A ten year old boy in a top hat. That’s kind of how Nicky Hayden’s career began, how it all started. In a top hat? Like the singing frog–Hello, my baby Hello, my honey Hello, my ragtime gal–in the Merrie Melodies cartoon? Our Nick, in a top hat? Yes, indeed, and not in a career where the lad goes on to star in a Broadway musical or touring magic act. Nick Hayden’s career in racing really began the night he showed up wearing, of all things, a top hat. And a tuxedo.
He’d been racing dirt track in hand me down leathers for more than five years at that point, so he’d paid some dues, but it wasn’t until the end of the 1991 season that others started paying close attention.
Bruce Porter, who then worked as the friendly Arai helmets technician/racing manager, distinctly remembers the night in 1991. “It was at Dana Point in 1991, at the AMA awards banquet. We were sitting there at our table and waiting for the evening to start. I was sitting with Chris Carr.”
“We were seated at a table in the very back, on the south east side of the banquet room. The sun was right on the deck preparing to set and just the last bit of sunlight of the day was blazingly bright. They had just dimmed the lights in the room and the room went quiet. Larry Maiers was emcee and he took the dais. And at that moment, in what must be one of the most perfectly choreographed moves in racing history, both of the large doors in the back of the room opened simultaneously and a huge beam of laser bright sunlight penetrated the room. Though it walked Earl Hayden wearing his trademark blue nylon Second Chance Auto Sales jacket and cap. He was followed closely by sons Tommy, then Nicky, in line, wearing black top hats and tuxedos with tails. The room gasped collectively and then 300 mouths just hung open as they marched to a table at the front of the room, sat down, smiled and removed their hats. Like a gentleman should indoors. It was pure magic.”
“I looked at those two and I thought to myself ‘Okay, I gotta get those two boys under contract,’ Porter remembers.
Fate played its hand: as Porter was riding in the hotel elevator early the next morning, it stopped on the way down and he was delighted to see Earl Hayden get on with the two boys. He introduced himself and invited the trio to breakfast. A handshake deal was made over hotel eggs and toast that morning for Arai to sponsor all of the Hayden brood. Porter had to take Earl on his word that Roger Lee was an up and coming star.
“He’d already missed too much school that year because of racing and could not make the trip out,” Porter remembers.
There are a million indelible images from Nick’s career: Daytona 2002, Laguna Seca 2005, Valencia 2006 and more. But it’s funny that one–our Nick in that top hat get-up at age ten–is the one many don’t know about or remember, but they can’t help but smile when they imagine it today.