Charlotte:Racing motorcycles has taken Nicky Hayden out of the United States and all around the world, with stops in China, Spain and San Marino.
As much as Hayden loves the jet-setting lifestyle, there's nothing like coming home. The reigning MotoGP world champion known as "The Kentucky Kid" returned to American soil this week for the only stop in the United States on the 19-race schedule.
"I've been very fortunate and able to see a lot of places, but there ain't no place like home," said Hayden, the only American to ever win the MotoGP title. "There's something to be said about people speaking your language, and eating your kind of food.
"Don't get me wrong it's pretty cool to visit all these other countries but it's made me realize we got it pretty good right here in the good ol' US of A."
Hayden's profound patriotism might be linked to his success at home. He's the two-time defending winner of the United States Grand Prix, and will try to make it three in a row on Sunday at Mazda
Raceway in Laguna Seca, California.
His first two wins were monumental: The 2005 victory was the first of his career, and the repeat last season pushed him toward the world championship. A third could be the breakthrough he needs to
jump-start his disappointing season.
Hayden is still searching for his first win of the year and heads into the U.S. GP ranked ninth in the standings. Despite the disappointing results, Hayden feels good about this weekend.
"I had high expectations again for this year, but it's been a bit of a struggle," he said. "We were caught off guard by a rules change, I had some injuries and some crashes, just a really rough
start. But I've had a couple good races, things are turning up and I'm starting to feel a lot better on the bike.
"Now I get to carry it into this race, at a track that I definitely believe fits my style. And there's no place like racing in front of your home fans and in your home country it is big motivation and extra excitement."
Hayden began his reign as champion on the injured list after tearing his rotator cuff and re-breaking his collarbone in a late-season crash last year. It led to offseason surgery, but rules changes left little time to rest, and Hayden had only six weeks to recuperate before he was back to work testing his new 800cc Honda.
"I just wasn't 100 percent, but the rules were changed and we went from 990ccs to 800 and unfortunately we didn't make the transition fast enough," he said. "I couldn't afford to miss any testing."
A May 20 wreck in France led to broken ribs and torn cartilage, and Hayden said he's just now finally feeling good. It showed with his first podium finishes of the year third-places in the Netherlands
and Germany and Hayden hopes to carry that momentum into Sunday's event.
But unlike the past two years, when Hayden's familiarity with the Laguna Seca course gave him an advantage, he believes the field will be even.
"Racing on home soil sure helped me out in the first year, and again last year, because nobody knew the track as well as I did," he said. "But now everybody knows it and the advantage I had is gone. I still think I can win, though. If I didn't believe in my heart I could win, I should probably just stay home."
As extra incentive, Hayden will be racing against his brother, Roger Lee, for the first time at this level and the first time since 2002. Roger Lee, the youngest Hayden brother, has been called up from the American superbike series by Kawasaki as a wild card for the weekend.
Oldest brother Tommy, meanwhile, will be racing in the American superbike event at Laguna Seca this weekend.
Win or lose this weekend, Hayden is hoping he can help build American interest in the series that has made him an international superstar. Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced this week that it
will host an event starting next season, and Hayden believes two races a year in this country should help the cause.
"Having an American champion has helped, but I really think having two races will help put this sport on the map in this country," he said. "And personally, I can't wait. Being from Kentucky, racing in Indianapolis is like my backyard. It's certainly a lot closer than Turkey."