The abiding image I have of Nicky Hayden is set in the press room of the Valencia circuit. It’s a big room and it was packed as Nicky came in and sat down after becoming world champion. You remember the pictures; the flag, the tears. He looked up, just about in control of his emotions and was greeted with the longest sustained round of applause I have heard. No whooping or hollering, just a profound expression of admiration from the people who’d watched him struggle against the odds to a championship that will look better and better as history and time put it in perspective. To win on what was a development bike, different from every other Honda, with rookie crew chief Pete Benson against Valentino Rossi was a great, great achievement. I know this because Valentino Rossi said so, I know this because Kenny Roberts said so.
There’s another image, from the Indianapolis Mile when Nicky did a few laps on a Duke-engined dirt-tracker. He was very quick, obviously, but when he stopped and pulled off his helmet there was the face of a man who had just been reunited with his first love. He once told me the only race that keeps him awake at night is the Mile he lost by half a wheel to, I think, Scott Parker. I got the impression in recent years that that one had stopped itching, though.
One more image. Nicky liked lefthanded circuits such as Phillip Island and Valencia, and no-one, but no-one rode Ricardo Tormo’s Turn 13, the penultimate lefthander, drifting over the crest flat in third at more than 125mph, like Nicky. I hope the circuit names it for him.
Just one more. When Honda were trying out lots of different chassis, I understood that Sete Gibernau had received a new frame. I asked him, Sete said he hadn’t. I reported this to Nick. He looked at me quizzically, his mouth twitched and, just surprising that grin, he said “Sete should go to church more.”
Then there was the time I introduced him on stage for Day of Champions at Donington. He got a great reception but it was a strange high-pitched noise I took a long time to identify – hey, it’s been a while. It was teenage girls getting rather excited. Lots of them; very excited. My co-presenter Suzi Perry then whispered in my ear “Not just teenage girls.”
Nicky was unfailingly polite and professional no matter what, he was to us Europeans a fine example of what we took to be the best expression of true American values, and believe me we need reminding of them right now. I only saw him angry twice. One was obviously in the gravel trap at Estoril, the other was outside the press office at Assen. An over-officious security guard had tried to stop his mum going in to the press conference and had pushed her. I strolled up to find a red-faced Nicky wagging a finger in the face of a man about a foot taller and wider than him, yelling “Where I come from, you don’t put your hands on a woman.” Only the early and calming intervention of the circuit’s well-respected press officer stopped things escalating. As for Portugal, Nicky let it be known afterwards that Dani could make things right by helping him at Valencia. Dani did his duty, Nicky said “I am a man of my word” and to my knowledge let the whole thing go. That is a measure of the man, not just a great racer but the only universally respected, and loved, man to have lit up the Grand Prix paddock.