From the modest city of Owensboro, Kentucky, to an odds-defying Moto GP world title in 2006, Nicky Hayden was the boy racer with the wide smile who stayed true to his roots and never became too big for his boots. As the motorsport world stands in mourning for the man they fondly called the Kentucky Kid, Jennie Gow sheds light on what it’s like saying goodbye from the other side.
Motorsport journalists these days aren’t used to death. It’s not like the 1950s and ’60s when, tragically, there were several drivers killed every year. All things being relative, Formula 1 is a safer sport now. There have been just two deaths in the last 20 years. So, when we lose a driver, we really feel it.
At the beginning of my motorsport career I was told, “Never get too close to the stars of the show, because losing them hurts too much.”
The first time I experienced the death of someone in motorsport was the tragic loss of Shoya Tomizawa. He was a Moto 2 rider and had a smile that dazzled. He won the first race of the 2010 season and was one of the sports’ up and coming riders. At just 19 years of age, he was killed in an accident at the San Marino Grand Prix.
I was told he had died just moments before going on air at the end of the MotoGP race. It was the first time in my professional career that I had to look down the barrel of a camera and tell the viewers at home that someone had died. It was incredibly painful and not something I ever want to do again. I will always remember his mega-watt smile and, on the day he was killed, I remember chatting with him while he was on his bicycle, riding around the paddock. Shoya was a very special boy.
Just a year later, once again, a large cloud passed over the paddock when the larger than life Marco Simoncelli was killed at the Malaysian Grand Prix. With his giant hair and crazy Italian personality, he transcended MotoGP, and was well known by sports fans across the world. He wasn’t always the good guy – the year before his passing he was largely criticised by the other riders for taking risks and riding dangerously. He won them round, and was starting to shine. At the race before his death, he was on the second step of the podium for the first time in his short MotoGP career. He was a World Champion in the making, but we lost him too soon.
I remember being at home when the news came through of Marco’s death. I felt for the presenter, Matt Roberts, who had to deliver the news just like I had the year before. It’s a job no-one would want, especially when you are travelling the world with these guys week in, week out. You can’t help but get close, because these men are magnificent, daring and some of the last real risk-takers in world sport.
When Jules Bianchi died after his accident in Japan in 2014, my heart broke a little. He was a gentle soul outside of a race-car and we’d even played squash together on a shoot for the Force India Team. We’d chatted about music a lot, and I was getting his selection of tunes to play on the radio. He was a very special young man, hugely talented, greatly missed and Jules will never be forgotten.
The irony of two of the biggest accidents to befall motorsport stars in recent years is that they haven’t happened on the track.
Both Michael Schumacher and Nicky Hayden spent their careers competing at the highest level – risking their lives on a weekly basis doing what they loved. Yet, it was away from the track, doing their hobbies and keeping fit, where tragedy struck.
In 2013, Michael was skiing with his son when he fell and injured his head. There has been no official news on his condition for two years now. In a video interview released in May 2015, Schumacher’s manager Sabine Kehm said that his condition is slowly improving, “considering the severeness of the injury he had”. There have been no photos, no words, no suggestion that he will ever be back to being Michael, seven-time Formula One World Champion.
However, he is still alive and that gives us hope.
The most recent tragedy came this week, with the sad news that MotoGP’s Nicky Hayden had been killed after being involved in a car crash while out cycling in Italy. He was placed into an induced coma but was said to be severely brain damaged and the outlook was bleak. He lost his battle on Monday, 22nd May. Once again, the whole of the motorsport world is plunged into darkness.
The first time I met Nicky was back in Qatar in 2010. He was another whose mega-watt smile lit up the places he went. Crowned MotoGP Champion in 2006, the Kentucky Kid was the life and soul of the party; whose Southern drawl was instantly recognisable from anywhere in the paddock.
I remember him trying to run away from me when I was live on the grid for the BBC. Both of us had a real giggle about it.
To Americans, he was very much one of theirs. He was mobbed when he landed at Indy for the 2010 MotoGP race and the fans got wind of where he was. He loved going to dirt bike events and was one of the boys. He loved his family and was extremely close to them. He was a ray of sunshine in a sometimes overcast paddock. And now he is gone, at the age of just 35.
It seems cruel that these guys can risk it all in their respective sports, only to be taken in a freak accident. It just seems wrong.
This week, I have found myself thinking more about the phrase I mentioned at the beginning of this piece – “Never get too close to the stars of the show, because losing them hurts too much.”
It’s something that has always stuck with me, but something that I am totally rubbish at. Yet, if I could offer my advice to others, I would say: ‘To heck with not getting too close’. The stars of motorsport are some of the most amazing people I have had the good fortune to meet. I am glad and proud to have not held a part of me back when I have spoken to and traveled the world with them. In the end, it’s a little like love – You may get hurt, but it’s worth all the pain for the moments of sheer joy.
Rest in peace, Nicky.