Trackhouse, Moto GP and Nicky

When news came out a few weeks ago that Trackhouse Racing was looking to get into MotoGP, I had two thoughts – “That’s cool!” and “Man, I wished 2006 MotoGP Champ, Nicky Hayden was still here.  What a perfect fit that would be!” 

Trackhouse and the “Kentucky Kid.

I’ve followed Justin Marks and Trackhouse since their inception.  This was not the move I expected from them, but it didn’t surprise me.  The one thing I’ve learned is never underestimate them and don’t try to figure them out. 

They aren’t known as “The Disrupters” for nothing.

My Dad introduced me to MotoGP, just like he introduced me to car racing and eventually Cup racing.  Motorcycle racing was his first love, however witnessing a fatality at his local track, Legion Park, soured him and he turned to cars.  He moved from the two-wheelers to the “Flying Saucer” prepared by the Clement Brothers and driven by G.C. Spencer.  It’s that love he passed to me.

Later in life, he grew increasing frustrated with NASCAR race coverage.  He grew tired of the booth’s “Hee Haw” antics, the micro-technical analysis of the pit stops adjustments, where how many quarter pounds of air and half rounds of wedge exceeded the excitement of a lead change on track… and then there was Digger.

All he wanted was to see the race, something that he found increasingly more difficult to enjoy.  His final plea was “Just show the damn race!”

In frustration, he went back to his first love-motorcycles.  Having a local kid, Nicky Hayden, racing in MotoGP didn’t hurt.  Nicky’s Championship came just a few years before Dad’s death. He watched all he could and even added Red Bull Air Races to his viewing just to see some racing.

“At least they show the race”, was his reasoning.

So when the teaser that Trackhouse Racing was going MotoGP racing it immediately brought back memories of Dad, MotoGP, Nicky, his untimely and tragic death and my first visit to his memorial in my hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky… in My Respects to a Champion

“Turn here”, I said to my wife as we drove down West Second Street in our hometown of Owensboro. 

We had come back home to celebrate Christmas with the family.  The day after turned out to be a gorgeous day.  Clear skies.  Nice temperature.  A great time to get out, drive around town and see what had changed since the last time home. 

We’d been past the riverfront park, loaded with kids burning off their holiday energy on the playground equipment.  It was too late to take in the new Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum, but we scouted it out for a future visit.

“What’s down there?  Where are we going?  Why are we here?”  Inquiries asked in machine gun rapid fire that only an inquisitive eleven-year-old can deliver.

As we made the turn, and the American Flag came into view a low “Oh” came from my wife as she slowed the vehicle and pulled over to the side of the street to park.

“What is it?  Why are we stopping?

“It’s somewhere your Daddy wants to go.”

“I won’t be long,” I said as I opened the door and exited the Equinox.

I had been wanting to come to this corner in front of the Owensboro Convention Center since June.  Unfortunately, I had not made it down here until now.  It was then when the Nicky Hayden Memorial statue was unveiled.  Nicky, the middle of three racing Hayden brothers and 2006 MotoGP World Champion called Owensboro home.  It was in May 2017 he was tragically killed in a training accident in Rimini, Italy.  The outpouring from locals, the racing community and his fans from around the world was staggering and many asked for a place where they could come to and pay their respects to their fallen hero.  It was in June when their requests were answered with the unveiling of the life-size bronze statue of Nicky atop his #69 Honda. 

Thousands had come here before me.  Now it was my turn.

Others were already there, so I stayed by my vehicle, giving them their space and time.  They looked to be a young couple barely in their twenties. They stood there quietly, reverently.  They were shoulder to shoulder, just like the fans were at the track watching Nicky ride to the win at Laguna Seca in 2005.  It was the image of that win that had been forever captured in bronze by George Lundeen of Colorado’s Lundeen Sculpture that they gazed on this sunny December day.

After a while, they quietly separated, each going their own way to take in the memorial in their own way, interweaving today with their own thoughts and memories.  Soon they reconnected, took one long last look before turning silently to leave.  He looked my way, made eye contact and gave me a nod as if to say “Thank you for giving us space.  It’s your turn.”

I nodded back and turned my focus to the memorial of bronze and granite and American flag.  As I approached, the closer I got more the incredible detail of Lundeen’s work captured my eye.  How was it possible for him to capture in bronze every little thing?  If was as if they had dipped the bike and rider in bronze.  Every piece and part, crease and spot were perfect.  Now I understood why it took between 2000-3000 hours for Lundeen and his team to create this work.  It was so real it only took closing ones eyes to hear his bike fire up and see him ride down Locust St. for another Victory Lap.

Photo Credit: Reddit

As I got lost in the details I heard a voice behind me.  “It’s something isn’t it?”

I turned and there was a gentleman in his white Crown Victoria, window down, sizeable dog in the back seat with snout sticking out his partially open window trying to determine if I was friend or foe.

“Yes it is” I replied.

“You from here?” he asked.  “Was born and raised here.  Now live in Frankfort.”, I replied.

“Were you here when they unveiled it?  I was.  It was something.  Had six hundred bikes lined up and down this street here.  From here all the way down to the STOP sign.  It was something.”

He then began to share his memories of Nicky, giving a more personal side, a side not memorialize on the black granite base but forever etched in the heart of one who knew him. 

“Knew those Hayden boys had talent.  Even as youngsters.  When I worked at the fire station on Fifth, they’d come blasting by at the same time every evening, riding past on their back tires. They could ride on one tire better than most could on two.  Ride past on their back tire going one way.  Same coming back,” he said, smiling.

“You know Nicky was always the same.  Didn’t matter what he won or how big he got he was always the same.  He’d come into the HealthPark, he’d be rehabbing from some injury and you’d never know he was a World Champion.  He never asked for no favors or preferential treatment, just wait his turn like the rest of us, talking with everyone.  Nicky was real.  He never got too big, if you know what I mean?”

“It’s a shame.  It’s a real shame.  I’m glad they did this.  It’s really nice.  Shame they had to do it though.”

I agreed and he wished me a safe trip back home as he pulled away. His dog, relieved he could stand down as I was no longer a threat settled back in, focused on the next stop in his master’s journey.  As they turned at the STOP sign past where all the bikes had been parked on that June day, my focus returned to the memorial.

On one side of the black granite base polished so bright that it picked up the reflection of the checkered flag stonework surrounding the base, providing a subtle but appropriate backdrop for the inscriptions on each side.  The front, his nickname “Kentucky Kid”, autograph and number, the back was the number from his plate.  One side listed his many accomplishments and the other his life, which read-

“Nicky Hayden was born on July 30, 1981. He was the son of Earl and Rose Hayden the middle child of five, with two brothers and two sisters. Motorcycle racing was everything for the Hayden family. But that was especially true of Nicky. As soon as he could walk he was riding minibikes at the family’s home in Owensboro, Kentucky.  Already declaring that he would become a world champion.

For an example of how far hard work and strong values can take a person, one need look no further than Nicky’s career, which evolved form amateur track and road racing to the AMA National Championship Series and eventually the FIM MotoGP and World Superbike Series. In 2006, he achieved his childhood dream of becoming a world champion.

Along the way, Nicky’s talent, charisma, dedication and kindness garnered legions of fame around the world. But even as an international superstar, his family was his anchor and the reason that he always returned to his beloved OWB.

On May 22, 2017, Nicholas Patrick Hayden’s life was cut short following a training accident on his bicycle in Italy.

This statue was created to help keep his famous smile alive for many years to come.”

Photo Credit: Pinterest

As I read the final line I couldn’t help but steal an upward glance.  The hair, the flag and the smile.   Yes, the sculptor captured his famous smile.  It will be alive for many years to come.

Before I left, I made one more slow lap around, trying to capture it all in my aging “rememberer” as my son once called it.  I made one final stop at the back looking at the view those competitors saw all day at Laguna Seca-back tire, exhaust pipe and “Kentucky Kid” emblazoned on Nicky’s leathers.

I couldn’t help but think of my favorite photo of Nicky.  It’s not the one that others know him for, the hair, the smile, the excitement and joy of a win, but the one by Graeme Brown that was used as the lead photo for Danny May’s Owensboro Living article entitled “Remembering the Kentucky Kid-Nicky Hayden”

The leader.  Second so far back not even close enough to be in the frame.  Forever in his element, racing on for the win.

Photo Credit: Owensboro Living

As I got back in the SUV, everyone was quiet. The fact that my son wasn’t asking anything let me know that my wife had answered his questions and explained what Daddy was doing and why.  They were giving me my space. 

“You OK?” My wife quietly asked as she put the vehicle in gear to pull away.

“Oh yeah.  Thanks for stopping.” 

As we made the turn down the street that had once been lined with hundreds of bikes, I took on last look, sun shining brightly on the bronze and polished granite, a wisp of December breeze lightly moving the flag.

“I’ll be back”, I silently promised to myself.  “Oh, I’ll be back.”

I was surprised on Tuesday when my phone popped up a Facebook announcement from MotoGP.  It was a live announcement that Trackhouse would be on the grid for the 2024 MotoGP World Championship.  This I’ve got to see!

Trackhouse has bought one of the 11 grid slots in MotoGP, where it will begin racing in the 2024 season MOTOGP Photo Credit: Sports Business Journal

Jamie Little MC’ed the event that opened with the announcement and a video explaining who Trackhouse is.  That was followed by Trackhouse owner Justin Marks coming on-stage to share why he wanted Trackhouse in MotoGP.  As Marks explained how MotoGP was one of his first exposures to Motorsports and how he wanted to be a continuation of the American story of the sport.  My ears perked up when he said that Nicky was one of his first racing heroes.

Jamie explained that Trackhouse will be the only American team on the grid.  They will be running not as a factory team but as an independent.  Very Trackhouse’esque.    Another video played showing those riders from the past-Kevin SchwantzKenny Roberts, Jr. and more, finally ending with Nicky’s 2005 Laguna Seca win.  Jamie closed with, “Well, it brings a big smile to my face just to relive those moments, especially with Nicky Hayden.

The broadcast continued with words from Dorna Sports Chief Sporting Officer, Carlos Ezpeleta addressing what it meant to have Trackhouse in MotoGP, Aprilia CEO, Massimo Rivola explaining what it meant to team with THR with their motorcycles and finally, Dorna Sports Chief Commercial Officer, Dan Rossomondo explaining his reaction when he heard Trackhouse wanted to come to MotoGP.

Then it came time to unveil the first Trackhouse MotoGP bike.  The cover came off to unveil the Stars and Stripes Aprilia RS-GP MotoGP prototype carrying Nicky’s testing livery as a tribute to him and to America’s rich history in the sport.  Have to admit I got a little lump in my throat.

Photo Credit: Road Racing World

As Justin said, “It looked fast sitting still.”  I had to agree. It didn’t take much of a stretch to see the “Kentucky Kid” astride it one more time. 

If only.

I can’t wait until March 10th when #88 of Miguel Oliveira and #25 of Raul Fernandez take the track at Qatar.  I’m hoping this move into a global Motorsports series is the first step that will not only grow the Trackhouse footprint but have a significant impact on both sports.

It was a great day.  Full of all kinds of surprises that Trackhouse is becoming known for.  I hope they have one more left-that when they win that first race, I hope they bring the trophy up to Owensboro, to Nicky’s memorial. 

It would complete that connection to the next Chapter. 

It would help ease some pain.

It would be the next right move.

Congratulations Justin Marks and the entire Trackhouse Racing MotoGP organization. 

Best wishes for 2024 and beyond!

Thunder On… and Stay Safe

David Nance

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