Love Song for a Patriot

Nicky Hayden was an American abroad in the best sense.
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Patriotism is a funny thing. I’ve been reading the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant recently and what strikes me most is how focused, how simple and, frankly, how antiquated his view of the American Experiment feels in 2017. Equality for all people, the preservation of these United States, a grand exercise in democracy—Grant may have been an alcoholic and his presidential tenure may have been one of America’s most corrupt, but even on his deathbed, the way he expresses a clear-eyed understanding of what’s at stake ideologically with this country still resonates. Even if you don’t feel proud to be American, it’s easy to understand why someone would.

It’s the same for me with sports. Doesn’t matter if it’s Serena Williams or Michael Phelps or the U.S. Women’s National Team; I’m vaguely pleased when an American does well on the world stage, but I’m also not that invested in it, and I’m mature enough to understand that borders are basically arbitrary and that national pride and xenophobia (as well as getting sucked into the endless discussion surrounding them) are antithetical to how I think the world can be better. I get it, but being American alone just doesn’t get me fired up.

I attribute this to the sports I loved as a kid. There was no rooting American interest in Formula 1 or rallying or sports car racing (unless you were rooting for RJ Reynolds), so liberated fandom came to me early. Over time, as I moved away from auto racing and got more into motorcycles, I took that attitude with me, which was easy—Americans had a distinguished period in MotoGP and World Superbikes that started in the late 70s, but that lineage was basically over by the time my cable company added the Speed Channel to its package in 2003 and I could watch races regularly.

I didn’t think I’d ever root for Nicky Hayden, in other words. But when I first read that he had died, all I could think about was how it felt to remember my last patriotic sports experience.


Even a cursory glance at the Hayden family history will show how much these people are into bikes. His parents, his brothers, his sisters—the whole clan of them have raced competitively. Nicky was no different; from the time his dad got him going at the age of three, there was a singular devotion to the sport. That paid off with being the youngest AMA Supersport rider to win the title in 1999, the youngest AMA Superbike winner in 2002, and after some bickering on his behalf between American Honda and Honda Japan, a coveted factory Repsol Honda ride partnering Valentino Rossi in 2003.

Hayden was in at the deep end from the moment he climbed aboard the RC211V. He had no MotoGP experience and he was alongside the best rider in the field, on the best bike, in the best team. But what he did have was a uniquely American skillset: flat-track racing. Popular in the Heartland, flat track requires steering the bike through throttle control of the rear wheel rather than trying to do it all with the front because your tire grip is limited. When Americans like Pat Hennen, Kenny Roberts and Freddie Spencer discovered in the late 70s that this was also the best way to ride a 500cc grand prix motorcycle, the secret was out – and so was the call for American talent. Australians weren’t far behind in figuring this out, but Europeans, who have no history of flat track, didn’t really catch up until the end of the 90s.

Though the old 500cc class was dead by 2003, MotoGP’s subsequent 990cc bikes required similar awareness – tire technology still wasn’t great, and when the grip went off, you had to use the rear to steer. Nicky had never seen a MotoGP track in person before, but he knew how to ride with the rear.


And he made it easy to pull for him. His folksy “aw shucks” Kentucky farm boy schtick was occasionally irritating to me amid Bush and Cheney’s goodwill-destroying, Southern-fried two-term oil venture, but at that ruthlessly competitive level, it was also refreshing because it was by all accounts faithful to the man – people on his team, in the paddock and in the stands had nothing but good things to say. He was an American public figure abroad who was proud of his roots but respectful of what he faced.

I couldn’t help it, I started pulling for him. He was rarely near the front, but toward the end of ‘03, the results started to come: fifth, third, fourth, third, and fifth overall at year’s end. When Rossi left Honda for Yamaha in 2004, Hayden looked like he had moved up the pecking order and his renowned work ethic was paying off. But politics conspired against him—a recurring theme throughout his best years.

I have fond memories of watching his first MotoGP win on TV, a conclusive victory in front of American fans in the summer of 2005. I remember explaining to a couple of girls I was studying abroad with what we were watching as he drifted sensationally through the final long left at Valencia pursuing Marco Melandri in a London bar later that fall. I remember a lot of his questionable haircuts. And I remember 2006, the year it never should have come together but finally did.

The descent from world champion was steady. Hayden’s technically been enshrined as an official “MotoGP Legend,” but I don’t think it’s too soon to say that “legend” is really pushing it – perhaps because of his demeanor, or perhaps his results, one never got the impression that Nicky struck fear into the hearts of fellow riders the way Roberts, Lawson or Doohan did. He’s nothing mythical. Or maybe that’s too narrow a way of looking at it; the Champions Tower will, after all, forever reflect who officially brought Valentino Rossi down first.


I’ve watched practically every race for the last 14 years, but my first in-person experience will always be the most memorable to me. It was 2008 and MotoGP was racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time. Hurricane Ike was dropping cold rain in buckets; my girlfriend, who had bought the tickets for my birthday, was basically broken up with me but wanted to come anyway; my dad thought it’d be a good bonding experience to fly up.

I stood sunburned and shivering in the front grandstand as the grid lined up and set off, still the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. Nicky Hayden had no right to be second on the first lap and first on the second; he wasn’t a masterful rider in the wet, he was riding a bike designed for his pint-sized teammate, and he was returning from a foot injury that had kept him away for two races prior. But he made a show of it for us anyway, stayed upright and eventually finished second—his best result of the season.

The way the fans cheered him crossing the finish line was one thing, but seeing him hobble off the bike on crutches and up to the podium on a cane with my own two eyes is something I’ll never forget. “The Star-Spangled Banner” doesn’t do much for me anymore. I know that practically all Trump is good for as president is SEO value. I do what I can not to engage in the toxicity of either sincere or ironic national pride. But God, I know what I felt then as I watched Nicky Hayden wave to us from the rostrum, and I know what it meant—and what it can’t anymore, now that he’s gone.

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