Best Laid Plans: Roger Hayden at the Indianapolis Grand Prix
American Honda wanted a taste of world championship racing in the ultra-competitive new Moto2 series. They got it in spades at the Red Bull Indianapolis GP.
From its inception and through six full days of testing, the American Honda Moriwaki Moto2 wildcard project seemed to come together so smoothly, it was almost scary—as if things were going too well. The team was eager for a taste of the newest Grand Prix class, and with 1993 500cc GP World Champion Kevin Schwantz managing the effort, Erion Racing running the technical side, and 2007 AMA Supersport Champion Roger Hayden on a Moriwaki chassis similar to that of class points-leader Toni Elias, hopes for success were understandably high. Once the team hit the track at the Red Bull Indianapolis GP, however, it took just a few minutes for the harsh and unpredictable reality of Moto2 racing to be made clear.
As soon as the first press release in May announced that American Honda would collaborate with Moriwaki to field a Moto2 wildcard entry at Indy, fans and pundits began pondering the possibilities, and interest only grew with news that American racing favorites Schwantz, Erion, and Hayden would be on the roster. As the race weekend gets underway, the scrutiny has become almost overwhelming.
“We didn’t think it would get this much media attention,” American Honda PR manager Bill Savino admits at Indianapolis Motor Speedway following a Friday Q&A session with fans, the Honda Powersports tent bathing his face in a red glow that matches his enthusiasm . People wearing Aldo Drudi-designed American Honda Moriwaki team gear mill about, and it’s unclear to an outsider which are actual team members and which are enthusiastic fans sporting the team gear that’s being sold to benefit Ride for Kids and the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.
“Obviously, we’re not road racing right now,” Savino adds, “so this is a perfect opportunity for us to get into [the Moto2 class], which we feel is superior to anything we have here [in America].”
That’s about as frank a statement as will come from any of the team’s major players regarding American Honda’s impetus for the project, an effective demonstration that although the company doesn’t approve of AMA Pro’s current vision enough to take part in that series, it still cares about road racing. That said, principals insist that this is a one-off effort, and not a trial run for something larger. Whether it’s the lineup of some of America’s most-loved road racing personalities or the use of Schwantz’s historic #34 racing number (Hayden’s typical #95 is taken by class-regular Mashel Al Naimi), the project captures the enthusiasm of American fans, who flock to team events all weekend. As a result, there’s no shortage of eyes on Roger when he comes to a stop just a few laps into the first practice run on Friday afternoon, the victim of a locked rear brake. Shrugging off the distraction of pushing his bike when he expected to be riding it, Roger manages to squeeze in twenty-one laps, and while his best of 1:48.051 has him just twenty-third on the charts, he’s only 1.323 seconds off the pace of leader Scott Redding in a very competitive field.
“What we did there was just a little test for Roger, to make sure he really wanted to ride,” Schwantz jokes later. “It’s unfortunate that we lost a little bit of time… but I still have high hopes for the weekend.”
JACK OF ALL TRADES
By most accounts, Hayden is hungrier and in better shape than he’s ever been before. After being left without a ride when Kawasaki’s U.S. subsidiary followed American Honda’s lead and pulled out of AMA Pro Road Racing this season, Roger moved to the international stage full-time with the Pedercini Kawasaki satellite World Superbike squad. Aware that achieving success with a small team in such a competitive series wouldn’t be easy, Hayden trained more and rode harder, striving to be competitive. His efforts have earned him points on four separate occasions by the time of this Indy endeavor, and have placed him ahead of his teammate (Italian Matteo Baiocco) at nearly every race weekend. They’ve also put him on the short list for some very high-profile one-off rides.
In addition to this Moto2 wildcard appearance, Hayden had the opportunity to replace injured LCR Honda rider Randy De Puniet for the previous month’s premier-class Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, where he finished just outside the top ten, soundly beating ex-MotoGP regular and current Moto2 rider Alex De Angelis in the process.
The constant change in bikes, tires, teams, and series over the past few months has been difficult for Hayden, but it’s also been a learning experience and a confidence boost. “I think you can learn something from every scenario, and try to carry those things that you learn on to the next project,” he says a couple of hours after his first Moto2 practice session. “I feel blessed to have these opportunities, and it definitely feels good… to know that a lot of people have faith in you–especially American Honda, Kevin Schwantz, Kevin Erion, a MotoGP team… It makes you feel good about yourself, that’s for sure.”
Despite the troubles, Roger is still fresh and eager to perform, but he knows the importance of a good starting position due to the extreme competitiveness of the Moto2 field and the tight layout of the first four corners. “You’re going to need to be up the grid in qualifying, because I have a feeling there’s going to be a little carnage if it’s like any of the other Moto2 races,” he says, grinning. Those words will prove to be prescient.
On Saturday morning, the American Honda Moriwaki garage is packed; Hayden is already out on track, and there are at least twenty-five people flowing in and out of the stall. Honda Senior Vice President Ray Blank chats with Erion, and Moriwaki Engineering Managing Director Midori Moriwaki confers with several engineers out on pit lane. The energy is high, the sun is bright, and everyone seems poised. With thirty-eight minutes left in the second free-practice session, Hayden jumps from P33 to P26 and returns to pit road.
After consulting with the technicians for a few minutes, Roger prepares to head back out. As he buckles his helmet, Schwantz shouts over the revving Honda engine, “One second will put you sixteenth!” Roger nods.
Three laps on, he finds that one second and moves into fifteenth position, with just one more second between himself and P1. He’s making progress, but according to Erion, it’s not because of big setup changes. “He just needs to get out and ride!” Erion yells over the roar on pit lane. The majority of the Moto2 field has developed bike setup over the previous ten races,and the riders’ times constantly drop over this hour-long session; it’s clear that the time lost in yesterday’s outing has been particularly costly for Hayden, who climbs as high as fourteenth before ending the session in twenty-fifth, 1.229 seconds off Redding’s 1:46.068 best.
A few hours later, the qualifying session goes much the same, resulting in a worst-case scenario: Roger will start tomorrow’s race from the twenty-ninth slot on the grid, right in the thick of Moto2’s typical first-lap chaos.
On the morning of race day, Hayden finds some speed and finishes the twenty-minute warm-up session fourteenth fastest, and fastest American. That afternoon, things are looking up for the American Honda effort as the bikes take their places for the start. Crowds in the grandstands and on the media-center deck have gone strangely silent, and haunting music drifts across the front straight. Thirty-eight 600cc Honda spec engines are bump-started, the bikes are pulled back into place, and the start light flashes off. Hayden darts up the grid from a great launch and passes several riders on the run down to Turn 1.
Scant seconds later, Roger is sliding across the Turn 3 tarmac and into the grass, his head pinned under his own motorcycle. He isn’t alone, as there are two separate piles of riders and motorcycles beside the track by the time the red flag is thrown.
Still shaky, Hayden begins pushing his bike back to the starting grid with a broken handlebar, worried that a ride in the crash truck will prevent him from making the restart. With a fan’s help, he fires the bike and makes it to the grid, where technicians swarm around the battered Moriwaki.“We’ve had twenty-five people in the garage all weekend, and we used all twenty-five of them to get the bike put back together!” Schwantz will say later.
In the short amount of time available, the team manages to repair most of the damage, though Roger will have to race without a rear brake.
Hayden, whose special Brickyard-themed helmet now bears tire-rubber marks on both sides from where he was run over in the crash, again makes up ground on the restart, earning a few early positions right away before losing momentum. He’ll close on competitors or even make passes through the corners, only to be overtaken again on the following straight. (Roger’s 163.5 mph top speed for the weekend is over 4 mph down on that of Elias, perhaps due to inferior aerodynamics of his stock bodywork; Elias’ Gresini team uses different fairings.)
Hayden finishes the race seventeenth overall after passing compatriot Kenny Noyes in the dying laps, but he’s well behind fellow American wildcard Jason DiSalvo, who finishes in ninth. Though Hayden’s effort is respectable considering the crash and bike damage, the result is still disheartening. “The team and I worked too hard for seventeenth place,” Hayden says afterward. “It’s just disappointing when you get a good start and somebody else comes in way too fast and pretty much ruins your day. There are still a lot of positives to take—at least we got to restart the race.”
The team seems satisfied, considering the conditions. “Top-fifteenwas achievable for us,” Schwantz says. “Seventeenth is not as good a showing as we all felt we could’ve given, but when the going got tough, we all managed to pull together and get that bike back out there, which was quite an achievement in itself.”
The fans were obviously expecting more, but in a strange way, maybe the turn of events could have positive repercussions; knowing the competitive nature of American Honda, and considering the company’s proud racing heritage, perhaps it’s not unreasonable to hope they’ll be back at some point to settle their unfinished business.