Nicky Hayden is a busy guy. As if the rigors of competing full-time in World Superbike on board a Ten Kate Honda CBR1000RR wasn’t enough, the less glamorous portion of his job includes all his sponsor obligations and chatting with media hacks like Yours Truly. But there’s a reason why The Kentucky Kid is such a well-loved figure in racing paddocks worldwide – he always gives whatever time he has to those secondary obligations, and he does it with a smile. Motojournalists like the guy because he’ll always give you honest answers to the best of his ability and not canned one-liners other racers sometimes snort out reluctantly, as if talking to the media is beneath them.
During the World Superbike round at Laguna Seca in early July, Nicky Hayden granted journalists a brief interview right after Race 1 on Saturday, which saw the 2006 MotoGP champion earn a well-deserved podium spot in third place. And though the interview was brief, some good questions were thrown the champ’s way. True to form, he answered them the best he could.
The World Superbike series is taking a summer break until mid-September, when the series returns to the Lausitzring in Germany, and if you’re like us, you might be having some WSBK withdrawals. We figured now would be a good time to help satisfy those yearnings with our chat with Nicky Hayden.
What is it about Laguna that you love?
You know, it’s a track I like and in fact I won my first ever AMA race here in the 750 class. I like tracks that have elevation and this track has a lot of elevation. I’ve got a lot of laps around here compared to some guys, so that doesn’t hurt, but probably more than anything, just the home crowd. I get the extra energy from them, and they always seem to propel me a little bit.
How exciting was it to place in the Top 3?
Obviously a win is always better, but for me it’s my first year in WSBK and it’s only my third podium of the season, so to get on the podium, get some good data for tomorrow, hopefully we can put up a better fight in race two (he didn’t, unfortunately, earning a fifth place finish), but I wasn’t thrilled with my race. I had hoped to have been a bit faster, but overall, to get on the podium in front of this crowd, with all the support, I gotta be pretty happy.
You’ve had a long commitment to Honda. With the CBR1000RR near the end of its development cycle, what have you guys found from it to continue to be competitive?
The team has worked really hard. I gotta say, they’ve brought me in and gave me an opportunity, and we have improved the bike. Even here at Laguna, the bike has gone around this track faster than it’s ever went, even compared to two years ago when Rea rode it with different rules and they had more horsepower, we’re able to go faster here. I think we’ve really improved a little bit everywhere, but a lot with the electronics. I think some of my MotoGP background, working a lot with factory teams there and getting them a lot of knowledge has helped here because immediately we were able to smooth out the connection to the rear tire and do a few things that have helped the bike. And we’ve improved the chassis and the engine in the process. Once the team has seen some improvement, I think it’s been motivating for them to keep working hard.
Could you speak specifically as to how your GP experience has improved things in WSBK?
Well I think with the electronics, we changed the strategy to a lot more direct feeling and got rid of some of the control which has actually made the bike accelerate harder. I’ve got a good relationship with the team here, with my electronic engineers who speak good English, they’ve got good experience, and I think a lot of time riding with factory teams, with factory test teams, I’ve been able to keep my eyes open and learn a few things and bring it here.
You’ve ridden MotoGP, did AMA, now WSBK, so you have a good understanding of the American and European markets. Given where we are right now with MotoAmerica, how do you feel about the next crop of kids that are coming up?
[Nicky reaches into pocket] You know what? I’ve got a pocket full of business cards here from kids today and they look quite good. [Points to one on top] This is what it takes, is young guys racing against real competition because our sport is like any sport – you need to start young. You can’t wait until you’re 17 and think you’re gonna pick this up when the Italians and other Europeans are in programs, from literally 6-7 years old, in academies, on real bikes, real tracks, with real competition…
Later in your career do you want to be involved more on bringing up the next generation?
Yeah, I definitely do. I take a bit of enjoyment from it. I’ve got some kids that my dad has helped with and given some advice to. Obviously I’m still racing and focused on that, but I definitely hope to at one point – I mean I’m a motorcycle lifer, this is really all I know. I have been fortunate enough to see a lot and learn a lot and hopefully pass on a few things that maybe I did wrong and maybe save a few kids a trip down the wrong lane.
Can you describe the strengths and weaknesses of your bike?
The strength is the team. The team knows this bike very well, so when we come to a race weekend we have a pretty good base setup. But we sometimes hit a wall and can’t take that next step, particularly this weekend. Yesterday (Friday) afternoon we were as quick as anybody on race tires, but today (Saturday) everybody came out and started doing low 1:23s and we couldn’t do that, so that’s where we need to improve more. But we need some help with the engine, especially here on some of the uphill straights.
So you’re saying the engine is the bike’s weakness?
Yeah, for sure. It’s not really a secret.
Have you seen next year’s bike yet?
I have not. Everybody asks me (laughs) and they think I’m lying when I tell them I don’t know anything, but I don’t really know much official. I know some of the earthquakes in Japan have slowed things down, so I don’t know how big a change we’re gonna see.
Speaking of Japan, what does Suzuka mean to you?
You know what, I’m completely focused on this weekend and when it’s over I’m gonna worry about Japan. I’ve tried not to think about it too much, but I’m definitely going over there for some testing, but also gonna have a big job there. – Unfortunately, Hayden’s MuSHASHi RT HARC-PRO Honda CBR1000RR encountered mechanical trouble during the race, with Hayden on-board, and was forced to drop out. TS
Do you know yet what the differences are between that bike and this bike?
It’s an endurance bike, it’s got different tires (Pirelli in World Superbike, Bridgestone in Endurance), and the big thing is you have three riders (Hayden was teamed with Takumi Takahashi and Michael van der Mark, his teammate at Ten Kate Honda) so you can’t just dial it in for you, you have to find a compromise. Me and Michael, we don’t run our bike setups the same. The big difference, geometry-wise, is our seat pad, which they can change in a pit stop, but we run a little different electronics, and sometimes even different gears in corners. It’s been awhile [since I’ve competed in an endurance race], so I’m interested to see how that all plays out.
Is the Grand Slam still on your mind? (If you don’t know, the Grand Slam means winning each of the four forms of AMA dirt-track racing – Mile, Half Mile, Short Track and TT in addition to a road-race national. Only four people have accomplished the feat: Dick Mann, Kenny Roberts, Bubba Shobert and Doug Chandler. Nicky Hayden is just a Mile victory away from being number five.)
Yeah, it’s still there, for sure, but at the moment it’s not my next priority.
After this is all said and done, are you going to go for it?
I never thought I’d still be racing this long. I didn’t expect the MotoGP thing to last that long. I would like to try, but it’s not a gimme. People say, “Oh, all you gotta do is win a mile!” But those things are hard to win, that’s why there’s not many guys that win miles, I mean I’m pretty confident – I did some riding this winter with Jared Mees and some guys – and I’m pretty confident on a short track TT I could hold my own, I’m very confident in that, but now a mile – you don’t just show up and win a mile. Anybody who thinks that, they’re doing a disservice to those guys, but we’ll see.
Lastly, what’s with the man bun?
[Shrugs shoulders] Just something… I dunno… something different.