Nicky Hayden has been to the Indianapolis 500 a number of times, but none were as memorable as this year's 100th running of the iconic American race on Memorial Day weekend.
Hayden's friends at Indianapolis Motor Speedway sent a plane to Owensboro to pick up Hayden, his sister, and a few friends. When they landed in Indianapolis, they were given a police escort to make their way through the crowd of a few hundred thousand fans.
"Indy makes it easy," Hayden said.
Once he arrived, the Ducati Marlboro rider worked the red carpet, at one point posing for the photographers with Miss America 2011, 18-year-old Miss Nebraska Teresa Scanlan.
Then came the race, which ended in heartbreak for rookie JR Hildebrand who crashed in the final corner of the 500-miler, handing the victory and the right to chug from the milk bottle for the second time to Englishman Dan Wheldon.
"Well, it was the 100th anniversary, so it was actually a really nice event. Was a wild one," the 2006 MotoGP World Champion said.
Hayden wasn't there just to spectate; he also wanted to help the track promote the fourth running of the late August Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix.
"Being there and seeing it definitely gets you more excited for the race in August," he said of the Indianapolis 500. "They're working extremely hard. The track, they're repaving a big segment of the track. I was in the riders safety committee (meeting). It was something we asked for. We only really expected them to pave the main bad section, but they're basically doing the entire infield, which I think'll make a little bit better racing. Some of that infield was definitely one line where you had to miss the bumps.
"They're also working really hard off the track. They got some good ideas to make it easily the best Indy GP that we've had yet. So hopefully we'll be ready to fire on ‘em when we get there in August."
At the combined AMA/World Superbike motorcycle race at Miller Motorsports Park, word leaked out that Indianapolis Motor Speedway was in negotiations to add the Vance & Hines XR1200 class as a support race for the GP. The hope is that it will attract some of the thousands of Midwestern Harley riders who don't make it out to the race track.
More importantly, it means the track is doing all it can to keep the race beyond this year, when the contract runs out. The repaving was a big step in that direction.
Like most tracks, IMS doesn't release crowd counts, but estimates for the Indy 500 are generally in the range of around 275,000 to 350,000. And they're not all there to watch the race.
"I would say this is as much an event as it is a race," which is what the RBIGP aspires to," Hayden said. "We drove around in a golf cart and did some different events and cut through some areas. There was some people there that had no clue that there were cars going around. They looked like they were on spring break over there.
"There's some GP's with that same atmosphere. But, I don't know, this year being the 100th year and for whatever reason it seemed like definitely a bit more buzz about it. The first year that I went...I thought this year was even a little cooler event. I would say just the amount of people. I mean, I really can't compare it to any event I've been to. They say 350,000 people. That place, when we go to the GP it looks so big. Imagine being there with every seat covered. It's quite a spectacle, for sure."
Following the 500, Hayden starts one of his busiest stretches of the year. He and teammate Valentino Rossi are off to Barcelona for the Catalunya Grand Prix, after which The Kentucky Kid will take part in the parade lap for the Isle of Man with, among others, Mick Doohan and Cal Crutchlow. Next is the British GP at Silverstone on the weekend of June 10-12. Then comes an off weekend, followed by Assen and Mugello on consecutive weekends, another weekend off before the German Grand Prix and the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.