking for models to serve as inspiration for how to live a gratifying and fulfilling life, you could certainly do worse than to emulate Nicky Hayden.