Ranking The Top Ten SuperBike Champions - No. 8
NEWS January 22, 2014
Photo by Brian J Nelson
Written by Chris Martin:
January 22, 2014 - It's a testament to the historical strength of AMA Pro SuperBike and its legions of champions that Nicky Hayden ranks just eighth on this list of the series' greatest-ever conquerors.
The Kentuckian is one of just two active racers to make the list (along with the four standouts 'also deserving mention' who just missed the cut) and remains one of the world's most popular racers.
While Hayden's tenure as an AMA Pro was relatively brief, once old enough to compete he took the series by storm and packed a lot of accolades, memories, and triumphs into just five full seasons.
The 'Kentucky Kid' actually debuted mid-season in 1997 after turning 16, riding a borrowed Muzzy Kawasaki ZX-6R. He flashed his immense talent with a pair of front-row qualifying performances in the season finale, but didn't really make his presence felt until competing as a full-time rookie in '98 aboard HyperCycle Suzuki GSX-Rs (yes, Hayden also has stints aboard Kawasakis and Suzukis on his professional resume, not just the Hondas and, to a lesser extent, Ducatis, he's best known for).
Hayden scooped up five 750 Supersport wins along with his first 600 Supersport victory that year, and American Honda swooped in following the end of the season and slotted him in at Erion Honda for 1999.
Nicky was an instant star with Erion Honda, notching up 12 combined victories across 600 Supersport and Formula Extreme en route to becoming the youngest-ever AMA Supersport champ. More relevant to his placement on this list, Hayden also made his premier-class debut, subbing for the injured Miguel DuHamel on the works RC45 V4 late in the year. Just as he did as an AMA Pro newcomer, Hayden teased what was ahead for the class when he guided the high-tech Honda to a podium in the season finale.
The following season Hayden stepped up to full-time Superbike duty, now riding Honda's new RC51 twin-cylinder machine. He immediately put it to good use, securing four victories and coming up just five points short of toppling Mat Mladin in his rookie Superbike campaign.
2001 got off to a bit of a slow start, but Hayden righted the ship at the end of the year, stringing together four consecutive wins to close out the season and set the stage for an epic 2002.
Hayden put all the pieces together that year, racking up nine victories to end Mladin's title streak at three, while becoming the youngest AMA Pro SuperBike champ in the process
Following his SuperBike triumph, Hayden was drafted straight up into HRC's works MotoGP team to serve as Valentino Rossi's understudy in 2003, and he's remained in the sport's elite category ever since. While some overseas questioned whether or not he was ready, Hayden proved his detractors wrong, being named MotoGP Rookie of the Year in '03, winning his first Grand Prix two years later, and defeating Rossi to take the 2006 MotoGP World Championship the following campaign.
Hayden's more recent results have suffered as a result of being saddled with less-than-competitive equipment at times. However, he did manage to finish on the podium in nine consecutive MotoGP seasons from 2003-2011, and has never had a season without a top-five result. Additionally, Hayden's form compared with that of Ducati teammates Rossi and Andrea Dovizioso makes it obvious that he remains one of the world's leading motorcycle pilots.
In many ways, Hayden is an old-school rider in a new-school world. His dirt track apprenticeship (Hayden was also the 1997 AMA Dirt Track Horizon Award winner, the 1999 AMA Ricky Graham Flat Track Rookie of the Year, and a six-time AMA Pro Flat Track race winner) would have ideally prepared him for the 500GP days, just as it did predecessors Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson, et al.
However, Hayden's MotoGP career has spanned over an era defined by the ever-increasing importance of electronic aids and racebikes best exploited by the in-line riding styles of racers who came up through the traditional Grand Prix feeder system. The fact that he still managed to overcome this misalignment with history to become the only American -- and the only ex-Superbike rider -- to win the premier-class crown since the introduction of the MotoGP class speaks volumes of his determination and sheer two-wheel excellence.
The wide-smiling Hayden blends an exciting riding style with some good-ole boy charm into a unique package that makes him easy to root for. And even though that rooting has primarily been from afar for AMA Pro fans over the past decade-plus, Hayden fans have had plenty to cheer for Stateside in his absence as brothers Tommy and Roger also developed into SuperBike race winners and title contenders in their own right.
Next time: #7…
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