Nicky Hayden: From a homemade track to champion of the world
Riding and racing motorcycles was a life-long passion for 2006 MotoGP world champion Nicky Hayden, who died on Monday as a result of injuries sustained in a cycling accident in Italy.
Hayden was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1981 to Earl and Rose Hayden - both dirt track riders in their own right - and was on a bike by age three. When he was five he started racing against older brothers Tommy and Roger Lee Hayden on a homemade track on the Hayden property.
He quickly moved into minibike racing, and then 125s, moving through the club racing scene until he was knocking on the door of the AMA.
When he turned 16 midway through the 1997 season, he also turned professional and ran a satellite bike in the AMA 750 and 600 Supersport classes.
A switch to satellite Suzukis for the following season led to his first wins in both categories, and he was lured into the Honda fold with a factory contract for a top satellite team Erion for '99. He duly became the youngest AMA 600 Supersport title winner, and was promoted to AMA Superbikes on a factory bike for 2000.
Nicky Hayden - 1981-2017Getty Images
After finishing second in 2000, and third in '01, Hayden's breakthrough year came in 2002. He added to his 600 success by becoming the youngest AMA Superbike champion, as well as winning the prestigious Daytona 200.
From there, he was sent straight to world championship level with a Repsol Honda MotoGP ride as team-mate to champion Valentino Rossi. Fifth overall and rookie of the year honours was a promising start.
['A beautiful person, genuine and real' - motorcycling stars lead tributes to Hayden]
Rossi then jumped ship for Yamaha, and the likes of Sete Gibernau and Max Biaggi led Honda's vain attempts to beat its former rider to titles with his new employer.
Hayden was hampered by a broken collarbone in 2004 but did manage a breakthrough first MotoGP win - in superb style in front of his home crowd at Laguna Seca - in '05.
There had been little hint of what was to come in what turned out to be one of MotoGP's most extraordinary seasons in 2006.
Nicky Hayden after winning the U.S. Grand PrixReuters
Honda backed Hayden as its man to finally break Rossi's run of five titles and, as Rossi endured a messy start to the year, the American started to establish a championship lead.
His second MotoGP win - in an infamous last-lap dice with compatriot Colin Edwards that ended with both off the road at the final corner and only Hayden staying upright - at Assen put Hayden 42 points clear approaching mid-season and another Laguna victory helped too.
But as Rossi stabilised his season, Hayden's lead began to dwindle, and there was increasing intra-team angst with his double 250cc champion rookie team-mate Dani Pedrosa.
This came to a head at the penultimate round at Estoril, where Pedrosa took a distraught Hayden out and Rossi's second place in a legendary photo-finish with Toni Elias left Hayden eight points down going into the finale.
Few gave the two-time race-winner much hope against Rossi with his five championships and 58 MotoGP victories, but it was Rossi who cracked. As Rossi crashed out, third place earned Hayden a remarkable world title.
Nicky Hayden (Getty Images) - 2017Getty Images
The switch to 800cc bikes for the 2007 MotoGP season didn't quite suit Hayden, and he slipped back to eighth in the points on a machine that never handled to his liking and in a team he felt was now emphatically moulding around Pedrosa in both its working practices and its designs.
After one more only slightly better year, Hayden severed his Honda ties and joined Casey Stoner at Ducati for 2009.
Stoner's previous team-mates Loris Capirossi and Marco Melandri had both floundered on the tough-to-tame 800cc version of the Desmosedici, and Hayden was tipped to fare better with his more flamboyant style.
Though he rarely matched Stoner, Hayden improved from a distant 13th in the championship in his maiden Ducati season to seventh in 2010, with a podium at Aragon along the way.
He was teamed with Rossi again for 2011 and '12 after Stoner left for Honda, and often coped much better with the difficult Ducati than his illustrious team-mate.
What turned out to be his final MotoGP podium came in the wet at Jerez in 2011.
Nicky Hayden, Valentino Rossi, 2011 (Getty Images)Getty Images
Evenly matched with new team-mate Andrea Dovizioso in his last Ducati season, Hayden then rejoined the Honda fold for 2014 with the satellite Aspar team, where he spent two seasons before switching to World Superbikes last year.
That move made him a winner once again, Hayden taking a tense victory in Malaysia on his way to fifth in the points.
Hayden made a pair of MotoGP cameos in 2016 as well, called on as a super-sub for Jack Miller at the Marc VDS team at Aragon, and then making one last start on a Repsol Honda bike at Phillip Island after Pedrosa's crash in Japan.
His return was a very popular one in the paddock, and the mini-comeback featured a point in Spain.
After a life spent fully and passionately emerged in the dangerous world of two-wheel motorsport, it was a cycling accident that ultimately claimed the life of the Kentucky Kid. Struck by a car while cycling in Italy, Nicky succumbed to the injuries he sustained on Monday.