For the second year in a row, American Nicky Hayden thrilled the massive, highly partisan home crowd at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca by reigning supreme at the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix. While Hayden’s 2005 victory at the event was the landmark first MotoGP win of his career, this year’s triumph may prove even more pivotal and rewarding in the grand scheme of things. The Kentuckian’s stunning performance saw him take a major step forward in his quest to be named 2006 MotoGP World Champion.
Despite the unwelcome presence of intense heat, with temperatures soaring above 100°F on all three days of the race weekend, the American fans once again flocked to the scenic California circuit to watch the world’s top two-wheeled sportsman in action firsthand.
Celebrity sightings were a common occurrence with actress Pam Anderson, JAG’s Catherine Bell, Verne ‘Mini-Me’ Troyer, ‘Friends’ star Matt LeBlanc, comedian David Alan Grier, Saturday evening entertainment The All American Rejects, and hordes of racing luminaries among the 145,111 attendees over the three days. However, despite all of the star power, the ‘The Kentucky Kid’ was the unquestioned star of the show.
Hayden has described last year’s Laguna Seca event as a ‘fairy tale’ weekend. Everything clicked once he got back onto his home soil. His Repsol Honda RC211V worked flawlessly from the first practice and he was armed with insider track info, having raced at Laguna Seca several times before departing for the world scene in 2003. With 2005 marking the first U.S. Grand Prix since 1994, most of his rivals had never seen the tricky circuit prior to last year’s race meeting.
Nicky capitalized, claiming his first MotoGP pole position and then winning the race in nearly effortless fashion. The race proved to be a turning point for Hayden, who has grown by leaps and bounds as a rider since. He closed out 2005 in fine form, finishing third in the championship. He’s been even stronger and more consistent in 2006, allowing him to establish a substantial early advantage in the title race.
Entering the 2006 Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix, Hayden had finished on the podium in 12 of the previous 14 GPs dating back to late last year. Still, Nicky’s chorus of doubters in the international media corps had been slow to warm up to the idea of the American as a legitimate threat to Yamaha’s living legend Valentino Rossi. The Italian, who has seven world titles to his credit and has never been beaten over the course of a full MotoGP season since the class’ formation in 2002, is widely considered the greatest motorcycle racer of all time.
Hayden’s critics claimed that while he was steady, he didn’t win frequently enough and with his Laguna Seca home-track advantage largely nullified in 2006 due to track alterations, a new surface, and a year’s worth of track experience for his opponents to rely on, he wouldn’t win at Laguna Seca this time around.
They were wrong. Nicky’s Laguna Seca ride this season was grittier and more mature than last year’s, but the end result was the same.
With his machine never really feeling at home on the new asphalt, Hayden considered himself fortunate to qualify sixth on Saturday. Relying on a tip from his older brother Tommy, who finished second in Saturday’s AMA Superbike race, Hayden swung from the inside of the track to the outside at the start, stealing several positions in the opening moments of the race and positioning himself in third on the first lap.
He trailed Kenny Roberts Jr. -- the last American to win the premier class crown (2000) and the son of ‘King’ Kenny Roberts, the man who revolutionized the sport and kicked off America’s era of Grand Prix domination (13 of 16 titles from 1978-1993) -- and young Australian Chris Vermeulen, who shocked the world by taking the pole aboard his Rizla Suzuki on Saturday.
Hayden looked to be in trouble early, struggling visibly to keep pace at the front. However, through a combination of determination, unrivalled fitness, and the urgings of his thousands of trackside fans, Hayden found a second wind in the grueling 32-lap race. On lap 9, he completed a nifty overtaking maneuver on Roberts, entering the famed ‘Corkscrew’ and then turned his sights to the escaping Vermeulen.
The Repsol Honda rider tracked down the Aussie from two seconds back and stalked him for a number of laps before finally powering past on lap 17. Hayden then clicked off a string of fast laps to separate himself at the front and maintained a hot pace to the checkered flag. He was forced to do so by his prodigious teammate, MotoGP rookie Dani Pedrosa, who also fought past Roberts and Vermeulen and threatened to make a race of it with Hayden with a number of blindingly quick laps in his first-ever trip to Laguna Seca.
Hayden was just too strong, however, and the two Red Bull-supported Repsol Honda riders came home with a 1-2 result for their team. They were joined on the podium by fiery Italian Marco Melandri, who made a charge up from seventh to finish third.
During the trophy celebrations Hayden cupped his hand to his ear, resulting in an eruption around the entire area as the spectators on-hand screamed their approval in unison.
“I swear it feels better this year than last year, if that’s possible,” an ecstatic Hayden said. “I struggled a lot this weekend; nothing had gone very good and I really didn’t know if I could get it done today. Especially at the beginning, the pace was really hot.
"I’m going to be straight up with you -- I felt a lot of pressure starting sixth, home crowd, 26 points lead in the World Championship. I didn’t want to do anything silly and let that completely get away. Last year my bike was perfect and it was easy. This year I really had to work for it. I feel really fortunate, really blessed.
“We’ve really got a shot at the championship. Everybody thought it was a fluke at the beginning of the year, but my boys are for real and my team is really strong. It’s going to be tough but we’re not going to go down without swinging.”
Equally as important as Hayden’s critic-silencing ride was the fate of Rossi. After struggling mightily in qualifying, starting down in tenth, the megastar looked to be en route to another one of his trademark raceday miracles with a podium result still a possibility deep into the race. However, misfortune struck and a combination of tire and engine woes forced him out of the race just three laps from the finish, resulting in a crushing blow to his title hopes.
Hayden now leads the MotoGP World Championship by 34 points over Pedrosa and 44 over Melandri following 11 of 17 rounds. Rossi has tumbled all the way down to fourth, 51 points off of the lead. With only six races left to be run, the world is finally starting to accept Hayden as the worthy title contender that he’s proven to be.
Hayden’s victory and world standing, along with the fact that he was joined by three other Americans in the top ten at Laguna Seca (Roberts – fourth, John Hopkins – sixth, and Colin Edwards – ninth), have shown the world that the Americans matter once again in Grand Prix motorcycle racing. Meanwhile, the massive success of the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix has shown the world that Grand Prix motorcycle racing matters once again in America.