Former MotoGP and AMA Superbike champion Nicky Hayden has died. The 35-year-old was involved in a bicycle accident in Rimini, Italy, last Wednesday (17 May) and passed away at the Bufalini Hospital in Cesena earlier today.
Born into a racing family in Owensboro, Kentucky, Nicholas Patrick Hayden started his career on the dirt tracks but proved his versatility on the tarmac too.
Following in the tradition of the great American 500cc racers of the 1970s and 1980s, Hayden was a superstar on the national flat tracks. In 1999, he won his first Grand National Championship race (Hagerstown Half Mile) and was rookie of the year.
In 2001, as a 19-year-old, he switched full-time to road racing and finished third in the AMA Superbike championship. He went on to lift the title the following year, before moving on to what would be a 12 year MotoGP career.
Such was the ‘Kentucky Kid’s’ talent, he was parachuted straight into the factory Repsol Honda alongside world champion Valentino Rossi. Riding the V5 RC211V, he was fifth overall in his debut season – twice finishing third and lifting the Rookie of the Year title.
The breakthrough year came in 2005, when he took the first of his three MotoGP wins, at home in Laguna Seca, en route to third in the championship.
Hayden’s career highlight came the following season, when he achieved the pinnacle of a racer’s career – becoming MotoGP world champion.
He took wins at Laguna Seca and Assen, and scored a further eight podiums, pipping Rossi to the title in a dramatic title decider in Valencia. His career would never again hit the same heights, but he was to prove a constant podium threat.
In 2009 he spent the first of five years with Ducati in MotoGP, before returning to his spiritual home of Honda for two years on privateer equipment.
Inducted as a MotoGP Legend at the end of 2015, he switched to world superbikes for the 2016 season. Despite riding Honda’s aging Fireblade, he scored an emotional win at Sepang and ended the year an impressive fifth in the championship. He was also to make two final swansong appearances in MotoGP, acting as a replacement for the injured Jack Miller and Dani Pedrosa.
Many had hoped to see Hayden back at his best in 2017 onboard the updated Honda Fireblade. Sadly the new Red Bull Honda squad struggled to get the new bike up to speed. Following the Italian round at Imola, Nicky had stayed on to cycle when his bicycle collided with a car in the resort town of Rimini. He sustained head and chest injuries, from which he sadly succumbed after almost a week in hospital.
Aside from his achievements on the track, Hayden leaves behind a legacy of being one of the most likable men in racing. In many ways he was an old school racer. His approach to life was reminiscent of the many American legends before him. He loved motorcycles and his death leaves a massive hole in the racing community.