(March 2005, story and interview by Evan Williams)
It’s hard to believe, but Kawasaki’s Tommy Hayden is a veteran racer. It doesn’t seem like he’s been around for a decade.
“It doesn’t for me, either. Time is flying by. I’ve been a pro for ten years,” he says.
A lot has changed over that time. The racing Haydens have a huge fan following and all three are well regarded in the industry as tough-as-Kentucky-nails racers and nice guys. Nicky and Roger have since joined Tom as AMA race winners. Tom and Nick have won AMA championships, and Roger seems destined to join them. The sons of Earl and Rose Hayden are on top of the world these days.
But Tommy, now the reigning AMA Supersport champion at 27 years old, was just some dirt-track punk Rob Muzzy signed up as the second rider to Doug Changdler to most race fans when he joined the series full-time in 1997.
While Nick and Rog have earned their fame on the racing scene, Tommy was in many ways the trailblazer for the trio.
SuperBikePlanet.com interviewed Tommy over the off-season at his home in Owensboro, Kentucky and he talked about his career so far.
SBP — You’ve been a pro on the AMA scene for quite a while, and now you’ve won a championship.
TH — I did one Supersport race in ’94, a few 250 races in ’95. I guess it was ten years since my first pro race but it doesn’t seem like that long. It’s taken a bit longer than I’d like. I’ve lost by single digit points more than once and in more than one class.
SBP — There are tales of you guys beating veteran club racers, then would be seen by them playing around the paddock after the races. True stories?
TH –I’d say definitely. When we first started roadracing, we’d be camping at the track, fishing in the pond or racing or bicycles. We were working towards our goals, but it was less serious than now.
SBP — You were more of a dirt-track guy in the early going, correct?
TH — I did dirt-track more than roadracing until I did the Muzzy deal. Roadracing was still more of a side deal. The year before Muzzy, I only did one race, at Mid-Ohio.
SBP — Tell us about the Road Atlanta 125 race that put you on the map in the industry.
TH — That was my first year, in ’91. I was a novice and started in the back behind the experts. I went through the pack and won overall. It was Daytona for club racers, the WERA GNF. It was the big race. To win overall started getting a little recognition and helped us. Nick started next year and it really got the buzz going.
SBP — What teams did you ride for in the early days?
TH — I had my own deal really. I never really rode for anyone. Just get some (sponsorship) money from different people, pretty much. In ’93, they had a National series with 125s and I did that. I won some races, Nick won some races. That’s when we really saw some competition as some AMA 250 guys came down to race it.
SBP — That was about the same time you went to Europe, right?
TH — The next year, we rode some races in Spain for Wayne Rainey. Over there, it was a deep field where guys took it really seriously. It was an eye opener.
We met (Rainey) during the off-season before. It was one of the first times we met someone famous … now I meet some (famous) people I’m friends with, but that was the guy we had watched on TV. It was cool, as you might imagine.
SBP — Tell us about the three race swing you did in 1995 on the 250.
TH — It was the next logical step. I was 27th in the first race. The next week I was 17th at Road America. The next week at Loudon I was seventh, so I learned a lot and made a big jump.
It was a whole different league than what I was doing, and much more expensive. The next year I could have one the same thing, with a little more help, but the next year I got an offer for a dirt track ride, really the first fully sponsored ride I ever had. I decided to do that. I had some top tens and made some mains, got some points. I was seventeen.
SBP — Didn’t you go to college for a time? That’s pretty rare for pro racers.
TH — I went for a year, to community college. I enjoy learning about stuff I’m interested in, but I was a little miserable sitting in a lecture in something I wasn’t interested in. College was tough because they don’t care what you do for a living or what your hobbies are. You either show up or you don’t. That’s the way it is and it was tough to be gone (racing), then come back. At the time, I wasn’t making any money and buying my own parts. Then came the year with Rob and I decided to solely focus on racing.
SBP –How did the Muzzy deal come about?
TH — Rob called out of the blue one day. That was my dream. He didn’t want me dirt tracking anymore and we started testing. The 600 was going good straight away and I ran pretty well in third in the third or fourth race of the year. It was kinda disappointing not to back it up a little better.
On the Superbike, I struggled. (Muzzy) asked me if I thought I could do it that day (he called to offer the ride). I said sure. Looking back, I should have just ridden 600 that year or maybe 750 Supersport but that’s the way the cards fell.
SBP — Looking back, what are your thoughts on the Muzzy period? You were Superbike rookie of the year in ’97 and had a couple of Supersport podiums in ’98.
TH — My consistency was terrible. I had a good race at Mid-Ohio, led before my pipe came loose. Then I finished seventh the next week.
SBP — These days, no young rider would get a Superbike factory ride as his first real pro gig. Would you do things differently if you could?
SBP — I was happy with the opportunity. If I was doing it over, there would be things I’d change or request. But at the time, I was just some kid (Rob Muzzy) was giving a ride to. He wasn’t really wanting me to make a lot of requests or demands.
SBP — Was it a good situation for a young rider to get thrown into the fire like that?
TH — There might have been some better situations but there were a whole lot worse, for sure. There are two ways to look at it. Through that, now today, I honestly feel I’m a stronger rider. Not faster, not better, just stronger for having to learn a lot of stuff myself. A lot kids coming up today don’t necessarily have to do it that way. I was trying to learn.
SBP — You moved on to Yamaha next, won some Supersport races and were on the podium six times.
TH — ’99 was a good year. The R6 was a good bike and Nick and I battled for the championship all year and I won three races. My first year there was big step, my first win in the rain at Laguna Seca.
SBP — Then you ended up back on the Superbike again for the next two years and struggled some. What happened?
TH — The next year I rode the Superbike and the 600. I honestly don’t know. I have to take the blame. The equipment was good, my teammates were putting up good results. My confidence wasn’t there. I never could figure it out. I was trying as hard then as I was this year — or harder — it just didn’t work out. I might have a race like that now, but not whole seasons. Usually my wins are my easiest races. When you win by a margin, that’s the easiest ones for me.
SBP — Then you moved on to Kawasaki for the 2002 season.
TH — Kawasaki wanted me to ride the 600 the next year. Eric (Bostrom) was just coming off a championship and it was good for me to concentrate on one bike. It was the way to go. I started working with Joey (Lombardo, ex-DuHamel wrench) and we had a pretty good year. To come off two years not winning a race, I was in contention for the titles and got five wins in both classes.
SBP — With all the momentum, it looked like 2003 was going to be the year you won a championship or two. But some thinks out of your control put you in a rough spot.
TH — I felt like we were going in the right direction. Everything was going good, we had a new bike coming. On the 636, the year was great. We won Daytona against the 750s and turned some heads. We won four races, but we had some tech violations that cost me some points and the championship. We were docked more points than we lost the championship by.
On the Supersport bike, we had a nightmare year. 17th at Daytona, and we were just … down on some power. We were all excited about the bike before the year and hearing good reports from Japan. Then I rode it. I could tell we were off the pace and I told the guys I thought we needed some help. Then we got to Daytona and the engineers said, “You’re right”.
It was frustrated because I felt really prepared. I had the right attitude and some confidence, and I just rode the thing as hard as I could. I won both rain races. Mother Nature gave us a little break.
SBP — Despite the problems, you and the team regrouped to get the momentum going again.
TH — We finished the year up well. The bike handled great all year and I can’t stress that enough. This year, I was within a couple of millimeters on the settings of what I used all year this year. I kept saying all we need is some more power and over the winter it came. Kawasaki redesigned some stuff and the guys over here really came up with some things to. We stayed on them hard, maybe hurt their feelings a few times, but they came through. By Daytona, I knew we would be all right. I won four of the first seven.
SBP –You carried that great start all the way to the title.
TH — It always helps if you start out strong. Any time you can get a lead, it really helps.
SBP — Has winning the Supersport championship changed anything for you?
TH — I don’t think it changed me any. Maybe I can sleep a little better and it lowered my heart rate. So far, it hasn’t changed me a whole lot but let’s see how it changes my riding. I’m a better rider when I’m more relaxed. I put so much pressure on myself. I felt like it took away from my results because I reflected on it so much. Now maybe I can race each race harder.