Photography by Andrew Wheeler
Racing is a minefield of unknowns. Celebrating on the podium at New Jersey Motorsports Park, site of the final round of the 2011 AMA Pro Road Racing series, Josh Hayes could not have imagined that two months later he’d be making his MotoGP debut. But no one envisioned that Marco Simoncelli would be killed in a freak crash at the penultimate round of the world championship in Malaysia. Or that non-life-threatening injuries suffered by Colin Edwards in the same accident would force the Texan to abandon the season-ending race inSpain, freeing up his Tech 3 Yamaha for Hayes.
Weeks before Simoncelli’s fateful crash, Yamaha had arranged for Hayes to test Edwards’ YZR-M1 at the Circuito de la Comunitat Ricardo Tormo. Flights were booked, hotels paid for. But the test wasn’t really a test; it was a gift to Hayes for winning his second-straight American SuperBike title. At 36, Hayes knew a move to MotoGP was not in the cards; Edwards’ teammate, Cal Crutchlow, and ex-Honda man Andrea Dovizioso were already contracted to Tech 3 for 2012. So, with a spectacular, come-from-behind national championship behind him and a handful of low-key laps on a soon-to-be-extinct 800cc MotoGP bike ahead of him, Hayes had been kicking back at home in California. A few days shaking down the new YZF-R1 and “a little tennis” were the scope of his training regimen.
Although Hayes keeps up with friends Edwards and factory Ducati and Yamaha riders Nicky Hayden and Ben Spies, he doesn’t follow MotoGP. “I’m just not going to look at [MotoGP] because I want it,” he said. “I can’t make it happen, so I’m going to focus on what I’m doing.”
Hayes was at Yamaha’s U.S. headquarters in California when he learned that Tech 3 was actively seeking a replacement for Edwards. “I could feel the hair stand up on my arms,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I might actually get a shot at this.’”
A few frantic days later, Hayes and his wife, Melissa, a regular in the AMA Pro Daytona SportBike class, were on a plane bound for Spain. Chance of a lifetime? Personal doubts had now made the treat of a MotoGP test seem so far away. Now, it was all about competition.
“At the end of the day, I’m a racer,” said Hayes. “I have pride, and there’s a lot I want to accomplish for myself. As much as everybody has been wonderful about telling me, ‘Hey, just go have fun and enjoy the experience,’ there’s still a checkered flag at the end.”
When MotoGP regrouped in Valencia less than two weeks after the loss of Simoncelli, MotoGP’s next great star, the dark specter of death hung over the entire paddock. “Ciao, Marco” and “RIP #58” were still being tweeted and posted on racing bulletin boards around the globe.
Upon arrival in Spain, Hayes learned that he would have less than four hours total to figure out the track, the motorcycle and his new team. Hayes had been to Valencia once before, but he’d never turned a wheel on the tricky, 14-turn 2.5-mile circuit. He’d never sat on, let alone ridden, an 800cc MotoGP prototype. Layers of electronic aids, carbon-carbon Brembo brakes and series-spec Bridgestone slicks were further uncharted territory.
“I was a nervous wreck,” he said.
Hayes doesn’t speak French, so he was uncertain if he would be able to communicate with the Provence-based Tech 3 crew and chief engineer Guy Coulon. Plus, the weather forecast for the weekend was dodgy. Hayes also had to deal with a grid full of the top riders in the world—including recently crowned world champion Casey Stoner and former AMA and World Superbike Champion Spies—all of whom knew their machines intimately and were well-versed on the many nuances of the Spanish racetrack.
Hayes may have felt like an outsider, but the vibe in the paddock toward him was extremely positive. Crutchlow, not Edwards, was Hayes’ “guidance counselor” for the weekend. Hayes had sent Edwards a couple of text messages wishing him well in his recovery, but that was the extent of their contact. Crutchlow and Hayes are good friends off the track and have trained and socialized together inCalifornia, where Crutchlow’s management company is located. Other people in the paddock also volunteered their assistance.
Hayes’ MotoGP experience reminded him of his early years in the AMA ranks, racing alongside his heroes, Aaron Yates, Jason Pridmore and Miguel Duhamel. “I was following Miguel at SearsPoint [now Infineon Raceway],” recalled Hayes. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, if I have to ride like that, my career is over. This is as far as I’m ever going to make it. There’s no way!’”
Hayes made steady progress, and this past season, he passed Yates for seventh overall on the AMA’s all-time rider win list. With 39 victories to his credit, he’s just one podium-topping finish shy of five-time Daytona 200 winner Scott Russell. Duhamel heads the list with 86 wins.
Victory was the last thing on Hayes’ mind at Valencia. With a weekend full of memorials to Simoncelli, the entire paddock sporting pins with a red “58” on a black background, visual reminders everywhere of the fallen Italian emblazoned on trucks, plus giant walls of remembrance and folks having their pictures taken under the Gresini semi with its full-size picture of a waving Simoncelli, the entire track felt like a place of pilgrimage.
When someone suggested that perhaps Hayes had given fans someone to cheer for, he said, “Maybe the timing couldn’t have been better.” He described the loss of 13-year-old Peter Lenz at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2010 and Superbike racer Jamie Bowman a decade earlier at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. “But then you take a hit with one of your top guys—Marco Simoncelli—and the whole world wanted to see something good, you know? No one wants to end the season on a low note. I was lucky that a lot of people got behind me.”
This wasn’t idle talk. As the weekend went on, more journalists—European writers, in particular—asked to speak with Hayes. “Maybe they wanted to find a positive somewhere in there,” he remarked. “I think they got that.”
Hayes didn’t disappoint on the track, either. On Friday morning, he was second-to-last. Then, when pit lane opened in the afternoon, he was first out of the gate. He never pitted, instead spending every second of the 45-minute session running laps—25 in all. By the end of practice, he’d jumped five spots to 10th overall.
“I thought I’d be riding on a razor’s edge—everything is good and then you’re sliding on your head,” said Hayes. “That wasn’t the case. The bike is forgiving, and the electronics work extremely well.”
Both sessions were wet, the second more so than the first. Midway through FP2, nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi zeroed in on Hayes. “He followed me for a while, passed me and then ran off the track,” recalled Hayes. “When he passed me, I took the opportunity to see where he was on the track, how he was approaching the turns.”
Hayes’ education continued in the pit box. “When I came back after practice,” he said, “eight people were looking at me, waiting for me to tell them something. I wanted to give them some information, but at the same time, I was just trying to learn how to ride the thing. It was more about what I could take in rather than what I could tell them.
“Guy, Andy, Peter from Bridgestone and the rest of the Tech 3 team—they were all fantastic. This wasn’t a ‘Look, man, just ride it and get it over with.’ But at the same time, the bike is as developed as it will ever be.”
On Saturday, Hayes’ progress appeared to stall. He was slowest in morning practice and qualified dead-last—16th, 4.181 seconds behind pole-sitter Stoner—for Sunday’s race. To Hayes’ surprise, the Tech 3 team was impressed. They figured he would be 3 seconds per lap slower than factory Yamaha test rider Katsuyuki Nakasuga, not within a tenth of a second. “That’s great,” said Hayes, “but I don’t like being last.”
Hayes finally got to experience the Bridgestone slicks and Brembo carbon-carbon brakes. “I’d been told that if you don’t put a lot of force into the tires, you can’t keep enough heat in them to work,” he said. “So I was trying to push hard to keep the heat in the tires, but I wasn’t sure how much was too much with the moisture hitting the track.
“Twice, I stopped to do practice starts. Both times, I didn’t have any brakes in the first and second turns; their performance changed that quickly. Then, all of a sudden, it was like somebody flipped a switch. I almost flew over the handlebars!”
To everyone’s surprise, Hayes set the fastest time in Sunday morning warm-up. “I had roasted a set of rain tires—blown ’em up so bad that I couldn’t ride on them anymore,” he said. “When I came rolling down pit lane, the guys had a ‘dry’ bike ready for me with slicks from qualifying. I needed all of the experience I could get, so I rolled back out with 5 minutes to go. I got two flying laps.”
Spies was the last Tech 3 rider, at Indianapolis in 2010, to lead a practice session. Hayes joked after the session that he should retire from MotoGP while he was on top.
At the start of the race, facing the business end of the field, Hayes couldn’t hear his own motorcycle. He let the clutch out too quickly and bogged the engine. But he picked up four spots when Suzuki’s Alvaro Bautista knocked down the Ducatis of Hayden, Rossi and Randy de Puniet in Turn 1, passed two more by the end of the first lap and then spent the rest of the race trading blows with Nakasuga. Track conditions were constantly changing, and when rain hit hard with five laps to go, Toni Elias and Loris Capirossi “either had major problems or just gave up,” said Hayes. “We caught them really fast.” Then, Czech rookie Karel Abraham ran off and tipped over in the gravel, gifting Hayes another position. He finished seventh.
How do you sum up this spectacular, unexpected performance? The pressure on any racer—man or woman, amateur or professional—is to grow, to build, to overcome. Before leaving for Spain and its minefield of unknowns, Hayes confessed that he was “scared to death.” Rather than concede defeat and hide in his motorhome, he learned as much about the motorcycle, the team and the racetrack as time allowed. He dealt with constantly changing weather conditions and the pressure of the world stage. He didn’t crash. By doing all of this, he earned the respect of the Tech 3 Yamaha team—in fact, the entire MotoGP paddock—and gave U.S. roadracing credibility it couldn’t buy at any price.
Now, that is world class.