Roger Lee Hayden on Riding for Michael Jordan

Henny Ray Abrams | November 19, 2010

BROOKLYN, NY, NOV 19 – Michael Jordan doesn’t need to own a road race team to feed his competitive streak: For that he owns the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats. He owns Jordan Suzuki because he’s a motorcycle enthusiast, a fan of racing, and an admirer of racers. Never was it more evident than at the season-ending Valencia Grand Prix in 2004.Jordan and his entourage had the run of a garage on the pit lane which had been converted to a hospitality suite for the weekend. This was where he held court, and this is where you could find any number of then current MotoGP riders, including Kenny Roberts Jr., John Hopkins, Colin Edwards, and Nicky Hayden, as well as AMA racers Jake Zemke, Jason Pridmore, and Roger Lee Hayden. The Haydens had befriended Jordan from the start of his involvement in racing and Valencia was a highlight of Jordan’s calendar. When Nicky wasn’t on the track, Roger Lee might be found in the suite, with Jordan picking his brain about all things racing. As odd as it was to see the legend querying the racer, it was also encouraging and not surprising; Jordan wanted to absorb as much knowledge as he could about the sport he was increasingly becoming a part of. “I’ve been buddies with him for a while, ever since he kinda came to the sport,” Roger Lee Hayden said in a recent phone call after his signing by the Jordan Suzuki team was announced, “because I’ve kinda always been in the sport. So whenever he would come to the races it was something that we would talk about.”Hayden had negotiated with Jordan Suzuki’s Richie Alexander, who Roger Lee said was communicating with Jordan, “so I haven’t talked to him firsthand, but I kinda heard his thoughts and he’s really excited to have me on the team.“To me, Michael Jordan was the top of his sport and one of the biggest legends ever, so to have his name associated with mine, being on his team, is really good. But also he doesn’t accept third place. He’s a champion.”

Coming off his worst season as a professional, Hayden is aware of the extra pressure of producing results for the team, which itself had a difficult year.“Yeah I think a little bit” of the pressure, he said. “He’s won a lot of championships. So that’s what he expects, I believe. You want to meet his standards and you know they must be pretty high.”Even without the pressure of riding for the legend and the team, which faltered after a successful start, partly because of season-ending injuries to Aaron Yates at Auto Club Speedway, Hayden has heard the grumblings of those who question his selection to team with Ben Bostrom.“For me, I’m glad to be back but I want to have a good season,” he said. “There’s a lot of, I guess, a lot of doubt around me and some people don’t think I deserve this chance or whatever. I have a lot to prove, not just to myself but for other people and I’m ready to give it my best and see what I can do.”Roger Lee’s first taste of the Jordan Suzuki GSX-R1000 will be in a test at Barber Motorsports Park in the coming weeks. He hasn’t grilled his older brother Tommy, of the Rockstar Makita Suzuki team, about the bike and doesn’t have a lot of expectations about riding the liter-sized Suzuki for the first time. What he did talk to Tommy about was who he should ride for. Roger Lee tested the DNA Ducati 848 in Texas a few weeks back and  said, “I really, I loved that bike. I just talked with Tommy about what to do more  than about the bike. I haven’t seen (Tommy) yet, but I’ll be asking him some questions, getting some pointers.“I’m not really sure what to expect,” Roger Lee said. “I didn’t see the bike a lot last year on TV. But at Daytona it looked really fast with (Jake) Zemke on it.” Jake Zemke won the first two races of the season at Daytona International Speedway, the team’s first Superbike wins.  “And also before Yates got hurt,” Hayden saw that the veteran was fast at Auto Club Speedway. “He was really fast there. I know the bike’s really competitive and I know the Jordan guys really want to win consistently.”Hayden continued. “Yeah, I’m really excited. The main thing for me is I’m just excited to be on a competitive Superbike. I don’t think I’ve ever really ridden a Superbike that’s ever going to be as competitive as this one is.” The team raced 2009 models this year, because American Suzuki didn’t import the 2010 model, but will have 2011’s next year.  “So, I’m ready to go out there. Really, I’ve had a good career in Supersport but I’m ready to start having some good results in Superbike.”Hayden raced a Kawasaki Superbike this year for the Pedercini team in World Superbike, but it wasn’t remotely competitive. The last time he raced AMA Superbike was in 2008 aboard the Monster Energy Kawasaki, which was a work in progress. The Kawasaki didn’t turn very well, which was a severe handicap on many of the tighter American tracks.“You know, toward the end at Kawasaki we had it starting to  come around,” Hayden said. “Jamie [Hacking] was getting some podiums consistently. Then I went away, I guess,  back to 600s.”Though his foray into World Superbike wasn’t successful results-wise, Hayden said that the year was a learning process which will carry into 2011.“I think for me, what I can take from it is getting up to speed really quick, because I had to learn the tracks Friday morning, so I had to kind of rush and I had to try to get up speed as quick as I can and put in good, solid fast laps all the time,” he said.  “In World Superbike, I mean they’d get it from – as soon as they’re allowed to go out on track it’s like a race. People crash first lap of practice and people are standing each other up. Nobody ever took any easy laps. Everybody was always giving 110%. I think that’s one thing I can take from the season, just getting after it immediately from Friday morning and not really wasting time trying to get up to speed.”

 Teammate Ben Bostrom has also never raced a Suzuki GSX-R1000, so the pair will learn together. The structure of their crews has yet to be determined and no decision has been made on which would ride for the National Guard team and which for Jordan Suzuki. Given that Bostrom is a free spirit from Malibu and Hayden a buzz-cut Kentuckian, the decision may not be that difficult. “I don’t know Ben [Bostrom] great, but I mean I definitely talk to him when I see him,” Hayden said. “Ben’s one of those guys that’s almost impossible not to like. He’s just a nice laidback guy. Actually, he came to race in race in Misano this year. I didn’t even know he was coming really and  he was over there with [Tommy] Aquino and [Chris] Clark and actually had t-shirts painted up with my name on it, knee high socks, a big American flag, wigs and stuff, so that was pretty cool.”Also cool for his family is having two of the three brothers racing in the same series. This year, all three could be racing on the same weekend in different championships and continents. The only time their paths met up was at the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix, where Nicky rode for Ducati Marlboro, Tommy for Rockstar Makita Suzuki, and Roger Lee filled in for the injured Randy de Puniet on the LCR Honda RC212V, finishing 11th.“I think they’re pretty happy,” Roger Lee said.  “I think they seen kinda how frustrating last year was. But just to get an opportunity to ride a good bike and  a good team, I think they’re really happy for me.”

Henny Ray Abrams | Contributing Editor

Abrams is the longest-serving contributor at Cycle News. Over the course of his 35-some years of writing and shooting photos, he’s covered events from MotoGP to the Motocross World Championship - and everything in between.