Where does Nicky Hayden fit in 2013? His Ducati option is expired and he is free to talk to other teams, other series or, stay right where he is at if the moon and the stars align. He takes with him a large fan base, many of whom are in the USA. So the question is, if Nicky Hayden isn’t on a factory GP bike, is Ducati changing focus from the American market?
How Ducati has arrived at this crossroads is clear and no question it’s complicated. There’s a saying in racing – “The first person you have to beat is your own team mate”. Well that’s not ideal if your team mate is the #1 rider on the Ducati Corse team and among a small handful of the most powerful men in motorcycle racing. In a year where Valentino Rossi wasn’t backed into an obvious professional corner things might be different and Nicky Hayden might have remained under the protective favor of VR46. But this year Valentino Rossi had enough to worry about and that left Nicky Hayden exposed. From a team perspective, with only so many spaces on factory bikes possible, Rossi approaching the end of his motorcycle racing career, it’s clear a younger future must be considered. Adding to the complication is the unfortunate fact that just about every gold standard rider’s contract expired this year. Decisions that might have waited until 2013 became 2012 issues. If they don’t get it right this year next year’s crop of available riders to pick from will be sparse. Finally, Rossi wields the Italian press like a bat to communicate what he wants from Ducati. Looking for balance in the garage to the largeness of superstar Rossi may have been the final straw.
Motorcycle racing, especially in Ducati’s case is very much a win on Sunday sell on Monday situation. It’s development has been done thru competition since the 1950’s and many of the arguments for future MotoGP racing rules are based on the standard corporate justification for racing – that it improves the breed. And in Ducati’s case it clearly does. The business of choosing a rider is similar and marketability is important. Just ask the Spanish. Some would argue the personalities are bigger than the brands they ride. Drivers as personalities is what made NASCAR, and Rossi is the biggest star in the race regardless of what he is riding. Larger than life Valentino Rossi and All American Nicky Hayden are a marketing dream team under “normal” circumstances.
Ducati’s biggest market in the world is America and Nicky Hayden has been a great ambassador for the brand. The only thing he does better than racing is represent America to the world. His tireless work ethics, refusal to publicly complain, family values and team player attitude are about as good an advertising campaign as the USA could ask for. High profile athletes commonly get hero worship. In Nicky’s case you can add respect to that, not something you see every day. And he is universally adored by Ducati fans in America. He has become a Ducatista. Does he sell bikes? Yes.
Today, Nicky Hayden fans worldwide are in an uproar, “DOES NOT DESERVE” was one of many Twitter posts in English and Italian. With the possibility of three USGP’s on the schedule, the WSBK round in question and Nicky Hayden’s tireless willingness to do what is asked promotion-wise, will the American rounds and the US market be the biggest loser if Nicky Hayden is forced to SBK or another brand?