Josh Hayes is in the midst of a transition, not only in his career but also with development of the Yamaha YZF-R1. Two years ago, at age 40, Hayes won 10 MotoAmerica Superbike races and was a close second in the championship to teammate Cameron Beaubier. This past season, Hayes won two races and again finished second to Beaubier.

That first victory of the season—race one at Virginia International Raceway, round four of the series—was a pivotal moment for Hayes. “At the beginning of this season, we found a few things that started us in a better direction with the R1,” he said this past May. “At Road Atlanta and New Jersey, I was still trying two different settings.

“Virginia was the first weekend that I have made a minor change—one fork setting and one shock setting—and then left the bike alone. We are getting closer, and I was pretty happy with the performance of the bike.” Despite leading races, Hayes didn’t win again until the penultimate round of the series at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Josh Hayes on Laguna Seca podium
If Josh Hayes weren’t finishing on the podium every weekend, he might view his situation differently. “It’s not just that I believe I can win, I am still doing good work,” he said. “I have been down before, come back, and done something special. I believe I can do that again.”Photo: Brian J.Nelson

“Laguna Seca was huge,” Hayes admitted. “For three races, we did things out of the norm, trying to develop something in the middle of the season away from what we had done for a year and a half. In practice and qualifying, I wasn’t at the top of the sheets. Come race time, however, I had a pace that I could maintain better than the others.

“They could measure off me and beat me at the end of the race, but over race distance, I had a pretty good pace. It’s hard to build confidence in that, rather than having a half second on the field no matter what all day, all night. But that confidence starts to grow: ‘Okay, I haven’t forgotten how to do this. I’m still here, I’m still relevant.’”

Hayes wore the momentum gained from that victory in California like a superhero’s cape into the long, late-season break before the final MotoAmerica round in New Jersey. “Even in the first race at Laguna,” he said, “I had what I needed to win; I just didn’t get it done. To pull it off in that second race made the break a whole lot easier and pointed me in a very good direction.”

Josh Hayes and Yoshimura Suzuki team
Shown here trailing Roger Hayden (95), Toni Elias (24), and Cameron Beaubier (1), Hayes considered retirement. “I started having doubts about my competitiveness,” he said. “Bad thoughts crept into my head. ‘Do I really want to keep putting my neck on the line feeling like I’m going to get whipped on?’”Photo: Brian J. Nelson

The four-time AMA Superbike champion didn’t win either race in September at New Jersey Motorsports Park, but he led laps and finished second and third, respectively, to Toni Elias and Roger Hayden. The Yoshimura Suzuki duo capped off a successful season with eight race wins and third and fourth overall in the championship.

“Coming into New Jersey,” Hayes said, “I told Cam, ‘This is your championship.’ I didn’t go there thinking about a championship because fate was not really in my hands. It was his championship to lose. He has done a fantastic job, and I am his biggest fan. I am proud of him. I want to high-five him. At the same time, I want to beat him.”

JD Beach and Garrett Gerloff
Hayes sees talent waiting in the wings, namely JD Beach (1) and Garrett Gerloff (31). “I am pretty tight with all of the boys on this team,” he said. “I know many deserve a shot. There are only four coveted Superbike spots in this paddock, and I have had one of them for eight years.”Photo: Brian J. Nelson

As the season came to an end, the 41-year-old Hayes faced a difficult decision. Should he continue racing and attempt to win one more title or hang up his leathers and make room at the top for the next generation of stars, namely Yamaha teammates JD Beach and Garrett Gerloff, who dominated the Supersport class for the past two seasons?

“I have been afraid to pull the plug because I don’t want to regret it,” Hayes admitted. “Once the decision is made, the decision is made. I can’t come back. There is a lot of young talent in our team and I don’t want to be selfish, but I still love racing motorcycles. I can’t think of anything in the world that I would rather be doing.”

Hayes underwent a similar experience when he turned 30. “I just didn’t feel good that year,” he said. “I don’t know why, but I got through it, and I felt like me again. We’ve made some changes on the motorcycle to make me more comfortable. Also, I have an amazing crew and wife who believe in me and have helped me at a crucial time.”

Josh Hayes and crew chief Jim Roach
Josh Hayes and his Monster Energy/Graves/Yamaha Factory Racing crew chief, Jim Roach, have worked together for eight consecutive seasons. The pairing has resulted in four AMA Superbike titles and four runner-up finishes. “I don’t think it is too bad of a record,” Hayes said.Photo: Brian J. Nelson

I told Hayes about a conversation I had many years ago with Miguel Duhamel. After overcoming injuries sustained in a crash while testing at Road Atlanta, the former AMA Superbike champion had qualified on the front row of the grid for the Daytona 200. I asked Duhamel if he had considered retiring, given the severity of his injuries.

“That is one of the nastiest things you can ask someone,” Duhamel snorted. “It is like standing next to someone’s bed and asking, ‘When are you going to die? You were supposed to be dead two months ago!’ This is not our pastime. This is what we do. This is who we are. We race motorcycles.”

Josh Hayes on his #4 YZF-R1
Old Hayes, new Hayes: “I don’t think it will take a whole lot to see some of the old Josh again. Just a little bit of confidence and moving in the right direction. For whatever reason, I’m feeling a lot more like that guy than I have for the past year and a half.”Photo: Brian J. Nelson

Hayes laughed. “I remember being the guy under Miguel wanting that opportunity,” he said. “I couldn’t get it because Miguel wasn’t going anywhere. I understand their feelings because I was there. At the same time, I've had people remind me that I paid my dues. I waited my time, and I have to take advantage of it while I can.”

While he won’t divulge how long he intends to race, Hayes will return to the Monster Energy/Graves/Yamaha Factory Racing team next season at 42 years of age to win, convincingly (his word, not mine), another title. “It is amazing what a motivator ending racing on my terms has been,” he admitted. “I feel rejuvenated and am excited about the future.

“I have missed some good opportunities. I haven’t won as many races as I would like, but I am starting to feel some of those things coming around again. I have always been a bit paranoid about a lack of results of any type, so I started getting scared that there might not be room for me anymore. I hope next season will be a different story.”