I rarely reflect on my past, instead I am always thinking of how I can move forward and better help people with what their future riding holds for them. This last week was a bit different for me. As I get older it’s becoming harder to not look back and think of things that shaped what STAR has become and me. Growing up around racing with my father were highlights that I look back on but there has been certain years that stick out more than others.
I bring this up because as I watched Nicky Hayden announce his move to the WSBK Championship for 2016 I couldn’t help but notice the disappointment in his face that he wasn’t going to be riding the premier class in the world anymore. I am probably very biased but I believe in Nicky in whatever class he chooses to ride. I have taken him in my Moto GP pool for the past 4 years because I know the effort he puts in and the desire he has to still win. Plus, I’d feel guilty if I didn’t choose him, I think that much of him.
I was Nicky’s first teammate in 1998. Sure, he teamed with his brothers before me but I was the first outside the family teammate. I had a decent year winning the 750 Supersport Championship the year before for Hyper Cycle Suzuki. When I found out they were interested in hiring Nicky I fully pushed for it. Nicky had a quiet confidence about him and was an absolute sponge. Ears were always open and anything he thought he could put into his arsenal he did it. He was crafty about it also, but always had that grin going. I won’t get into a ton of details but what I will say is that his talent and work ethic were amazing as a 16 year old.
Back then the grids were full of talented guys. Didn’t really seem to phase Nick, he was going to the front and learning as he goes. I remember a race at Mid Ohio on the 750s where we had broke away from everyone behind us. I was in 2nd, chasing him and believe it or not, I was laughing. Sure, you always want to beat your teammate but on this day, Nicky was better than I was. I chased him and we broke the lap record on probably half of the laps of the race but try as I might, I couldn’t catch the little punk. On the podium that day I remember seeing all his family and how stoked they were, I was ok with it. At Infineon earlier in the year it was the exact same kind of race but the other way around. Nick pushed me hard and I kept going faster but never saw more than +1 on the board. As I chased him at Mid Ohio I could see he learned something every time and was only going to get better. I loved being paired up with Nick and was sad it was only for one year but bigger and better things were available to him to further his career.
Nicky made me better those days even though to some it may have looked the other way around. I was and have been so proud to see everything he has accomplished. In 2006 I would get up early to watch all the Moto GP races. I think I woke the neighborhood when Pedrosa took him out at Portugal. My computer almost went through a window. But as usual, Nicky handled it with class, thanked Toni Elias for beating Rossi that day and moved on to the final round in Valencia. I was there the day he won the Championship, wouldn’t have missed it. As he sprayed the champagne I remember seeing all his family just as I did at Mid Ohio that day, cool stuff.
I know Nicky will be ready for the 2016 WSBK Championship. He will have a new focus and new goals. He goes on more PR tours than most and is so generous at every stop. Sure we have lost our last American in Moto GP but we have gained a new bit of hope in WSBK. The Ten Kate team is a World Championship proven team and Nicky will get the most out of that bike. Having a young and aggressive teammate in Michael Van de Mark will push him also.
With any luck I will be booking a plane ticket in the next few years to watch Nicky become the first rider to win both Moto GP and WSBK Championships. I mean how could I miss that moment of celebration with all the rest of the family?
Ride Safe everyone,