Almost two years after his fatal accident, the recognitions keep on coming for Nicky Hayden. In the past six months, Nicky has been posthumously inducted into both the Kentucky Motorsports Hall of Fame and the Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame.
Last week, during the MotoGP Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas, MotoGP (the premier motorcycle Grand Prix world championship series) honored “The Kentucky Kid” in an even more prestigious way by retiring Hayden’s racing number, #69, at Circuit of the Americas in Austin Texas, the only MotoGP race in the U.S. on the 2019 schedule.
Hayden was already inducted in the MotoGP Hall of Fame when he was named a MotoGP “Legend” in November of 2015, distinguishing him as the 22nd person to ever be named a Legend, and only the sixth American.
But this recognition puts him into an even more elite list. Hayden’s iconic #69 is only the sixth number to be formally retired from MotoGP. And only the second American. The other retired numbers belong to Shoya Tomizawa (48), Marco Simoncelli (58), Daijiro Kato (74), Loris Capirossi (65), and American Kevin Schwantz (34).
From the stage at the retirement ceremony, Nicky’s brother Tommy explained how Earl Hayden, their father, was the first Hayden to put #69 on his number plate. Earl always jokingly says the reason he raced #69 was because if he flipped his bike in the dirt you could still read his number. All five Hayden kids used #69 when they raced growing up, as well as other members of the family. So Nicky carried the family’s traditional number throughout his career from Owensboro to race tracks all around the world on the MotoGP circuit where he rode #69 into the history books by becoming the 2006 MotoGP world champion.
At the ceremony last Friday in Austin, MotoGP made sure that what started as a Hayden thing will always be a Hayden thing.
Friday’s number retirement ceremony was the beginning of an entire race weekend that honored #69 in a consistent show of love and respect for the beloved American rider.
Several MotoGP stars recounted some of their favorite memories of Nicky to sprinkle some laughter amidst the tears.
Five-time world champ and six-time COTA winner Marc Marquez, who joined Hayden’s Honda Repsol team when Marquez was just 15, recalled Nicky bringing him a birthday cake that year.
Seven-time world champ Valentino Rossi laughed about the time Nicky annoyingly asked way too many questions on a train ride they shared to Tokyo.
American Moto2 racer Joe Roberts remembered riding several flat track laps with Nicky, who was admittedly one of his childhood idols.
All of which helped bring back good memories for the Hayden family. “That means more to me than world champion,” Earl Hayden told the Austin Statemen’s Chris Bils following the ceremony. “When people say ‘world champion,’ that’s OK. But when their eyes light up [with] respect, he always said you’ve got to earn that respect. It ain’t something you buy or they give to you.”
“It shows the kind of person he was and his character,” Nicky’s older brother, Tommy Hayden, said. “I don’t think you can artificially make that kind of stuff up. It’s very genuine and real. That kind of says it all.”
The family was presented with a #69 retirement plaque from FIM President Jorge Viegas and Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta at the conclusion of the ceremony.
Later Friday evening, the entire paddock lined a gigantic #69 logo that was emblazoned in the grass along “Hayden Hill” near turn 18 for an wide-angle aerial photo. Nicky’s immediate family surrounded Nicky’s 2006 championship Honda positioned directly in the top center of the posed photo. Other family members, friends and fans lined the right edge of the nine, while MotoGP, Moto2, and Moto3 racers lined the left edge of the six. Several of Nicky’s 2006 team members and crew were scattered in the photo too.
On Sunday, just before the start of the MotoGP race, there was another moment of tribute to bookend the weekend as the Hayden family brought Nicky’s 2006 championship bike to the starting grid while the National Anthem played.
Looking back on the weekend, the Hayden family told Owensboro Times, “It was an emotional weekend, but it was very special. MotoGP did an incredible job honoring Nicky’s legacy and showing so much respect to Nicky and our family all weekend. We couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Carmelo Ezpeleta, CEO of Dorna Sports, said in an earlier release, “Nicky Hayden was one of the biggest assets to this paddock and a fantastic example as a rider both on track and off. It gives me great pleasure to honor his legacy once again and ensure the No. 69 remains synonymous with a Legend and a Champion.”
FIM President Jorge Viegas said at the ceremony, “Some riders, regardless of the number of titles, they are special riders. Nicky was one of them. So when Dorna proposed withdrawing this magic number from MotoGP racing, we didn’t hesitate.”
Nicky Hayden’s MotoGP Career
After winning AMA national championships in America, Hayden’s first successes in MotoGP came in 2003 when he took podiums as a rookie and then went on to win his first Grand Prix in 2005. That created a perfect springboard for the following season, and he put together an impressive campaign to become 2006 MotoGP World Champion, wrapping up the crown in the season finale.
Hayden rose from dirt track beginnings to the absolute pinnacle of his sport, taking his unique blend of work ethic, humility and talent from the U.S. scene to the world stage and putting his name to an astounding number achievements both within racing and beyond its limits – key amongst which was his moniker as ‘the nicest man in Grand Prix racing.’
Hayden remained a cornerstone of the paddock until his departure at the end of 2015, upon which he was named a MotoGP Legend. The No. 69 will now forever remain the number of the “Kentucky Kid” — the man who rode it into the Hall of Fame.