I think it was 2005. I’d spent a bunch of time in Europe in the preceding years and did a great many WSBK races at most of the Italian tracks–Monza, Imola and Misano. I love Italy and Italians and after a while I’d found a routine over there: knew where the good food stand was in the back of the track at Imola; knew which way to turn when exiting the Monza racetrack to end up in downtown Monza or, alternatively, for the logistically-challenged like myself, Austria. (That happened two nights in a row once in the 1990s.) I’d figured out which garage I could follow my friend Jon Cornwell into and get a coffee for when the jet lag hit and I needed caffeine. Some of the Italy-based teams didn’t want me to step foot into their garage, ever, and it wasn’t because I was media or an American or anything as substantial as that–it was because they had all seen me walk underneath a ladder in the pit lane at the previous round and it is a fact that most Italians take their superstitions as strongly and as seriously as their coffee.
Somehow back then I was accepted into the small Clinca Mobile circle and got to know the legendary Dr. Claudio Costa. He had saved Kevin Schwantz’s bacon a few times, and, really, the stories of him basically breaking both Schwantz and Michael Doohan out of the Assen hospital, saving Doohan’s leg and Schwantz’s career was enough for me–he was a hero. Costa refused to speak much English, but I was friendly with his daughter and his then son-in-law and over lunch once they said that the good Doctor was writing a book–in English–about his time in racing and that they’d like to have someone sell it in the USA. Was I interested in helping the Doc and the Clinca out? Of course I was. They gave me a copy of the book (which I did not read until I got on a plane to come home–big mistake) and said that they’d send a box of books to Laguna Seca USGP and I could get them home from there. Okay fine.
On the flight back to the USA, I pulled Costa’s book, Tears and Triumph: My Life in the Clinica Mobile, out of my bag and set about reading it. After a few pages it was very clear that Dr. Costa’s relationship with the English language was like that of someone who had been raised by mythological wolves, like Romulus and Remus, and then only had the complete works of Shakespeare at hand when it came time to learn English. Trying to describe Costa’s writing in a positive way might bring one to say it was romantic, or flowery. And in a not so positive way it was headache-inducing at its worst and maybe just comically over-written at best. His love of philosophy and mythology certainly infused his imagination and there is some truth in what he wrote–that racers are kind of like Greek Gods, wings on their feet, defeating black death and Satan, that races are part magic and part Roman chariot races, and that his Clinica was “an altar for riders.” It’s just that the good Doc never let go of these metaphors. From first page to last, I struggled mightily to keep a straight American face. I sighed as I firmly shut the book, thankful that it was only a box of books, a couple dozen at most, that I’d have to sell or lug up to my storage garage and never think about again. I was also thankful that Costa didn’t write the owner’s manual to a nuclear reactor because if he did I feared the world would be littered with Chernobyl-level disasters. WHERE IS THE OFF SWITCH?? I DON’T KNOW–IT SAYS TO PUSH THE LESS SERENE BUTTON!
MotoGP’s return to Laguna Seca was in July. I flew in early so as to not miss the set up day, walked around saying hello, looking for a story, following Corndog into garages, shooting some photos and basically hanging out. In Europe, Costa’s son-in-law said that Doc would be at Laguna and I was to look him up and get the books. However, Costa decided at the last minute not to fly to California (because his boarding pass had a 13 on it), but he had staff at Laguna and when they saw me they mentioned my books were waiting for me at the Clinica. After a day or two these requests became more of a demand, so at some point I set my camera and notepad down and walked over there to get my box of Costa books. The plan was I’d hump them up the hill to the rental car and send them home as checked baggage.
Imagine my dismay when I showed up and the friendly Italian Clinca worker brought me over to where the shipping crates were stored, pried the top from one and pointed down, inside the crate. I peered over the edge and saw perhaps 25 CASES of books. All with “Dan” written on them. Did I mention that most Italians, for whatever reason, mispronounced my first name as “Dan” all the time? Anyway, I looked at the Clinica man with my jaw hanging open–this can’t be happening. “Here they are, all your books. Please take them now.”
Uh, okay. I’ll be back.
I went to find Laguna Seca’s CEO Gill Campbell. She was in her small office at the track, which was a sturdy canvas tent. I distinctly remember that when I walked into her office she had a cell phone plastered to each ear and was talking to two people simultaneously on some operational problem. She looked at me as if to say “What?!”. More donuts? Wi-Fi out? What?!
To her credit, she didn’t immediately throw me out of the office when I laid on her probably the last phrase she expected from a press goon:
“Gill, I need a forklift. Right now.”
She walked out of her office, grabbed a Laguna Seca office guy and pushed me at him.
“What can I help you with?” he asked. I repeated I needed a forklift, right now.
He was quite helpful. Can you operate a forklift, he asked?
I grew up on a farm I told him. I can operate a tractor. I also mentioned that I owned a chainsaw, avoiding the fact that I really had never driven a forklift in my life. He took me outside and handed me the keys to a forklift parked nearby, and said just to park it there when finished and return the keys to him.
I looked the beast of a forklift over. It seemed to be one third hydraulics and two thirds a highly destructive Transformer, capable of flattening feet and piercing cars. But soon enough I figured it out, loaded all the books into the cars of all my friends, and returned the forklift to Gill, who was still talking into two cell phones simultaneously. The sole tidbit I learned that afternoon was that if you’re at the races and are driving a forklift, no one stops you, no one checks your pass, you can go anywhere. Even Michael Jordan was getting his pass sniffed by gate guards as I railed through the checkpoint at top forklift speed, in full Richard Scarry’s Mr. Frumble mode, not even letting off, forks at half-mast. Look out, Jump Man!
As I was filling out the shipping paperwork on 625 copies of perhaps the most over-written book on racing my heart was black. No one was going to buy this book. Making things even more stressful, Costa and company had wanted to be paid for the books at Laguna Seca. I wrote them a check that in no way was going to be good, but asked them not to deposit it until they returned to Italy. Okay, fine. They seemed very happy to be rid of these books. A smarter man would have noticed this and known.
The shipping company would ship them via pallet to anywhere in the USA I desired. Ground or express, the price was almost the same. I filled out the paperwork and as I started to fill the SHIP TO address an epiphany hit me: if Nicky Hayden signed these books, maybe people would buy them, even though the book really didn’t have anything to do with Nicky Hayden at all. So I filled out the address for Nicky Hayden, Earls Lane, Owensboro, Kentucky.
Of course Nick won his first Grand Prix that weekend, from pole, and the joy he experienced will stay with us all forever in our memories. He took Earl on a victory lap, just like they do in dirt track and generally whooped it up big time. Now, sure, it would have been massively inappropriate to pull Nick aside and tell him my tale of woe—of being massively upside down on some books Costa sent me and desperately needing him to sign them so I could hopefully sell them and not have to file bankruptcy, or face the wrath of my wife–while he was celebrating his first massive win in GP, a childhood dream of his. At the same time, that wouldn’t necessarily have stopped me. It’s just that after I shipped the books, the whole subject slipped my mind. Even though I was alone with Nick a few times that Sunday and Sunday night I just plumb forgot to mention it.
All I really do remember is that after that giant win Nick decided to stay in Monterey that night and not hustle up to SFO for the red-eye back to Kentucky on Sunday night. I remember Earl asking him where he intended to stay because he’d checked out of his hotel room that morning. He just won the USGP, was an American racing hero, and could sleep probably anywhere he wanted that night. He said he planned to sleep on the floor in his brother Roger Lee’s room. “Don’t worry about it, Pops,” he said. He did. He slept on the floor in Rog’s room the night he won the USGP. True story.
I flew home on Monday. Around Wednesday morning I checked the tracking on the shipment of books to see when they would be showing up in Owensboro. With eyes as big as saucers I read the words OUT FOR DELIVERY and realized that 25 heavy-ass cases of books were arriving any moment to Nick in OWB and he had no idea they were coming, or why. My name was on the origin of shipping.
I tried to call Nick but could not reach him. I sent him a dozen PLEASE CALL ME emails and the same message on AOL Instant Messenger but he was not on-line apparently. Frantically, I called the local office of UPS in Owensboro and spoke with the manager. “I need to talk to Nick before these are delivered,” I told him. “Please, for the love all that is Holy do not deliver these boxes until I talk to Nick, please can you call your driver and ask him to delay shipping?”
Anywhere else I’m sure the local UPS manager would have hung up on this clearly insane person, but he was sympathetic and said that he’d call his driver and ask him to call me. A few minutes later the phone rang. It was the UPS driver.
A long torrent of words flowed out of my mouth, calling it a stream of consciousness would be putting it politely. “LISTEN, YOU CAN’T DELIVER THOSE BOXES JUST YET I GOTTA TALK TO NICK AND I CAN’T FIND HIM AND HE DOESN’T KNOW THEY ARE COMING AND IS IT RAINING THERE? BECAUSE IF NOT MAYBE YOU COULD JUST LEAVE THEM OUTSIDE YOUR HOUSE WHILE I FIND NICK? UM, YOU KNOW NICK, RIGHT?”
The UPS delivery guy was pure Southern gentleman. “I already delivered them. About an hour ago. Nicky was there, they are in Earl’s garage.”
Sheeeeeet. Okay. Plan B. I apologized to him for sounding like a complete lunatic. And knowing that even that Laguna forklift struggled with the weight of those over-written hard cover books, I apologized for that hassle too: “Man, I’m sorry you had to unload them. I know they are heavy,” I said.
“Oh, don’t apologize,” the UPS driver said. “I didn’t unload them. Nicky did it for me. I stood and talked to Earl and we watched him unload them and stack them in the garage. The boys always help me unload if they are around,” he said.
So this was three days after Nick had won the biggest race thus far in his young life. And he was–and always was–such a good person he just humbly unloaded 25 heavy-ass boxes with “Dan” written on them even though he had no idea why they were at his house or what was in them.
I talked to Nicky later that day, explained things, and asked him to sign them, so as I could sell them, averting financial disaster. “Sure, no problem,” he said. “Hey after I sign them, my dad is driving up to Mid-Ohio. So I can just load them in his truck if you want and you can get them there, okay?”
So that’s what Nicky Hayden did, unloaded and then signed all 625 books, then put them all back in the “Dan” boxes and loaded them in his Dad’s truck for me. A few days after winning the biggest race of his life.
Man I miss that kid.