Racing fans the world over were gutted today after hearing the news that Nicky Hayden, the 2006 MotoGP world champion, has succumbed to injuries suffered in a bicycle accident last week. Hayden, a.k.a. the Kentucky Kid, was one of the roadracing fraternity’s favorite sons, known globally as a terrific ambassador for the sport and one of the racing world’s nicest and most determined competitors.
The sad tale of Hayden’s passing begins in Imola, Italy, where the 35-year-old was competing in the latest round of the Superbike world championship. Nicky was back riding for Honda, the factory that helped him win the 2002 AMA Superbike title and then launched him onto the world stage with his signing on the Repsol Honda MotoGP team in 2003. Hayden was still trying to get Honda’s new CBR1000RR superbike up to the pace of his competitors at Imola and he struggled at the May 12-14 Italian round, only able to card an 11th-place result in Race 2 after suffering a DNF in Race 1.
Following the Imola round, Hayden remained in Italy but relocated to the Rimini area near Misano. On Wednesday, May 17, Nicky went out alone for a training session on his bicycle, riding very near the Misano track. Then, while riding westbound on Via Ca’ Raffaelli around 2pm, Hayden was struck by a car heading north on Via Tavoleto.
The car driver was apparently on his way to work and reports quote him as saying he didn’t see Hayden enter the intersection. The impact was severe, causing Hayden’s body to slam into the Peugeot 206’s windshield, shattering the glass and denting the leading edge of the car’s roof. Hayden’s bike was found in a ditch broken in two pieces. The driver was given a breathalyzer test and was found to be sober.
The Italian newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport, reports there is video footage from a security camera that indicates Hayden might not have come to a stop at the intersection. It also indicates Hayden may have been wearing headphones. Neither of those two allegations have been officially confirmed at this point.
An unconscious Hayden was rushed to Rimini hospital with life-threatening injuries, including a traumatic brain injury and a broken pelvis, femur and vertebrae. He was then airlifted to the Maurizio Bufalini Hospital in Cesena, Italy, for critical care in its trauma unit. Despite reports that Nicky was placed into a medically induced coma and was operated on, Nicky’s father, Earl Hayden, denied those assertions, explaining at the time that his condition is too severe to operate.
Hayden was joined in the Italian hospital by his mother, Rose, brother and former racer, Tommy, and his fiancee Jackie. Morbid rumors began to circulate that Nicky had passed away, and on May 19 Roadracing World published a story in which Earl Hayden decried the unfounded stories circulating on the internet he described as “fake news.” Earl was unable to make the trip to Italy due to his own health issue. Nicky never regained consciousness, and today the Kentucky Kid lost his battle and succumbed to his injuries in the hospital.
“On behalf of the whole Hayden family and Nicky’s fiancee Jackie,” said Tommy in a statement, “I would like to thank everyone for their messages of support – it has been a great comfort to us all knowing that Nicky has touched so many people’s lives in such a positive way.
“Although this is obviously a sad time,” Tommy continued, “we would like everyone to remember Nicky at his happiest – riding a motorcycle. He dreamed as kid of being a pro rider and not only achieved that but also managed to reach the pinnacle of his chosen sport in becoming world champion. We are all so proud of that.”
“As well as being a true champion on the track,” commented his Red Bull Honda superbike team in a statement, “Nicky was a fan favorite off it due to his kind nature, relaxed demeanor and the huge smile he invariably carried everywhere. The Kentucky Kid will be sorely missed by all that ever had the pleasure of meeting him or the privilege to see him race a motorcycle around a track, be it dirt or asphalt.”
Italian police have opened an investigation into the accident; its findings aren’t expected until July.
Everyone one here at MO is deeply saddened by the passing of Nicky. We’ve all interacted with him at various points in his career, and each of us has nothing but glowing remarks about the genial racer we’ve enjoyed watching since he first burst onto the national American racing scene in 1997.
Nicky’s first championship was in the 600 Supersport class in 1999, and he moved up to the Superbike category in 2000 to finish runner-up to Mat Mladin in the premier class. An off-season wrist injury held him back to third place in the 2001 title chase, but he rebounded in 2002 by dethroning the formidable Mladin and capturing the AMA Superbike championship, becoming the youngest rider ever to do so.
Honda proudly promoted Hayden to the MotoGP world championship for the 2003 season, and Nicky snagged two podium finishes on his way to the rookie-of-the-year title. A collarbone injury while supermoto training in Italy hampered Nicky’s 2004 campaign, again finishing the year with two podiums.
The year 2005 would be memorable for Hayden, as he took a highly emotional victory, his first, at the American GP round at Laguna Seca. Five other podium finishes netted the Kentuckian third spot in the hard-fought championship. Nicky’s breakout year would be 2006, scoring two more wins (including victory at Laguna again) on his way to winning the Grand Prix title, despite infamously being taken out by teammate Dani Pedrosa at the penultimate round of the season.
Nicky scored three podiums the next season on the new 800cc MotoGP bikes, and two more podiums the following year despite injuring his foot in a supermoto crash that kept him away from two rounds. Then it was on to five difficult seasons with the struggling Ducati GP team, scoring just one podium finish in each of his first three years riding the Italian bikes.
Those frustrating years at Ducati were followed by two years (2014-2015) on the satellite Honda team, Aspar. The Honda was an uncompetitive machine as the series tried to find the balance of CRT bikes with the full factory prototypes, and Nicky was sadly racing for finishes outside the top 10.
A return to superbikes and friends at Honda in 2016 looked to be a promising move for Hayden as he tried to rekindle his career in the World Superbike championship. The year’s highlight was his win at Sepang, becoming one of just a few riders who have won races in the two premier roadracing series. A newly updated CBR1000RR for 2017 held a lot of promise for Hayden, but the Kentucky Kid’s life was snuffed just five races into the season.
As we take a fond look back at Nicky’s illustrious life well lived, below are a few links to stories about him that we’ve posted on MO over the years.
2016 Hayden Interview: Five Minutes With Nicky Hayden
2010 Hayden Interview: Nicky Hayden Interview
2009 Hayden Interview: Nicky Hayden Interview