(Originally published Monday, August 08, 2011)
In the eighth grade, Nick Hayden wrote a book report on Gary Nixon. He needed the book report to complete a class so an easy choice was Joe Scalzo’s 1970 book Racer: The Story of Gary Nixon. The book just complemented what Hayden already knew about Nixon, because by the eighth grade he’d already known Gary Nixon for years.
Gary Nixon, Daytona winner and “disputed” world champion, died last week of heart failure at age 70.
Hayden’s father, Earl, was a dirt track racer and met Nixon when he was still actively campaigning dirt tracks. “My dad was pretty good at the indoor races and he somehow met Gary and they became friends,” recalls Hayden. “The dirt track community is pretty small and Nixon was friends with everybody, pretty much. Pretty soon we’d ride to the races together sometimes or share a room at the track.” Most of the Hayden children at one time or another fell asleep in a motel room or in the van while listening to Gary and Earl talking, or Nixon telling stories late into the night.
“He’d been everywhere and done everything,” said Hayden. “He’d raced all over the world and won Daytona and a bunch of other races. So to us he had kind of lived a dream. Racing in Europe, racing in Japan, winning championships.”
Nixon was an early and devout supporter of the Hayden family’s racing efforts. But according to former world champion Hayden his support came in a far more humble way than what he’d experienced with other champions he’d been exposed to. “Gary never told me how to ride. He never came to me and said, ‘You know, this is how you gotta do it. This is how I did it.’ He never said anything like that. I think he knew that if you’re good, you know, you just gotta figure it out on your own.”
“He was big on training though, before a lot of guys did it. He was forever telling dirt trackers that if you could not do one-armed push ups then you had no hope of making the Main.”
“What he did do was to really help me. He’d go to people who had bikes and teams and say, ‘Listen, maybe you should take a look at this kid. Maybe let him ride your bike.’ When I rode the TCR dirt track bike, a lot of that was on Nixon.”
“He only told me how to ride one time,” Hayden said. “With a lot of guys they feel like they have to make something up in order to impress you, when they talk about riding, but he saw me tag someone at a dirt track race once and afterward he came up and said ‘If you gotta move a guy out of the way, make sure you hit ’em in front of the footpeg. You hit them behind the peg and they’ll take you out too.’ I haven’t had to use it too often since, but I do remember what he said.”
It goes without saying that Gary Nixon was a friend and supporter of the entire Hayden family, but he had a special place in his heart for Nicky Hayden. Nixon’s fondness for the middle Hayden brother was unconditional and he had no problem acting on it. You did not want to even infer anything that Gary would take as a slight on Nick Hayden’s name, whether you were a guy standing in the pit at a dirt track, against the fence at Daytona or editing a magazine. If you did so, Nixon would either find you first person or your phone would essentially explode, as he would start calling every five minutes until you called him back and Nixon straightened you out.
Thus the infamous incident at Portugal in 2006 when Nick Hayden was knocked down by his teammate, Dani Pedrosa, while leading the MotoGP championship. That set in motion a motorcycle racing version of a scene from The Godfather. In it, after Don Corleone is shot, his sons almost feel pity for the shooter as Corleone’s devoted executioner, Luca Brasi, is expected to quickly extract revenge. After Portugal, phone calls were made to Nixon’s house to make sure he was still in the US, and calm, reassuring words were transmitted, to hopefully stop A Very Angry Man from getting on a plane and finding Dani Pedrosa.
“Nixon was real, you know?” said Hayden. “He knew what it took and that there were no real shortcuts in this. I just saw him at Laguna and I only had a few minutes but we talked and it was like it always was. He didn’t put on any airs, didn’t give me any mock sympathy or nothing. We talked and when my crew came in to do the debrief he got up and said goodbye. He knows what a rider’s life is like.”
“I’ll miss him,” Hayden said about Nixon. “He was a good friend and a good guy while being, at the same time, almost larger than life. You know, when you heard he was at a race it’d be like, ‘Nixon’s here’ and inside you’d kind of say to yourself ‘Wow! Nixon’s here!’. The race suddenly became a much bigger deal.”