Nicky Hayden At the 2005 USGP | Icon

The Kentucky Kid Returns Home—and Wins

It was the greatest day for American roadracing in almost 20 years, since Eddie Lawson won the last “inaugural” U.S. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca in 1988. On hiatus since 1994, the USGP circus returned to Northern California’s famed dry lake on July 10, 2005, to great fanfare. Michael Jordan attended. So did inflatable actress Pamela Anderson, and Brad Pitt—the latter arriving via private helicopter. But the real star of the show was 23-year-old Nicky Hayden, of Owensboro, Kentucky, then in his third year as a MotoGP racer. No one in the Laguna Seca paddock was more motivated to win than Hayden. He wanted nothing more than to earn his first MotoGP victory on home soil, in front of so many friends and family—not to mention an estimated 57,000-plus race fans.

After a childhood spent like so many other American champions, honing his skills on dirt tracks across America, Hayden won his first AMA Superbike title in 2002, defeating reigning champion Mat Mladin to become the youngest winner in series history. Hayden moved to MotoGP the next year, joining the factory Repsol Honda effort—the premier team in the World Championship—alongside defending champion/wunderkind Valentino Rossi. Hayden finished fifth in the 2003 championship, earning the “Rookie of the Year” award along the way.

A broken collarbone while training on a supermoto bike caused Hayden to miss some rounds the next season, and he ended 2004 in a disappointing eighth place. This left him anxious for success in 2005, and eager to prove his place among the sport’s elite. His breakthrough came in the eighth round at Laguna Seca, a tricky circuit where Hayden had dominated on a Superbike.

Despite enormous pressure, Hayden delivered a fairytale result that weekend. He qualified on pole a half-second ahead of series leader and former teammate Rossi, who had since moved to Yamaha. After a race-long battle with fellow American Colin Edwards, Hayden pulled away and earned his first Grand Prix victory in 38 starts, beating Yamaha-mounted Edwards to the line by 1.9 seconds. The star-spangled crowd went wild as a teary-eyed Hayden took a victory lap with his father Earl clinging to the tailsection of his Honda RC211V. Hayden earned five more podium finishes that season, ending the series in third place. His performance also earned him a starring role in Mark Neale’s acclaimed documentary The Doctor, The Tornado and the Kentucky Kid, which chronicled the epic 2005 MotoGP season.

Building on momentum gained in 2005, Hayden won his first and so far only World Championship the next year. In the closest and most thrilling championship in recent memory—who could forget Hayden’s teammate, Dani Pedrosa, punting him out of the race and the points lead at the penultimate round at Estoril?—Hayden won the championship by just 5 points over Rossi. Hayden won two rounds during his 2006 championship season—including a thrilling repeat performance at Laguna Seca, where he beat Pedrosa to the line by 3.1 seconds in punishing, 100-degree heat. That was a heartfelt win, for sure, but there’s nothing like your first time.

Brothers Nicky, Tommy and Roger Lee Hayden (from left to right) pose with Michael Jordan at the 2005 USGP. Today Roger Lee rides for Jordan’s AMA Superbike team.
Nicky Hayden’s biggest fan, his father Earl, jumped on the back of his son’s RC211V for the Laguna Seca victory lap. A patriotic race fan supplied the flag.