Honoring Nicky Hayden: Crafting Kentucky's Finest

Krista Rudiger
by Krista Rudiger

George Lundeen Immortalizes 2006 MotoGP World Champion, Nicky Hayden

Circa-1974. MotoGP bikes racing flat out around a newly constructed Mugello track, while just over the hills in Florence, Italy, a young George Lundeen studies sculpture at the Accademia di Belle Arti. Every bit the struggling artist, he insists that even if GP tickets were 1,000 lire (about 50 cents), he wouldn’t have been able to afford a day at the races with the fastest boys on two wheels.

Still, it’s comforting to know that the artist who would come to detail each and every one of Nicky Hayden’s features, along with the bike that raced him to World Championship status in 2006, honed his craft in the land where all-things motorsport reign supreme.

honoring nicky hayden crafting kentucky s finest

Nebraskan born and bred, Lundeen and his studio now reside in Loveland, Colorado. So how did he develop a relationship with the city where Nicky was born and raised on flat-track bikes? It began when two of Lundeen’s sculptures were entered into the RiverArtes exhibitions, led by Owensboro’s Museum of Fine Art.

After Nicky’s bicycle fatality in Italy last year, which devastated the entire motorsports nation as well as millions of “Kentucky Kid” fans ’round the world, the Hayden Family began working on a project to commemorate their son, brother, uncle and fiancé. Tommy, Nicky’s older brother, began asking for artist suggestions. The Museum’s Director, Mary Bryan Hood, says, “We introduced the Hayden Family to some of George’s sculptures and the family then selected him based on his work.”

The Kid’s in the Details

honoring nicky hayden crafting kentucky s finest

Tasked with memorializing the darling of Owensboro, Lundeen says it wasn’t as daunting as you might think, thanks to the endless reels of photos and videos that show Nicky racing from ages 5 to 35. To hear him tell it: “I didn’t have to ask anybody in town for an interview. You just mention to people that you’re creating this piece for Nicky, and everyone has a story about what a great guy he was. I was at the gas station when I asked a woman if she knew Nicky. She replied, “Know him? I babysat him!”

After several meetings with Jackie Marin, Nicky’s betrothed, and Tommy, the family decided to use an image of Nicky celebrating his victory lap at Valencia. Apropos, to say the least. The 2006 Spanish GP where he clinched the World Title is not only the Holy Grail moment Nicky had worked for his entire life, it was also the nail-biting, down-to-the-wire season that would showcase a sold-out show to more than 145,000 fans and go down in history as one of the most spectacular races in the sport’s then-storied 57-year history.

Lundeen recounts his sculpture process by explaining how he and his team start by creating several sketches. After that, they build the figure out of clay and steel armature. “We used a lot of foam as well as 3D sculpting for the bike… to make sure it was as detailed as possible,” he says. Now, it’s here that the essence of the bike is essential: That the ride bronzed solid beneath its irreplaceable pilot is a four-stroke 990cc – the last season of these bikes after the phasing out of two-stroke 500s, and before the reduction to 800cc – is a point only true MotoGP evangelicals will appreciate.

honoring nicky hayden crafting kentucky s finest
Once the 3D portrait of Nicky was rendered, Tommy flew out to the artist’s Colorado studio to review and approve. From there, a rubber mold was made of the clay-and-steel structure. Wax is poured into that mold, and then it’s pulled off of the wax. Next, extremely hot bronze is poured into the mold, where it permeates every fissure of rider and trusty steed’s form.

Once cooled, there were about 25 to 30 pieces that need to be welded back together. The seams are ground out, the piece is then buffed and polished, and finally patina is added to color the bronze. Lundeen adds that this piece has a very unique feature, “The statue has Nicky holding the American flag during his victory lap, and it will be a real flag attached to the bronze pole. I’ve never done anything like that before.”

And how perfect is that. A uniquely brilliant statue for the one-of-a-kind Kentucky Kid.

Join the conversation
3 of 6 comments
  • Catherine Despot Catherine Despot on Jun 13, 2018

    Beautiful job by the writer capturing the beautiful (though bittersweet) story behind this magnificent, enduring tribute to The Kentucky Kid. Thank you.

  • Martin collins Martin collins on Jun 13, 2018

    nice piece but sadly doesn't really look like Nicky.

    • Mad4TheCrest Mad4TheCrest on Jun 16, 2018

      At first look I had the same reaction, but few metal statues closely represent their subjects. Check out the Joey Dunlop statue at his TT memorial. No one should be looking for exactness in these things; it's the overall image and impression, and I think they got it right.