Nicky Hayden: The backyard racer who conquered the world

Nicky Hayden
"The idea of growing up to be a world champion, it just seemed so far away," Nicky Hayden 1981-2017

From racing his siblings round the backyard as a toddler to celebrating his sole World Championship crown with his tearful dad on the back of his bike, motorcycling and family were the inseparable constants in Nicky Hayden's life.

Raised in a biking family in the same Kentucky town that was home to seven Nascar drivers and actor Johnny Depp, Hayden and his siblings would spend four hours a day riding on their own home circuit from the age of three.

Practice made perfect. One of only six men to win the MotoGP title this century, Hayden provided the sport with one of its most memorable finales when he pipped Valentino Rossi to the 2006 crown.

Hayden, who has died at the age of 35, five days after a collision with a car while cycling in Italy, never again got close to the championship but remained one of the sport's most popular riders.

"When I was a little kid I never wanted to be a firefighter or anything else - just a world champion," he said.

"The idea of growing up to be a world champion, it just seemed so far away. But dream big, and dreams do come true."

From Earl's Lane to the top step

Hayden, along with brothers Tommy and Roger, turned professional after years of home schooling on the track at 'Earl's Lane' - the name for their home in Owensboro, nestled on the Ohio river.

It was no fluke that all three became pro riders. Dad Earl was a dirt track racer for more than 20 years and mum Rose and sisters Jenny and Kathleen also competed.

"I was bred into it. Bikes are more than just a job for us. It's a way of life," Hayden told the BBC in 2013.

"When I won the title I went to my pit box before the awards ceremony, and there was the banner that said, 'Nicky Hayden, World Champion,' and I just lost it.

Hayden said his mother Rose was "his biggest fan"

"My parents gave up a lot, and there are a lot of bumps and bruises and it hurts sometimes. So you definitely have to be prepared to suffer a bit.

"It's not always just a big cupcake ride."

Family remained foremost for Hayden, who would often make the long trip back to Kentucky from Europe throughout the season to spend time with them.

He listed the 2001 Springfield TT - a dirt-bike race which saw all three brothers finish on the podium - as one of his career highlights, despite the fact that Tommy won.

His three-word Twitter biography perhaps sums it up best: "Bikes and Family."

'The nicest guy in the paddock'

With his distinctive Appalachian twang and broad smile, Hayden was popular the world over for his friendly, self-deprecating charm as much as his speed.

Former team-mate Rossi called Hayden "one of my best friends in racing" earlier this week.

"He never changed, from the first moment I met him as a 17-year-old kid to world champion," said former BBC commentator Steve Parrish.

Nicky Hayden
Hayden was a huge underdog to win the 2006 title but when Valentino Rossi crashed out he took the championship with a third-place finish

"He was very relaxed. He had an amazing year when he won the championship - I don't think I've ever seen anyone more joyous to win a title.

"His dad got on the back of his bike, they were both in tears. That's the overriding memory of Nicky that I will remember. It was a dream picture - he achieved the greatest title in motorcycle racing.

"I never heard anyone have a bad word to say about him which in racing is unusual, most riders at one time or another cross swords with other riders. It's the name of the game."

Hayden said last year: "I'm just genuinely grateful that I get to play almost a child's game for a living - not a lot of guys can say that."

He left MotoGP at the end of the 2015 season to join Honda in World Superbike, and raced in Italy the weekend before his accident.

Last year Hayden got engaged to his girlfriend, actress Jackie Marin, who was with him in hospital, along with Rose and Tommy.

'Complete respect'

Former MotoGP rider James Toseland said there was "nobody better in the sport."

"He has my complete respect," he said. "He was always the first on the track at every test, and the last off it.

"He was a guy with so much dedication, passion, drive and motivation and was so humble with it all, even after being a world champion. It never changed him one bit.

Hayden raced with the same 69 number that his dad used throughout his career. Earl Hayden said: "I crashed so often I needed a number that read the same upside down."

"Nicky was the shining star among the three successful brothers, but if you were in a bar with all three of them you wouldn't know that. They were all so close.

"The glass was always half full with him. He had that confidence and a natural, ambitious personality, he was infectious.

"His biggest achievement is not the trophies he won, or the championship, it was the respect he got from his peers. The way everybody talks about Nicky Hayden speaks volumes for the type of person he was."

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