Number One: Josh Hayes - AMA Pro American SuperBike Champion

Josh Hayes and Yamaha break Suzuki’s stranglehold on the AMA Pro American SuperBike Championship and learn a lot about each other in the process.

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Last August at Virginia International Raceway, Suzuki-mounted Tommy Hayden outdragged the Yamaha of Ben Bostrom to win the first of two AMA Pro American SuperBike races scheduled that weekend. Margin of victory was just _._005 of a second—too close for even the official waving the checkers at the start/finish line to call. Hayden was so determined to win that his line carried him off the track into a grassy meadow at more than 140 mph. With his victory, Hayden narrowed the championship spread between him and Hayes, who finished .304 of a second behind Bostrom, to just one point.

Next day, once again starting from his second-place qualifying position, Hayes demolished the same field, winning the 23-lap race by more than 7 seconds.

“Race 1 at VIR, I was leading by a small margin and got beat,” Hayes recalled several months later. “I knew it wasn’t my best performance, and I was upset. On Sunday, I rode the race I was supposed to ride and won by a fairly large margin. _That’s_the guy who raced Mat Mladin.”

Josh Hayes - AMA Pro American SuperBike Champion

New rules? DMG? Josh Hayes (4)admits that he would have liked to race “near-prototype World Superbike-spec machines” but says it’s time to move on. “People still ask me, ‘Hey, how’s that whole DMG thing?’ If you don’t know, then you haven’t been watching the racing.”

Hayes won seven AMA Pro American SuperBike races in 2010, two more than his closest rival, series runner-up Hayden. He further finished second six times and recorded one third. In fact, in 19 starts, the Gulfport, Mississippi, native missed the podium just five times. During the past decade, only seven-time-series-winner Mladin, three-time-titlist Ben Spies and 2002 champion Nicky Hayden—favorable company, to say the least—posted better results.

This past season was also notable for Hayes in another way: He only crashed once. “I’ve never, ever gotten away with one crash—not even close!” he said. “I average five or six crashes per year. I think that says I had a little gas left in the tank. I rode...carefully. And I saw it in some of my races.”

Hayes’ SuperBike championship was Yamaha’s second-ever and first since 1991, when Thomas Stevens brought home the title (with just one victory, at Mid-Ohio) on a Vance & Hines FZR750RR. Prior to Hayes joining the factory-supported Graves Motorsports effort in 2009, Yamaha had not even won a Superbike race since 2002, when Anthony Gobert topped the first leg of the weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

I asked Hayes how he felt about breaking Suzuki’s championship string and ending the Yamaha drought. “I have to be realistic when discussing that subject,” he replied. “It would have been better for me if Mat would have stayed in the series for another year, and I would have been able to beat him. Mat was the beginning and the end of the GSX-R era.”

Like Mladin, Hayes, 36, was not an overnight success. He turned pro in 1996, won the AMA Superstock title with Attack Suzuki in 2003, then stepped up to Superbike, finishing eighth and ninth overall in 2004 and ’05 on Richard Stanboli-built Kawasakis. Moving to Erion Racing, Hayes won back-to-back Formula Xtreme titles on Honda CBR600RRs. Despite all of his experience, he was unprepared for the sheer size of the Graves effort.

“With all the support teams along the way, I typically had a crew chief and a couple of chassis guys,” said Hayes. “All of a sudden, I had electronics experts, engine experts, chassis experts and suspension experts, as well as management above them.”

Hayes and teammate Ben Bostrom were tasked with developing a new YZF-R1, whose engine and chassis were much-changed from the previous model. “Ben jumped on the bike and had better feel for it right off the bat,” said Hayes. “I tried to believe in and trust the team and go along with the program, but at some point, I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere.

Josh Hayes testing the Yamaha YZF-R1 at Daytona

Hayes, shown here testing the then-new crossplane-crank Yamaha YZF-R1 at Daytona prior to the start of the 2009 AMA season, has 14 American SuperBike victories to his credit. He’s currently tied with Eddie Lawson and Scott Russell for ninth on the all-time Superbike win list. Hayes also has one AMA Superstock and two Formula Xtreme titles to his credit.

“In the beginning, the bike was so complicated. When I came into the pit with a problem, everybody had a different idea. They looked at the data and threw something at it. If we fixed the problem, we never knew exactly what we’d done to fix it.”

Hayes wanted to start fresh. “We were at Road Atlanta,” he recalled. “First day, we struggled. Second day, first thing in the morning, I threw a temper tantrum. I said, ‘Put this thing back to stock.’ I wanted to take off all of the electronics—the crazy engine-braking strategies, launch control, traction control. I wanted to get down to the basics. I wanted to find a motorcycle that I could ride.

“We started from scratch, and immediately, we saw potential. I ran top three for quite a while and ended up fourth—just off the podium.”

Development continued during a test at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California. "At that point, I started being difficult," said Hayes. "I said, 'This is going to be a hard test. You're going to have to prove everything to me and back it up against the stock bike that I like and can ride.' I found out how much the crew knew and the depth of their resources. When we got to something that I could ride hard, then we started implementing some of the tools to help me ride better or at least get more out of the machine."

The motorcycle was just one part of the equation; Hayes also had to change his riding style. "The R1 has a very refined chassis, which is a reflection of Yamaha's 800cc MotoGP bikes. The bike likes to roll around the racetrack—very smooth and in control. That's not natural for me; I like to throw the bike around.

Josh Hayes with wife Melissa Paris

Hayes’ wife, Melissa Paris, is a professional roadracer, too. She’s working her way through the ranks, hard knocks and all. “I’ve been through the ‘hard’ years,“ said Hayes. “That’s what she’s going through now.“

“I had to change my riding style when I first began racing in the AMA series against Nicky Hayden, Tommy Hayden and Kurtis Roberts. Miguel Duhamel was backing into corners and spinning the rear tire off the turns—just going crazy with the thing hung out everywhere. I learned and adapted that style through riding for Richard Stanboli, Kevin Erion and some other teams. It carried over to the way I rode a 600—point and shoot, like a big bike.

“The R1 didn’t like that when I first started riding it in 2009. I felt like I had to learn how to race a motorcycle all over again. At the same time, I had to figure out the strengths of this machine and exploit them.

“The R1 turns very well. It has really good feel. I believe in the crossplane-crankshaft technology. has very good feel at corner exits, and I can control spin well for good grip and to get the thing going. Acceleration hasn’t been our strongest point; we’ve had to play catch-up. But it’s getting better. Top speed is very good.”

When the series returned to Infineon for Round 5, Hayes won Race 1, though he hesitates to give himself credit for that victory. “The win at Infineon was a bit circumstantial,” he said. “Everyone else had a really bad day.”

Hayes struggled at Road America but swept Mid-Ohio, podiumed at controversy-laced Heartland Park, then won both races at VIR and season-ending New Jersey Motorsports Park. The latter victories were head-to-head, cards-on-the-table battles with Mladin.

"I wish the 2009 race season had started halfway through the year," said Hayes. "Mat talked about how his motivation had died out. When I started riding well, he had someone to race again, a real opponent. At the end, especially New Jersey and even Virginia, he was riding very, very hard. He showed some of the old signs of Mat—getting out there and trying to take charge.

“Our sport has never seen a bigger intimidator than Mat Mladin. I’ve never met another human being who went after people the way that he did. Everything to Mat was personal. Mat made it a point to go out in practice and stuff you—close and dirty. If you were anywhere near him, he was going to find you and make sure that you knew he was the top dog on the racetrack. For some people, that was enough. If they weren’t fast enough to pass him back, he didn’t have to do any more work. He was already in their head.”

Hayes' on-track relationship with Hayden is much different. "Tommy and I really like racing," he said. "We want to get in there and throw elbows, but at the same time, we have a lot of respect for each other. I want to win but not at the cost of hurting Tommy or myself.

Hayes spent two seasons riding Kawasaki ZX-10Rs in AMA Superbike for Attack Performance

Hayes spent two seasons riding Kawasaki ZX-10Rs in AMA Superbike for Attack Performance. “Richard Stanboli is very methodical and a good engineer,” claimed Hayes. “He was one of the few privateers that tackled electronics—he saw the potential advantages. Anybody can look at data, but Richard was able to make sense of it.”

"Some people need to hate their competition. I don't need to hate somebody to give him my very best. Some of the most fun I've ever had on a motorcycle has been banging bars on dirtbikes with my wife, Melissa, and our friends. That's fun."

When Mladin retired at the end of the 2009 season, seven-race-winner and series-runner-up Hayes was the odds-on favorite to win the 2010 title. “The second half of 2009 definitely helped build my confidence,” he said. “I rolled into 2010 ready to go and feeling confident that I was going to be in the mix for the championship from Day 1.

“Suzuki found some very good people—Tommy Hayden and Blake Young—to replace Mat. During the off-season, not a whole lot changed with our bike because we were winning. At Daytona, we realized everyone had done their homework and come back with some new weapons.

“The guys really got behind me and worked very hard. There were new pieces every weekend. Nothing stands out as being that much different, but we shaved quite a bit of weight, and the bike got faster and easier to ride. If I were to ride the 2009 bike back-to-back with the machine we finished with in 2010, the differences would be considerable.”

Hayes says his approach to racing in 2011 will be different from that of last season. “I want to take this year one race at a time,” he said. “I have the championship. I’ve accomplished that goal. I know the championship is important to Yamaha, but if I win every race, the championship will come, too. If I get a comfortable points lead, I don’t want to get careful. I want to push my limits.”

Josh Hayes achieves goal of becoming AMA SuperBike champion

“To achieve my goal of becoming AMA SuperBike champion is pretty amazing,” said Hayes, pictured with crew chief Jim Roach. “It doesn’t seem like so long ago that I was a senior in high school, watching racing on TV and thinking, ‘Isn’t that cool?!’”

013 Josh Hayes - AMA Pro American SuperBike Champion (Photo by Andrea Wilson)

012 Josh Hayes - AMA Pro American SuperBike Champion (Photo by Andrea Wilson)

011 Josh Hayes - AMA Pro American SuperBike Champion (Photo by Andrea Wilson)

010 Josh Hayes - AMA Pro American SuperBike Champion (Photo by Andrea Wilson)

009 Josh Hayes - AMA Pro American SuperBike Champion (Photo by Andrea Wilson)

008 Josh Hayes - AMA Pro American SuperBike Champion (Photo by Andrew Wheeler)

007 Josh Hayes - AMA Pro American SuperBike Champion (Photo by Andrew Wheeler)

006 Josh Hayes - AMA Pro American SuperBike Champion (Photo by Andrea Wilson)

005 Josh Hayes - AMA Pro American SuperBike Champion (Photo by Andrew Wheeler)

004 Josh Hayes - AMA Pro American SuperBike Champion (Photo by Andrew Wheeler)

003 Josh Hayes - AMA Pro American SuperBike Champion (Photo by Andrea Wilson)

002 Josh Hayes - AMA Pro American SuperBike Champion (Photo by Andrew Wilson)

001 Josh Hayes - AMA Pro American SuperBike Champion (Photo by Andrea Wilson)