He won the last four races of the 2001 season, smashed the track record at Daytona earlier this month and isn't yet 21 years old.
Without a doubt, Nick Hayden is the new star of the US Superbike racing scene, and with a 600 Supersport championship already on his impressive riding resume, it's a viable question whether 2002 will be Hayden's last season in America. The middle Hayden will enter the final year on his current Honda contract on January 01. If his 2002 season brings him as much success as the final half of his 2001 did, it will be very difficult for Honda-or anyone else for that matter-to keep him out of Europe in 2003.
From Hayden's perspective, making a maximum effort towards the 2002 US Superbike title is what is foremost on his mind right now, but a possible move to a world championship series in 2003 lurks close behind. "It's never too early to start a silly season," he declares, "but, obviously I have a lot of stuff I need to do this year. This year (2002) comes first. I've thought about what I want to do-and it's still early-but it's no secret that I want to go to Europe and I don't want to wait until it's too late. I'm not saying that 2003 is the year I want to go, but I definitely want to go. I'd love to win the championship before I left... I'd love to have a crack at it pretty shortly."
At 20, Hayden is young, almost too young to some, to be thinking about a move to Europe and world championship racing. But Freddie Spencer beat Kenny Roberts for the 500 Grand Prix title in 1983 when he was just 21, and current 500 world champion Val Rossi is 22 (23 in February). Yet, unlike Hayden, at the point when both Spencer and Rossi won the title, they had a great deal of experience with the European lifestyle, European racetracks and all the other factors of European life including eating eggs on your pizza (Spain) and women who don't shave their underarms (Italy).
Hayden has not been to Europe since he did some European 250 racing with Wayne Rainey's team in the mid-1990s.
The new Honda RCV211 is a smaller bike with a lot of horsepower-it is said. Is it the bike made for Nicky Hayden with his smaller frame and resume chock full of four-stroke riding experience?
Hayden hasn't even seen the bike, but is intrigued by it. "I've never seen it in person, but I've heard a lot about it and Freddie (Spencer Jr) was telling me about it some," says Hayden. "The thing looks pretty cool. Hopefully I get a chance to ride it someday."
Youth and hopes aside, is Hayden ready for Europe and a 500 or World Superbike ride? It's all speculation for now and even Hayden himself isn't sure. "That's the big question. It's hard to say because I've never raced with Edwards or Rossi or any of those guys. It's hard to say if I'm ready. I've seen World Superbike guys but GP guys... I haven't been to a GP since Laguna Seca in 1994," he laughs. "If you go and do good, everybody (says) yeah, he was ready, and if you do bad, of course everybody will say he wasn't ready. I'll let you guys decide that."
Whether he is ready or not before seeing what Hayden can do in 2002 is perhaps a bit premature, nevertheless, if he were a native Italian or Spaniard, he'd have already been in Grand Prix for at least two years and any talk of it being premature would be moot. As it stands, conventional wisdom is that he'll be ready if all the factors are lined up: the ride is on a good team, with top equipment and is on a multi-year contract. However, if he goes to Europe on a team that is short on resources, features mechanics that don't speak English, or is simply a B team, his stay in Europe may be short, ala Miguel DuHamel, Mike Hale or Mat Mladin.
There is a ladder to get him there: the aspect not immediately recognized by some is that Hayden has for a management team International Racers. Led by by Gary Howard, International Racers has managed some of the biggest names in the motorcycle racing business, riders who have done well in Europe: including Kenny Roberts Snr. and Junior, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey and Doug Chandler. Additionally, International Racers also works intimately with the current Team Roberts GP squad. If anyone can orchestrate Hayden slipping into a top slot in Europe, it would be Howard and company.
They'll need to see him for themselves if Hayden is to be approached by a World Superbike or Grand Prix team, because the last American they seem to remember is Hale. Racing the World Superbike races at Laguna Seca in July would be a step in the right direction, but according to Hayden, "I want to do it, but... it hasn't even been discussed yet." The 2002 US Superbike season ends in August, with three World Superbike and six Grand Prixs after that, so there is time for him to swing a leg over a GP or WSC bike.
In the modern era, a rider typically has to have the right passport and the right connections to obtain a world championship ride. Americans have not been the first choice for Grand Prix or World Superbike teams since the mid-1990s due to political and monetary reasons.
But even with those known issues, one wonders if the world will be able to ignore Nick Hayden.