(2006) Foggily stumbling down into the hotel lobby at 6:30 am Valencia time, I gave thanks to Benjamin Franklin, who came up with the idea of Daylight Savings time way back in 1784. It was in truth 7:30 am, but the clocks had moved forward just a few hours earlier, affording me a blissful and much needed extra hour of sleep. I wondered if old Ben had come up with the idea after a similar night out, on Caballero Street, in a hunt to determine which bar on the block mixed the best Mojito. An ill-advised jaunt it was, given that there were over fifty establishments on Caballero, many with placards outside boasting that they in fact served the best, and we did want our results to be based on comprehensive, scientific criteria. These kind of contests seem to be a good idea at 4am in Valencia, an old town with a youthful heart, where an early evening out starts at midnight. I got onto the bus, slunked into my seat, and pulled my baseball cap tightly down over bright red eyes.
I’d been to Valencia many times before, usually in a semi-professional journo capacity, covering the World Superbike races, but this was to be the first MotoGP race I’d be attending at the “Circuit de la Communitat Valenciana Ricardo Tormo”. My buddy Tim Orr of Big Rock Bike Holidays had an extra ticket and a spare bed up for grabs, so I traded in some miles and got my ass to Spain. The last race of 2006? The last 990cc MotoGP race? Bayliss on the second Ducati? Nicky versus Rossi for the spoils? I just couldn’t pass it up.
But this trip, there would be no Pit Lane pass, no journo credentials, no tiny cups of espresso served by friendly team PR officers. This time, I’d be in the cheap seats, under the sweltering Catalunyan sun, with 145,000 fans.
Little did I know what I was getting myself into, this time…
The event was sold out, the circuit organizers warning people without tickets to stay away, in order to keep traffic manageable. The 145,000 number wasn’t creative math, like the combined attendance figures over a 3 day period as typically reported in WSBK or AMA, that number would be individual souls in the seats Having evacuated Laguna Seca last year on a chopper in a scene reminiscent of the Saigon US embassy evacuation (really the ONLY way to meet Adrian Brody), I kinda figured that getting in and out of the track would take hours. So I brought a good book and my iPod to pass the time—but surprisingly, it only took about 45 minutes to get in, and an hour to get out of the circuit on race day. The Spanish races have been drawing mass crowds for many years, and the organizers, police, and fans obviously have figured out how to handle ingress/egress pretty damned well. Although getting in and out of Laguna in 2006 was much improved vs. 2005, SCRAMP might want to send a staffer or two to Valencia to do an internship in traffic control.
That’s not to say it wasn’t insanely crowded getting in—have you ever been in the middle of 145,000 people trying to get anywhere? The bus creeped forward on the entrance road, daylight just breaking, literally tens of thousands of bikes and scooters streaming past. It was strangely quiet, no honking of horns, no throttles blipping, the crowd moving as efficiently as possible, an organism with a single purpose, to get IN THERE. Sitting in the traffic, I looked out over a field of thousands of cars, vans, tents, sleeping bags, bbqs, a makeshift parking lot campsite, like a cut scene from the McQueen flick Le Mans. People crawled out of their temporary hovels, splashed water on their faces, donned their chosen fan gear (typically Rossi or Pedrosa kit, more on that later) and joined the Zombie Nation trudging towards the gate. We parked next to two Rossi Fan Club buses, which ferried the Doctor’s most faithful fans all the way from Tavulia, Italia to see Valentino clinch the title.
At the circuit gate, two mounted Guardia Civil stood watch on majestic chestnut colored horses, towering 10 imposing feet tall, riders in saddle.
Up into the grandstands, and even at dawn, you knew it was going to be a scorching day, eventually pushing 90 degrees. Didn’t think I’d be needing sunblock in late October, even on the Mediterranean coast, but nonetheless, I’d be coming home from this trip with a redneck tan. Mind you, it wasn’t anything like Laguna this past July; nothing short of climbing into a pizza oven would be like Laguna ’06. And while sweating it out was an essential part of the cure for too much white rum, mint leaf and cane sugar, I was soon in definite need of a high carb bomb to settle my trampoline-ing stomach. Time to head to the Bocadillo stand. A Bocadillo is essentially a Spanish sandwich, a piece of french bread/hero roll, with simple ingredients grilled up and thrown inside. To actually order one, you have to muscle your way past crowds of hungry Spaniards lined up to do the same, none of whom understand the concept of a queue, or who got there first. It took about 20 minutes of “Dude, WTF?” before I realized that at the Bocadillo stand, it’s survival of the fittest.
I’m sure that you can get great Bocadillos all over Spain, just not at this racetrack. I first tried a “Bacon” Boca, which is reportedly grilled crispy bacon. After a few bites, I realized that my jaw was not strong enough to actually bite thru the fat and gristle, which got me thinking of the Andes mountain airplane crash survival diets of Uruguayan football players. I tastefully spit the remains of the Bacon Boca into the trash, and decided to try another variety. “Lobo” is basically a porkchop, a giant stack of which were piled uncooked on the side of the grill. I ordered one, watched the chef pick it from the pile with his bare fingers, and throw it on the grill (amazing the things you can ignore when you have a hangover and you’re hungry…) The Lobo was still pretty tough, although it had a decent flavor vs. the “Bacon”. With addition of some cheese, the skin-grafty meat at least seemed like it was healing productively. Suffice it to say that Laguna’s track food is a about a zillion times better than Ricardo Tormo’s, in both variety and quality.
My seat in the stands was amongst a small crew of fanatic Brit racing fans, and it was clear that people from all over the world had come to see this race. We were above pit lane, and far across the track, I could see a large grandstand filled with hundreds of yellow jerseys, many holding number 46 signs. In fact, probably 60% of the crowd was wearing Rossi gear of some sort. One has to wonder if the power of prayer is the secret weapon in Valentino’s arsenal, when considering the preponderance of fans at every race rooting for the guy, flying his colors, his image ubiquitous in magazines, gas stations, and billboards—even his fellow racers revering his talents at every opportunity. Rossi is “the show” that most come to see, and all the energy, chatter, and desire of the crowd spoke of only one result—Valentino Rossi, MotoGP World Champion, 2006. They had seen him perform so much magic so many times before, that the miracles were expected, had become commonplace. A Vale victory was a forgone conclusion.
Nicky Hayden, by contrast, did not bring legions of supporters to Valencia, because simply, outside of the US, 69 fans are more of a rarity. He did bring the people that mattered most: his family. On raceday morning, I stopped in to the large, modular official MotoGP souvenir shop, itself the size of a small department store, to buy some colors to fly, a Nicky shirt. Nearly half the store was Rossi gear, literally hundreds of different items to buy, shirts, jerseys, jackets, hats, pens, backpacks, keychains etc. Next to Rossi’s stuff, there was a massive selection of Pedrosa gear, he is clearly Spain’s favorite son. It took me a few minutes, but I eventually found the Nicky stuff on a small rack. There were two different shirts and a cap, less than 10 pieces of these three items combined, which I found totally amazing and disappointing given Hayden’s role in the 2006 Championship. I bought the only XL Hayden Repsol shirt there, feeling strangely like Charlie Brown shopping for his Christmas tree. Then I noticed the Sete Gibernau sad rack right next to Nicky’s stuff—one shirt, and it was sale priced, half off…
With hindsight, the Sunday morning warm-up was quite telling, with Hayden way in front of the Doctor, who languished in the bottom half of the top 10 times for most of the session. Personally, I found this quite encouraging and thrilling, given Nicky’s fifth place on the grid versus Rossi’s pole, but when I expressed this to the people I was sitting with, they all kind of laughed it off. “Rossi obviously is playing games with everyone, he’s out there on an old tire so he knows how the bike will be at the end of the race” they said, patted me on the shoulder and reminded me not to get my hopes too high for a Hayden victory. As expected, the consensus was that Rossi was unsinkable, that Hayden had no chance.
The competition soon started, the sun baking down on the grandstands, the 125 and 250 races thrilling as always. Jorge Lorenzo won the 250 World Championship, and the crowd went absolutely wild for a Spanish rider winning the title on home turf. As we got closer to the MotoGP race, the tension and anticipation was palpable. The crowd got noisier, jumpier, legs pumping up and down, people making last minute trips for water, Bocas, and of course air-horns, thousands honking and roaring. Earlier, I had asked a scrubby vendor selling horns in the paddock to pose for a photo; right when I clicked the shutter, he blew six of them simultaneously, four feet away from me. After waiting a few moments for my testicles to drop back out of my body cavity, I thanked him for the picture.
Now, people all around me were leaning on the horns as the MotoGP bikes finished their sighting lap, screaming, rocking back and forth, stomping on the concrete, the freezing propellant sputtering as the horns coughed to silence, spent. Although I had no horn, I was howling and swaying too, guttural cheers for Hayden, fine with being the lone beast in a 69 shirt. We were all speaking in tongues; hell, if someone had given me a snake, I would have handled it! The lights went green, and the horns were quickly drowned out by 20 or so megaphones blaring, throttles to the stop, blasting their 990cc symphony for the last time.
The pulse as the bikes flew past our seats was overwhelming and frightening, an almost paranormal physical presence that passed through the crowd, putting everything else on pause momentarily. The crowd leaned over as one to watch the bikes carve through the sweeping lefthander at the end of the front straight, silently praying that their would be no first corner pileups, no red flags, nothing to dilute what we expected to be a pure, historic day of motorcycle racing.
When the bikes came over the line to start their second lap, everyone was surprised to see Rossi five or six bikes behind Hayden, but not too phased about it. After all, how many times has Rossi come from behind and won, even after penalties placed him at the back of the grid, and he passed the whole damned field? “Cmon, Nicky!” I shouted, even as my companions laughed at my foolish optimism. The bikes crossed the line a second time, Rossi having made no real ground. A third time, Rossi still well back. A fourth time around, and Vermuelen was all over Rossi’s back wheel. Surely, Rossi was giving the crowd a show, raising the stakes, 46 always the master performer, and this would be his greatest miracle of all, right?
For race week, the cover of Solo Moto, one of Spain’s most influential bike mags, had a great image of Nicky and Rossi on the cover, with the title “La Hora De La Verdad” across the middle. No matter what people’s opinion on the Estoril/Dani incident, Rossi’s DNFs, the Honda clutch, team orders, criticisms about Nicky not winning enough races, the vanished 51 point lead—The Hour of Truth was at hand. Hayden’s “All In” motif on the back of his Valencia leathers was spot on. The final round of the 2006 MotoGP World Championship was not going to be about strategy, it was to be a sprint race, for pinks, last man standing, Who Dares Wins.
But on lap five, the cards were turned over, the hands were shown, and as the Brits like to say, it became Who Dares BINS. I was watching Nicky’s battle at the front, and suddenly heard a hurricane gasp, like all the air being squeezed from the stomach of the world’s biggest cow, and looked over to see a yellow M1 spinning into the gravel at the Doohan curve, a stick figure comically windmilling towards the bike, on his feet running around the bike as it came to rest. Holy crap—it was Rossi. 145,000 pairs of hands slapped instantly to their owners’ foreheads, people around me turned white, in Holy terror, shaking their heads, tearing at their own clothes. Next to me, a gargoyle, resplendent in Rossi swag head to toe, cried out in such crimson anguish that I shielded myself for a moment, thinking his head might actually explode. The crowd seemed to be nanoseconds from a full scale riot.
But number 46 had another miracle left in his deck of cards. As the pack snaked around the track, leaving Rossi a full 20 seconds behind, he picked his bike up, and with the help of track marshals, got it back out onto the tarmac. The fairing coughed gravel as Rossi visually checked his levers, foot controls, made sure no liquids were gushing onto the track, and finally, accelerated to catch the pack. The race was back, the crowd hushed and started to do quick math. Hayden was 2nd; how many places did Vale need to gain in order to win the Championship? The tension and energy were at an even higher level than before the crash; but now, directed inwards, no cheering, 145,000 silent vigils commencing. The laps counted down, riders fell, Stoner and Vermuelen among them. Ellison, DePuniet out. Colin Edwards did everything he could to slow the riders behind him and enable Rossi to catch them. Hayden slotted into third, behind Capirossi and the prodigal Troy Bayliss, but close enough to pass Loris if the points were needed. Hayden’s strategy at this point was clearly “to finish first, you must first finish”, but he was up front, with the Ducatis, miles ahead of the rest. Rossi had to just about lap the field to catch # 69.
Initially, it looked as though Rossi could do it, could catch the pack. But as the laps counted down, it was obvious that he would not be able to erase his mistake, there would be no casual miracles today, 20 seconds was a mountain too tall for even Vale to climb, and when the Hour Of Truth was over, Rossi was beaten, and Nicky Hayden was 2006 MotoGP World Champion.
When Nicky crossed the line, head on the tank of his RC211V, I leapt into the air and cheered by myself, fist pumping. I felt 1,000 eyes upon me, the entire stadium paralyzed in disbelief. It was as if someone had stopped time, no one was moving, it felt like only Hayden, on his victory lap, and myself, up there in the cheap seats, were unaffected by the spell.
As Nicky circulated, you could see the relief and emotion sweep through him physically, and as he was stopped by the Valencia fireworks clown to light the victor’s explosives, Hayden no longer seemed physically capable of holding up his bike. He seemed to fall off it, onto his knees, and release so many genuine human emotions, that it was impossible for me not to be affected by it. Tears welled in my eyes also. I turned and looked at the people around me, and saw that they were finally emerging from their shock. Smiles of acceptance came across their faces, and now many strangers, noticing me and my 69 shirt, started to shake my hand, pat my shoulder, congratulate me. So many now turned and sincerely applauded, watching Hayden get back on his bike, American flag in hand, and finish his victory lap. Something in their demeanor had changed; that undercurrent of grudgement over Nicky Hayden’s worthiness, doubt over his right to be MotoGP champion—it felt gone, exorcised, as if the midget lady from Poltergeist had come to Ricardo Tormo and “cleared” it.
Why was this feeling there in the first place? Although it never gets mentioned in the motorcycle press, it is a plain fact, in many countries, that the USA’s military activity abroad has made most things American unpopular, open to criticism, unhip. The President’s drawl is lampooned everywhere, and many overseas view Americans as arrogant cowboys set on world domination. One Brit jokingly asked me if Hayden won the World Championship, did I think President Bush would fly into Valencia and hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner over the paddock. Whether or not you agree with any element of the outside world’s criticism towards the US, it is plain that in Nicky’s case, there is a bit of guilt by association at play. Nicky’s got the drawl (Kentuckian not Texan, but not a lot of Euros know the difference), and he arrived on the world scene right as conflicts escalated. To his credit, Hayden has been totally apolitical in the press, while supporting our troops abroad with tributes on his riding gear, and in brief comments. But Hayden is an American rider after all, and these days, very little of the world is rooting for Americans.
All season long, Nicky displayed only the best traditional American attributes—tenacity, hard work, manners, commitment, passion, dedication. Truly, he’s demonstrated these qualities throughout his career, which has got to be a large part of the reason why he’s an American with a factory HRC ride. When Dani Pedrosa nerfed Hayden off his bike in Portugal, after a brief moment of vitriol, Nicky took his medicine like a man. His post Estoril poise with the European press displayed great character, and the journos knew it, applauding him as the interview wrapped up. It should be noted that Nicky did this difficult interview without an HRC PR mouthpiece sitting at his side telling him what to say. But it can be said, it’s fairly easy to be humble in defeat, when you’ve just gotten kicked in the ass. The loser knows humility.
What Nicky Hayden showed the world that Sunday in Valencia was a quality that they haven’t associated with America in a while. That quality, is humility in victory. Hayden thanked Pedrosa (who had waved him by to second place) on the cool-down lap, buffing his head. He and Rossi showed each other huge respect post race as well, Rossi even saying he was glad Nicky won. When Nicky fell to his knees, the fans in the stands saw truly how bad he had wanted this championship, and how thankful he was that he was able to achieve his dream. There was no arrogance or entitlement in Hayden’s demeanor after the win. He was still American, yes, but importantly, his grace since Estoril, and his Valencian victory showed European fans that the Kentucky Kid is a good person, a racer, and a Champion, in every sense of the word. Honestly, he should dump the “Kid” part of his nickname, because no one is ever going to see him as anything but a man after winning this championship.
And Rossi? A graceful champion in defeat. Beaten, yes, probably wondering what the distractions of Formula One, the DNFs, the lack of consistency, and the ultimate mistake in Valencia cost him. In many ways, the crash with Pedrosa at Estoril was the best thing that could have happened to Nicky Hayden, that loss a huge element of his ultimate redemption, to himself and to his critics, as Hayden dug deeper into himself than every before to win the title. Perhaps, after winning so many championships and performing so many miracles, Rossi too needed to suffer this shocking defeat, to refocus his career and show everyone, including himself, that there is more to come from 46, more miracles than we can possibly imagine.
Eventually, the crowd filtered toward the gates, heading to the parking lots. By the Rossi fan bus, I saw a guy break his homemade “Valentino Rossi 2006 MotoGP World Champ” board and put it in the trash. It would be a long bus ride home to Tavulia. I almost felt bad for Troy Bayliss, as with his first MotoGP wildcard win he accomplished something nearly as significant as Hayden, but this clearly wasn’t the biggest news of the day. As I trudged towards the bus, I finally noticed another Hayden shirt in the crowd, and ran forwards to tap the wearer, a boy, on the shoulder. I got closer and saw that the 69 shirt was a couple of sizes too big for him, but it was obviously all they had in stock at the MotoGP shop, so his Dad bought it for him anyway. The shirt still had the tag on it, the boy’s father holding his hand as they both turned towards me. After I said “All right man! Nicky Hayden World Champ! Woo-Hoo!”, the boy smiled, and said to me, “en Espanol, “Si, Si, Nicky es Campeon!” We shook hands, and his father picked up the boy to thread through the massive crowd towards their car.
Like everyone, I love free pasta, umbrella girls, pitlane passes, and free swag, but in Valencia, there was no better place to be than amongst the people, in the cheap seats.
Thanks for the show and congrats, champ.