Why we’ll miss Nicky Hayden more than most

Nicky Hayden

The best attitude in the paddock.

Even if he had never won a motorcycle race, Nicky Hayden was the kind of guy who would be greatly missed.

But of course millions more will miss him precisely because he did win a lot of motorcycle races. That’s not the only reason, or even the main reason, why we’ll miss him, however.

Nicky was way more than his accomplishments on the track. He was the youngest rider to win the AMA Superbike title and then he went on to win the 2006 MotoGP world championship. What made him different from other racers, and even from other world champions, was how he handled himself in a cutthroat world of hypercompetitive professional sports.

I was born and raised in West Virginia and Nicky grew up in Kentucky. There’s a lot that’s admirable about the working-class, small-town Appalachian culture, but there are also aspects far less laudable. Nicky embodied the best of it.

He worked hard. He didn’t complain, whine or blame others when he failed. When he succeeded, he didn’t forget to thank those who had helped him along the way. And again, he worked hard, whether it was turning more practice laps than anyone else or the hours spent training away from the track. He was pushing his 35-year-old body hard on his bicycle to maintain the kind of condition only the world’s elite athletes attain when he was hit by a car, causing the injuries that led to his death today.

I once heard a small, bitter and ignorant man say that Nicky “got lucky” when he won his world title. Here’s what I always say: Nobody ever won a world championship by luck alone, or without some luck along the way. It’s easier to conclude Nicky had more than his fair share of bad luck: his Honda team deciding to build the program around Dani Pedrosa instead of him; joining Ducati at a time when that program badly lost its way, leaving him on an uncompetitive bike in what could have been his best years; going back to Honda when he had to move to World Superbike, and being provided with yet another uncompetitive bike to ride; and finally, being in the wrong place at the wrong time on a bicycle in Italy.

Whenever his career handed him bad breaks, instead of whining or sulking or giving up, he slapped a “no excuses” sticker on his bike and worked harder.

In our culture, we look up to movie stars, athletes and other celebrities, but only a select few show the kind of character that truly deserves our admiration. Only a few are the kind of people we’d hope our children grow up to be. Nicky Hayden was one of those few.