A Flat Track Family Reunion
It was quite a sight, and definitely one for sore eyes.
Earl Hayden, patriarch of the legendary Hayden clan, standing on the front straight of Lexington, Kentucky’s Red Mile circuit, proudly waving a green flag at the conclusion of lap number one as his son Roger Lee blasted by on a blue-and-white Estenson Racing Yamaha MT-07 DT, hoping to qualify for that evening’s Main event.
Earl wasn’t alone, either. Pretty much the entire Hayden clan was on hand to watch Roger’s first dirt track race on a big twin in nearly 20 years: wife Rose, recovering from recent knee surgery; son Tommy, Estenson Racing’s Director of Racing Operations; daughters Jenny and Kathleen; and a whole host of grandkids, extended family members and friends, too.
American Flat Track’s Scottie Deubler probably summed it up best in the booth alongside color commentator Brad Baker when he quipped, “I’ve got goosebumps runnin’ up and down my arms!”
But Deubler wasn’t the only one at the Red Mile that Sunday afternoon with goosebumps. Earl Hayden had ’em, too.
“They’d asked me to be the Grand Marshal for the Red Mile last year,” Earl told AFT a week after this year’s Red Mile event, “but it was too close to Nicky’s passing. It was really hard for all of us at the time … it’s still very difficult now. But this year felt pretty good, bein’ out there. I had goosebumps on my arms wavin’ that flag and watchin’ Roger roar by! It was like the old days with the boys. I’d do anything to help American Flat Track; it’s doing so well now, coming back, sorta like the glory days of dirt track.
Roger Lee came within one position of making the Main at the Red Mile, but his development expertise is sure to be helpful to Estenson Racing. The youngest Hayden will try again at this weekend's inaugural Short Track at Laconia, NH. Photos by Scott Hunter/AFT and Estenson Racing/Andrea Wilson.
“I’m not gonna lie … I was pretty nervous about [Roger] racing again on a twin. It’s been 18 years or so since he last did it, and that’s a long time. But it was good. He didn’t make the Main, which was his goal, but he rode well and came really close, and he and Tommy seem to be havin’ a really good time with the Estenson folks, workin’ on the bikes and trying to improve them and catch up to the Indians. And a lot of fans came back out on Sunday, which was great to see after the rain-out on Saturday.”
If all of this Red Mile/Hayden/flat track stuff seems a bit like a perfect storm – for fans, for AFT and for the Hayden family itself – you’d definitely be onto something. The Haydens, after all, are in many ways dirt track royalty; Earl raced for 20 years, Rose for five, and of course the kids’ accomplishments through the years on asphalt and dirt are both legendary and well-documented. Back in 2002, remember, the boys finished 1-2-3 at the Springfield TT, just one example of how impressive those young men – and their family – have been to the dirt track universe.
The Red Mile experience was a full-circle type of thing for the Haydens – and a cathartic one, too. “It was really great, gettin’ back into it,” Earl says. “It’s been a long time. I remember the old days so well. Comin’ to Lexington was good for us. I think it helped us heal a little. The racing community has been so good to us.”
For the Haydens, this most recent entre into the dirt track world began with Tommy Hayden joining the Estenson Racing team during the off-season as team manager. With five riders and a mammoth-sized operation for 2019, Tommy definitely had his work cut out for him. But to hear Earl tell it, his eldest son is coping pretty well.
Earl and Tommy Hayden, hangin' at the Red Mile during Opening Ceremonies.
“When Tommy got the call from Tim Estenson over the winter,” Earl remembers, “he jumped at the chance. Tommy’s got a lot of passion for racing, and so does Tim. Racing is what Tommy loves, whether it’s riding or getting things ready to race. He’s really organized, and a natural manager. I remember back in the old days, when Rose and I were workin’ three or four jobs to pay for all the racin’. Tommy was always the one getting things ready, even at a very young age. At ten years old he was loading the truck, making sure we had everything, ordering parts, working on the bikes, whatever. He don’t mind hard work; he’s got a passion for flat track and racin’, and that helps. He also has a ton of respect for Tim and the team…and they’ve got such great riders. JD [Beach] and Jake [Johnson], Kolby [Carlile] and Ryan [Wells], and Dallas [Daniels], too. They’ve done really well, with some wins and a lot of potential, I think. It’s gonna be good to see Dallas come out at Lima when he turns 16. I’ve known Dallas and his dad Nick for years … really good people.
“It’s been more work than I think he thought it would be,” Earl adds, “and he’s busy. Heck, I remember when I had four kids racin’….it’s a lot to juggle. But Tim’s a great guy, and he’s doing a lot for the sport. He’s letting Tommy run things how [Tommy] thinks they should be run, and I think he’s really enjoying it.”
Roger Lee seems to have enjoyed his Red Mile experience, too. Despite missing the Main Event by just one slot in his Semi (he finished 9th, just behind Johnny Lewis and Bronson Bauman, who were 8th and 7th respectively), Rog went pretty fast there and is planning to run the Laconia Short Track this coming weekend with Estenson Racing.
Roger Lee being interviewed for American Flat Track's NBCSN broadcast by commentator Kristen Beat.
“He seems pretty excited about all this,” Earl says. “He’s been ridin’ and trainin’ with JD, and wants another shot at a Main event. He also seems excited to help develop the Yamaha twins. Roger’s got a lot of development experience, and he and Tommy have been talkin’ a lot about how to help the bike hook up a little better – which is always the trick in dirt track racin’ – and handle better. He’s hoping the Laconia track isn’t a slick groove; hopin’ it has some traction. It’d be good to see the Yamahas get back to where they were when Roberts was riding ’em!”
Roberts. The name recalls a Golden Era of dirt track and road racing in America, and it’s a time period Earl Hayden loves to talk about.
“You know,” he says, “we started with flat track racing with the kids. It’s what we liked. Back when I was racin’, and Rose was racin’, the Grand Nationals were dirt track and road racing, so the pros did both. I remember Kenny Roberts tellin’ me, back when the boys were getting a little older, ‘you gotta go road racin’, and we did. It’s funny, though… when that happened, the GP riders were still running 500s, and that dirt track experience was really helpful in road racing. I don’t know that it’s as effective a training tool now with all the electronics.
“Also, the opportunity to get factory rides and big sponsors – which the kids very much wanted – was in road racing; the incentive was huge at the time. I think there were 19 factory rides in road racing back when Tommy turned 16 and turned pro, and just two in dirt track – both with Harley-Davidson. I figured that with 19 slots I had a chance to get them on a factory bike so they could win a championship! We loved dirt track, but I was gonna be on food stamps pretty quick if we stuck with it and didn’t go road racing. Still, we always kept up with dirt track racing. Nicky and I and the kids would watch FansChoice together.
The Hayden boys - Nicky, Tommy and Roger, left to right - in their early days.
“It’s really good to see American Flat Track doing so well,” Earl continues, “and all the new factory involvement. Indian’s got a good jump on everyone, but it’ll be good to see Yamaha and the Harley guys catch up, and they seem to be doing it little by little. Good racin’ is good racin’. Fans love that. It was great to have AFT donate a dollar from every ticket sale from the Red Mile to the Nicky Hayden Memorial Fund, which you can donate to and find information about on Facebook and Instagram, which helps those in need from our Owensboro hometown. The Class of ’79 folks do great work, too, helping injured riders. We need these organizations.
“It was just fantastic being at the races. Seeing a lot of old friends, re-connecting with the racers and teams and families, all of that. Jared and Nicole [Mees] had their daughter Hayden wearing an Earl’s Racing Team shirt….so nice to see!”
While the Red Mile experience was a big positive for the entire Hayden clan, its proximity to the family’s base in Owensboro, Kentucky, was a biggie in making it happen. Venturing further to watch Tommy and Roger in action, however, poses problems for Earl and for Rose, who just underwent knee surgery. “I’m on a feeding tube 13 hours a night or day,” Earl says, “so driving a long way, or flying, is a real problem for me. I can’t get to Laconia this weekend, but I hope to be able to get to Springfield for the double National in late August. Luckily, Rose will be more mobile once her knee heals up a bit more.”
In the end, being at the races, feeling those dirt-track community vibes, seeing his sons intimately involved in the flat track scene, and watching his family enjoy it all…well, that’s just about as good as it gets, according to Earl Hayden.
“It’s good medicine, for sure,” he says with a grin. “You wanna know the truth? I feel a lot better on days like that.”
RIP, Nicky. We miss ya tons, brother.