Today marks three years that we have been without Nicky Hayden.
I think the most prophetic words on Nicky’s death were spoken by King Kenny Roberts, who said in July of 2017 that the loss of such a great American world champion was really just a mass wounding.
To his fans, his friends and to every fan of motorcycle racing, his death was a deep wound, to the core of who we are as Nicky’s fans, friends and enthusiasts of motorcycle racing. Deep wounds eventually scar over but they are always there. A scarred over wound is a visible reminder of a time before your heart knew such awfulness existed and perhaps when “tragedy” was just a word among other over-worked words.
For me, personally, as time passes since Nick left us, what I find interesting is that Nicky’s racing accomplishments aren’t anything that I think about with any frequency. Nick raced bikes. Nick was a world champion. Nick was among the elite riders in the world and is one of the best racers that America ever produced. But when I think of him today I rarely think of that aspect of his short life.
When I think of Nick now I think of what an incredible human being he was. His kindness and integrity are what I think of first, that he was just a completely genuine human being. Yes, Nick was a world champion and being a world champion was something he yearned for with every cell of his body but that he was a fantastic human being, a good man and a good friend, son, brother, fiancee and was that way to his very soul seems, to me, now, to be much more notable than his success on motorcycles.
Last Christmas my wife’s employer held a holiday party at a local restaurant. I accompanied her even though she knows that these functions are not my thing. We arrived and I took my customary spot against a wall and with a glass of punch. I dug in and waited it out.
Then food arrived and everyone sat down, my wife, Leah, and I joined at our table by one of her workmates and her husband. They were clearly from the real world and we discussed real world stuff like grocery stores, children, taxes and things of that nature. This couple were as far away from knowing anything about motorcycles or racing as I am from fiduciary duty, DNA molecules or actuary tables. They had never ridden or owned a motorcycle. No one in their joint families had ever ridden or owned or much less raced a motorcycle. However, the husband explained that he was some kind of risk assessment expert and he did a great deal of work in small machine shops. Okay, here was common ground as I have been in machine shops and caused–easily–more than one “We are going to lose our insurance over this” incidents. Ever see someone with long hair working on a lathe? I asked him. Ever see the end knocked off a tank of oxygen and see it then become a torpedo blasting right through block walls? Ever seen concrete burn? He had some small grand tales of gas leaks knocking a building off its foundation, three-phase power gone amuck, etc and thus we started to chat with familiarity. My wife and his wife bailed to let us converse in depth.
I was happily eating food I could not identify and chatting away, smiling, and had just about forgotten that this party was not anywhere I would willingly choose to be when in the middle of that conversation he suddenly, from nowhere, opened his mouth and asked “So did you know Nicky Hayden?”
Time stopped. The world went blurry for a second and my mouth went as dry as Barstow. I tried to ask “Why do you want to know?” but my throat and mouth were suddenly so devoid of moisture nothing came out. It was like someone had come up from behind and pulled the chair right out from underneath me. I took a long drink from my glass of water, set it back down and asked, clearly this time, “Why do you want to know?”
He said that my wife had mentioned to his wife at some point in their work-a-day world that her husband (me) worked in motorcycle racing. He further explained that years ago he had read a story in Sports Illustrated on our Nick and he was just curious if I knew him. He knew enough to ask in the past tense.
I was lucky enough to know him, I said. I was lucky enough to consider him a friend.
I didn’t want him to ask any more questions about Nick. I looked at my plate or off in the distance so if he asked more questions I could pretend not to hear him. If he asked one more Nick question I was pulling the eject lever and walking home and I didn’t care how long I’d be sleeping on the couch over it.
He didn’t. He just said a few sentences in explanation of his question.
“Well, after reading that story in Sports Illustrated I really liked him,” he said. “After I read that, if I saw a motorcycle race on television I’d watch to see if Nicky was in it. If he was I would watch and root for him. If he wasn’t in the race I’d change the channel. I didn’t want to watch any of those other racers. Nicky seemed like such a great guy.”
He was, I told him. He really was.