Wheelspin Column

| March 10, 2021

Cycle News Wheelspin


No Big Deal

By Keith Dowdle

Last week it was announced that Nicky Hayden would be inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, adding to yet another exclusive club for the late great MotoGP World Champion. I was one of the lucky people who had a chance to know Nicky and work with him throughout his career. When he joined the Erion Honda team in 1999, he was literally just a kid. But he wasn’t a kid with an attitude, he was humble and respectful to everyone on the team and to those of us at American Honda. Back in those days, all of the factories were fully engaged in AMA Pro Road Racing, and I personally attended lots of races to host customers and VIPs through our customer relations program, the Honda Riders Club of America (HRCA). Of course, Daytona was always the first race of the year, and in 2000 Nicky made his debut with the big boys in the 200.

Wheelspin Column with Nicky Hayden and Mat Mladin
Winner Mat Mladin gives Daytona 200 rookie Nicky Hayden a pat on the back after their epic battle in 2000.

Our staff and team hotel back then was the La Quinta at Interstate 95 and Speedway Boulevard. Next door to that hotel was a convenience store that drew customers by offering a dyno in their parking lot during Bike Week. I’m sure it was fun for everyone there on vacation, but for those of us working, it really sucked to hear bikes running at full rpm all through the night. The night before the 200 was one of the loudest nights of all since most of the crowds had arrived in Daytona by then. I couldn’t sleep because of the noise from the dyno, so I got up, got dressed, and made a beeline for the front door of the store, figuring I’d get a beer, go back to my room, and hopefully be able to sleep with a little help from the alcohol.

As I walked swiftly toward the door, not paying any attention to all of the people horded around the dyno at the edge of the lot, I heard a voice coming from the crowd that I instantly recognized, “Hey, Keith, come over here.” It was Nicky. I told him I really had no interest, but he insisted, so I got my beer and made my way back over to the dyno. Standing there with Nicky, in the midst of what was probably 60 people, it dawned on me that no one knew who Nicky was. The next day he went out and nearly won the Daytona 200, finishing second to Mat Mladin by milliseconds.

Years later, after winning the MotoGP World Championship, Nicky showed up unexpectedly at Mid-Ohio to watch his brothers race. Honda had its usual display of products there, along with the HRCA hospitality area, and I was there managing those activities. On Saturday morning I was over in the paddock and I saw Nicky. I was as surprised as anyone because I didn’t expect to see him there. This was in the middle of the MotoGP season, but Nicky had a weekend off, so he flew home to attend Mid-Ohio. I asked him if he’d be willing to do an autograph session the next morning. Now, you need to understand how things work at this level. Someone in my position doesn’t just casually walk up and ask the MotoGP World Champ to come over and sign autographs in the corporate display. That kind of thing is a contracted activity that’s negotiated early on between the company, lawyers on both sides, the rider’s agent, and the rider himself. Most riders will not do an autograph session if it’s not in their contract. But this was Nicky, so I didn’t think twice about it, and I knew that if he didn’t feel like it, he’d tell me no and that would be that. No one else would have to know. Being the genuine super nice guy that he was, Nicky of course agreed to do it even after I reminded him that he was under no obligation. With Nicky’s permission, I made my way to the announcer’s tower to have them announce that Nicky would be doing autographs in the Honda display the next morning at 9 a.m.

Sunday morning dawned rainy and cold, so before going to the infield of the track, I stopped in the paddock to pick up Nicky. As we made our way over the bridge to the first point where we could see our display, there was a huge line of people standing in the pouring rain waiting for Nicky to sign whatever they brought. Remember, this was impromptu, and I had no autograph stock for him to sign, so people were told to bring whatever they wanted to have to signed. One guy told us that he drove all night back to his home in Chicago to get his prized Tissot Nicky Hayden MotoGP watch. It was crazy to see how many fans Nicky had.

After the autograph session, I was taking Nicky back to the paddock and I said to him, “Dude, I wanna be you for a day just to see what it’s like,” and he said to me, “It ain’t no big deal.”

Well, Nicky, you were a huge deal and we miss you dearly. CN


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