Lace Up Your Shoes, Boys: the Nicky Hayden "Tunica" Story
Originally published 2013
by Dean Adams
Saturday, October 30, 2021
Bert Shepard, Middleton OH
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(2013) When the Hayden boys, Tom, Nicky and Roger Lee, talk to one another, it's almost like they speak in a special Hayden clan code. And unless you're a close friend of the family you're never going to know any of the code phrases or what they mean. It's not a secret society or anything. Those three have been racing and riding together for over twenty years now and after a while I suppose they just stopped finishing each other's sentences because they could convey their thoughts with just a few words and a look.
I only know two of the phrases, or think I do anyway. The first one is when discussing another rider, one of the boys will look at his brother and say, "Yeah, I don't think his dad beat him very much."
The first few times you hear one of them say that, you sort of stumble away thinking, pretty good kids those Haydens, on top of being fast, they're also advocates for stopping harmful child abuse. They, you think, must have compiled a short mental list of riders whose dads physically abused their sons and which fathers used modern strategies--reasoning with teenagers--successfully.
It's not until much later--if ever--that you hear the rest of that phrase. I think the full phrase is, and it's usually said on the dirt track grid, "Yeah, I don't think his dad beat him very much. But I think he's gonna get beat right now."
Not many remember it today, but in 2002--the same season that he won the AMA Superbike title on an RC51--Nick Hayden also raced almost the entire season of dirt track. At that time it was pretty clear that Nick's opportunities to race dirt track in the future would be limited--he'd be in MotoGP or WSBK soon so logistically it was just not going to work to, say, come back from Motegi and race the Peoria TT, no matter how badly he wanted to. So, Nick raced dirt track all over the US that season and won a great number of races for a guy whose real goal that year was to win the Daytona 200 and the Superbike title.
Roadracer Nick was transitioning to being a "former dirt tracker." It was not easy for him. Hayden won the Peoria TT, beating Chris Carr--who was then known as the Prince of Peoria--and also won numerous Grand National events at Springfield.
However, the race that might be the most relevant after the last lap at Indy, and the one attached to the other Hayden-only phrase I've heard, happened in a grungy little bowl in Tunica, Mississippi the weekend after Hayden signed his deal to race for the factory MotoGP team in 2002.
Back then, Nick's Superbike mechanic, Dan Fahie, was helping him prepare and race dirt track. Fahie roadraced in Canada before he became a factory Honda mechanic. He went on to run Kawasaki's roadrace program and currently runs their motocross race team. Back in '02, though, Fahie would fly into Kentucky with hopefully enough CRF450 parts for the weekend, help Family Hayden load the trailer and they'd hit the road to a dirt track national. The usual assortment of Owensboro characters would accompany or meet Team Hayden at the race, friends of Earl, friends of the boys.
Nick was accompanied that weekend by his friend Eric Reynolds--a kid probably better known by his nickname "Reynold's Wrap"--when they arrived in Tunica early and decided to walk the track. Eric Reynolds' father is a longtime friend of Earl Hayden's, which meant that Eric and Nicky have been friends since they were four years old. Nick and Reynolds went to school, played Pop Warner Football and have hung out together for their entire lives.
Reynolds remembers that lonely early track walk for two details: the old guy and the dirt. "The surface at Tunica that year looked like old river bottom dirt, really broken up," recalls Reynolds.
More importantly, while the Hayden clan were walking the track, they saw an older gentlemen in the stands; this was hours before even the heat races began.
"We was just out there walking around the track, and there was one old man that was sitting up in the stands," remembers Reynolds. "The only guy in the stands. It was early. I know there wasn't nobody else in the stands. We kind of walked by him, and he just started talking to us. He was a real old-timer, and he started telling a story."
Recognizing Hayden, the senior enthusiast came down from the stands and talked with the boys. He said that he'd been watching dirt track races in the south his entire life. It seemed to him that Tunica's short layout and gnarly surface looked like the same kind of cramped track where he'd once seen Dick Mann use the corners as basically a Wall of Death. The old guy said Mann ran his bike so wide and so fast on the outside of the track, passing everyone, that he came from well behind to win a race on a track just like the one at Tunica.
"Nick really picked up on that," Reynolds remembers.
A week before the '02 Tunica dirt track race, Nicky Hayden had been introduced at the Honda dealer convention as a Honda MotoGP rider for 2003. With this announcement, Hayden's opportunities to race dirt track were rapidly scrolling off his schedule. He wanted to close out his dirt track career by winning races, so Tunica took on a certain urgency with the then 21 year old Hayden.
With nearly forty percent of residents living below the poverty line and nearly seventy percent of them in single parent homes, a mental picture of Tunica might not be a flattering one. Also: sweaty, cramped and busy are the best words to use to describe the Tunica dirt track. More speedway than dirt track, lap times were very short for even an indoor short track. Also, due to the heat and traffic, tempers frequently flared between competitors.
Motivated by fate and desire, Hayden went straight to the lead of the dirt track main and looked set to win Tunica, capping off a great week for the American. Nick led more than ten laps, remembers Reynolds, when fellow competitor Johnny Murphree closed on Hayden and then ran into him, knocking Hayden and his Honda down, which caused the race to be stopped and the entrants re-gridded.
Hayden was somehow blamed for the red flag and would have to be penalized. Told he would have to start from the back of the grid, AND that they would have to move some bales in order to make a NEW last row for him, and seeing his last dirt track win slipping away, Nicky Hayden became even more furious than he was when he had been knocked down. He went silent--never a good sign with Nick. Then just before the race was re-started he said to the OWB group standing by the awning, "Lace up your shoes, boys."
Hayden went to the grid and brother Roger Lee accompanied him. Reynolds stood with Fahie on the side of the track. After a few minutes, Reynolds began to stare at Fahie, wondering when he'd act. Fahie stood silently.
"Yes, Reynolds?" Fahie answered, in a voice that suggested, no, I'm not buying you any more roller-dogs tonight.
"Ah, Dan, Nick said to lace up our shoes," Reynolds said.
Incredulous that the AMA wasn't just going to put Hayden on the back row for the re-start, that they were going to move bales out of the way and make a new Nicky-only back row, Fahie shot Reynolds a strange look and said "So?..."
Reynolds realized Fahie had not yet mastered Hayden-speak. He started quickly explaining.
"Dan, they went and made Nick mad, man," Reynolds said, his voice the same as if he had discovered someone in the facility was wearing an explosive vest. "Everybody knows not to make Nick mad. This is bad, man. When Nick says 'lace up your shoes' it means we have to start loading the truck now. We need to have the ramp on the trailer and be ready to leave or the other riders are going to tear us apart. We are probably going to have to beat out of the track right after the race. Nick's mad ... no tellin' how it will turn out when Nick is mad. You gotta start loading the trailer now, man."
"I am not loading the trailer, Reynolds," Fahie replied. "I'm going to watch this race." Reynolds adopted a worried look.
Veins bulging on his forehead, wearing the rarely if ever seen "Nicky Death Glare" from the back row of the Tunica grid Nick Hayden looked at all the bikes he was going to have to pass in order to win this race.
That only made him even more furious.
The story that the old spectator recounted about some long forgotten short-track race had been percolating in Hayden's mind all night. Tunica's river bottom surface was now tacky and the racing line very wide.
Green flag start. After a lap, Hayden went wide, to the outside of the track and opened the throttle. This was either going to work or it was going to be an ugly end to his CRF450 dirt track bike. After an awkward initial transition, his Wall of Death technique worked, Hayden was able to rail his Honda on the outside of the track, passing groups of startled riders who previously thought they were already riding on the outside line of the track.
"He was hitting both wheels on the wall, on the outside wall, and was like using it as a berm and going around guys," remembers Reynolds.
"Guys'd be expecting Nick to come up the inside to pass. Their heads would just jerk right when he came up on them on the outside, just railing," Reynolds said. "They never expected it."
Hayden worked the wall of death technique until he was in third place. Then racer Kevin Varnes, in second, adopted a wide racing line. He had a fast bike which prevented Hayden from moving forward as the laps of the race ran out. Jake Johnson won the race on a Honda. Hayden finished third, still furious. Murphee's Rotax finished second.
Eleven years later, at Laguna Seca, in the closing laps of the MotoGP race, Andrea Dovizioso began to race his teammate Nick Hayden really hard for eighth place. At one point, Dovi' slammed into the side of Nicky's bike and they both almost went down. After the race, in the Ducati garage, Dovi' apologized to Hayden for the incident. Then he went to his media debrief and said it was a racing incident and inferred that Nick was mostly responsible for it.
A few weeks later, at Indy, Nick still had that "Tunica" look on his face. He didn't tell anyone to lace up their shoes, but after seeing the glare on his face, he really didn't need to. He waited for the last lap, last corner.
After the Tunica race, the post-race torch and pitchfork assault that Reynolds feared would come from the other riders never materialized. Team Hayden loaded up and prepared to drive home. Nick remained very quiet and everyone knew just to leave him alone.
Roger Lee was rolling Nick's Honda into the trailer when he found dirt track racer Shaun Russell in front of him. Russell, a talented dirt track front-runner, had finished ninth that night in Mississippi. 'Here it comes,' thought Roger Lee. Russell had witnessed Nick Hayden's wall of death technique after the re-start. But he wasn't angry and he didn't want to fight.
"How ... how did your brother do that?" he asked Roger Lee. "He was riding on the walls ... I could not believe it."
Roger Lee just shrugged his shoulders. "Man, don't make Nick mad. Don't ever make Nick mad," he said.
— ends —