Respects to a Champion
“Turn here”, I said to my wife as we drove down West Second Street in our hometown of Owensboro.
We had come back home to celebrate Christmas with the family. The day after turned out to be a gorgeous day. Clear skies. Nice temperature. A great time to get out, drive around town and see what had changed since the last time home.
We’d been past the Smothers Park Layz Dayz Playground. It was loaded with kids burning off their holiday energy in Landscape Architects Network’s 2015 top playground in the world. It was too late to take in the new Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum but we did check it out for a future visit. Now for the final stop.
“What’s down there? Where are we going? Why are we here?” Machine gun rapid-fire inquiries that only an eleven-year-old can deliver.
As we made the turn and the American Flag came into view, I heard my wife utter a barely audible “Oh” as she slowed the vehicle and pulled over to the side of the street to park.
“What is it? Why are we stopping?
“It’s somewhere your Daddy wants to go.”
“I won’t be long,” I said as I opened the door and exited the Equinox.
I had been wanting to come to this corner in front of the Owensboro Convention Center since June, but unfortunately, I had not made it down here until now. It was then when the Nicky Hayden Memorial Statue was unveiled. Nicky, the middle of three racing Hayden brothers and 2006 MotoGP World Champion called Owensboro home. It was in May 2017 he was tragically killed in a training accident in Rimini, Italy. The outpouring from locals, the racing community and his fans from around the world was staggering and many asked the family for a place where they could come to and pay their respects to their fallen hero. It was in June when their requests were answered by the Hayden family and the City of Owensboro with the unveiling of the life-size bronze statue of Nicky atop his #69 Honda.
Thousands had come here before me. Now it was my turn.
Others were already there, so I stood alongside our vehicle, giving them their space and time here. They looked to be a young couple barely in their twenties. They stood there quietly, reverently. They were shoulder to shoulder, just like the fans were at the track watching Nicky ride to the win at Laguna Seca in 2005. It was the image of that win that had been forever captured in bronze by George Lundeen of Colorado's Lundeen Sculpture that they gazed on this sunny December day.
After a while, they quietly separated, each going their own way to take in the memorial in their own way, interweaving today with their own thoughts and memories of Nicky. Soon they reconnected, took one long last look before turning silently to leave. He looked my way, made eye contact and gave me a nod as if to say “Thank you for giving us space. It’s your turn.”
I nodded back and turned my focus to the memorial of bronze, granite and American flag. As I approached, the closer I got more of the incredible detail of Lundeen’s work captured my eye. How was it possible for him to capture every little thing like he did? If was as if he had dipped the bike and rider in bronze. Every piece and part, crinkle and crease was perfect. Now I understood why it took between 2000-3000 hours for Lundeen and his team to create this work. It was so real it only took closing one’s eyes to hear his bike fire up and see Nicky ride down Locust St. for another Victory Lap.
As I got lost in the details I heard a voice behind me. “It’s something isn’t it?”
I turned to see a gentleman in his white Crown Victoria, window down, sizeable dog in the back seat with snout sticking out his partially open window trying to determine if I was friend or foe.
“Yes it is” I replied.
“You from here?” he asked. “Was born and raised here. Now live in Frankfort.” I replied.
“Were you here when they unveiled it? I was. It was something. Had six hundred bikes lined up and down this street here. From here all the way down to the STOP sign. It was something.”
He then began to share his memories of Nicky, giving a more personal side, a side not memorialize on the black granite base but forever etched in the heart of one who knew him.
He continued. “Knew those Hayden boys had talent. Even as youngsters. When I worked at the fire station on Fifth, they’d come blasting by at the same time every evening, riding past on their back tires. They could ride on one tire better than most could on two. Ride past on their back tire going one way. Same coming back,” he said, smiling.
“You know Nicky was always the same. Didn’t matter what he won or how big he got, he was always the same. He’d come into the HealthPark, he’d be rehabbing from some injury and you’d never know he was a World Champion. He never asked for no favors or preferential treatment, just wait his turn like the rest of us, talking with everyone. Nicky was real. He never got too big, if you know what I mean?”
“It’s a shame. It’s a real shame. I’m glad they did this. It’s really nice. Shame they had to do it though.”
I agreed. Then, as if he’d said all he needed to say he wished me a safe trip back home and pulled away. I could see his dog, relieved he could stand down as I was no longer a threat, settling in, focused on the next stop in his master’s journey. As they turned at the STOP sign past where all the bikes had been parked on that June day, my focus returned to the memorial.
On one side of the black granite base polished so bright that it picked up the reflection of the checkered flag stonework surrounding the base, providing a subtle but appropriate backdrop for the inscriptions on each side. The front, his nickname “Kentucky Kid”, autograph and number, the back was the number from his plate. One side listed his many accomplishments and the other his life, which read-
“Nicky Hayden was born on July 30, 1981. He was the son of Earl and Rose Hayden the middle child of five, with two brothers and two sisters. Motorcycle racing was everything for the Hayden family. But that was especially true of Nicky. As soon as he could walk he was riding minibikes at the family’s home in Owensboro, Kentucky. Already declaring that he would become a world champion.
For an example of how far hard work and strong values can take a person, one need look no further than Nicky’s career, which evolved from amateur track and road racing to the AMA National Championship Series and eventually the FIM MotoGP and World Superbike Series. In 2006, he achieved his childhood dream of becoming a world champion.
Along the way, Nicky’s talent, charisma, dedication and kindness garnered legions of fame around the world. But even as an international superstar, his family was his anchor and the reason that he always returned to his beloved OWB.
On May 22, 2017, Nicholas Patrick Hayden’s life was cut short following a training accident on his bicycle in Italy.
This statue was created to help keep his famous smile alive for many years to come.”
As I read the final line I couldn’t help but steal an upward glance. The hair, the flag and the smile. Yes, the sculptor captured his famous smile. It will be alive for many years to come.
My brief time here was running out, so I made one more slow lap around the monument, trying to capture it all in my aging “rememberer” as my son called it in his much younger days. I made one final stop at the back looking at the view those competitors saw all day at Laguna Seca-back tire, exhaust pipe and “Kentucky Kid” emblazoned on Nicky’s leathers.
I couldn’t help but think of my favorite photo of Nicky. It’s not the one that others know him for, the hair, the smile, the excitement and pure joy of a win, but the one by Graeme Brown that was used as the lead photo for Danny May’s Owensboro Living article entitled
The leader. So far ahead that second place wasn’t even close enough to be in the frame. Forever in his element. Forever racing on for the win.
As I got back in the SUV, everyone was quiet. The fact that my son wasn’t asking anything let me know that my wife had answered his questions and explained what Daddy was doing and why. They were giving me my space.
“You OK?” My wife quietly asked as she put the vehicle in gear to pull away.
“Oh yeah. Thanks for stopping.”
As we made the turn down the street that had once been lined with hundreds of bikes, I took on last look, sun shining brightly on the bronze and polished granite, a wisp of crisp December breeze lightly moving the flag.
“I’ll be back” I silently promised to myself… “I’ll be back.”