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When Nicky Hayden carried the American flag on a victory lap in October 2006 on the track at Valencia, Spain, after clinching his first MotoGP World Championship, it continued an impressive legacy of success for American riders at the top level of world motorcycle road racing.
Hayden, from Owensboro, Ky., became the seventh American rider to capture a world title in either the MotoGP or 500cc Grand Prix categories, the elite levels of the sport since the World Championship first was contested in 1949. Hayden edged seven-time MotoGP/500cc World Champion Valentino Rossi by just five points in 2006 in one of the most taut championship duels in history.
The United States is the third-most successful nation at the top level of world motorcycle road racing since 1949 with its riders claiming 15 MotoGP/500cc titles. Only Italian riders, with 20, and British riders, with 17, have won more. But American riders have won more MotoGP/500cc World Championships in the last 32 years than riders from any other country, with all 15 titles coming since 1978. That's more than double the total from the No. 2 nation on the list during that span, Italy, with nine titles.
Pat Hennen was the first American to win a 500cc World Championship event, capturing the 1976 Finnish Grand Prix on a Suzuki. He won two other races and finished third in the World Championship in 1976 and 1977 for Suzuki before injuries ended his promising career in 1978. Kenny Roberts launched America’s rise to dominance in world motorcycle road racing with the first of his three 500cc world titles, in 1978. It was the first 500cc world title for an American.
“King Kenny” was a dominant rider in American dirt-track oval and asphalt road racing before moving to the world stage in 1978, bringing his unconventional, knee-dragging style that eventually became the norm for all riders. He won the world title in his first season in the 500cc category, using a fearless riding style on his Yamaha to beat British legend Barry Sheene.
Roberts repeated as 500cc World Champion for Yamaha in 1979 and 1980, beating American Randy Mamola for the title in 1980 by 15 points. Roberts then finished third, fourth and second, respectively, from 1981-83 before retiring to become a team manager. In 1982, a 20-year-old rider from Louisiana, Freddie Spencer, became the youngest 500cc Grand Prix winner by capturing the Belgian Grand Prix at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
“Fast Freddie” staged an epic duel with Roberts for the 500cc title in 1983, as each rider won six races before Spencer prevailed on a Honda. Americans captured the first four spots in the final standings in 1983, with Spencer followed by Roberts, Mamola and Eddie Lawson.
Spencer’s title in 1983 started an unparalleled run of dominance for American riders at the top level of the sport. Americans were World Champion for 10 of 11 seasons from 1983-93, with only Australian Wayne Gardner crashing the Stars and Stripes’ party in 1987. Lawson won the first of his four world titles – a record for an American rider – on a Yamaha in 1984, while Mamola finished second and Spencer was fourth in the final standings.
Spencer returned to the top spot on the season podium in 1985 on his Honda, beating Lawson by eight points. Spencer also pulled off a world-title “double” that season, winning the 250cc World Championship, becoming the first rider ever to pull off the 250-500cc “double” in one season.
Lawson earned his second 500cc title in 1986 on a Yamaha and repeated as World Champion in 1988 and 1989 for the Japanese manufacturer. Lawson beat fellow American Wayne Rainey by 17.5 points for the title in 1989, and then Rainey’s reign began.
Rainey, fueled by his intense rivalry with fellow American Kevin Schwantz, won three consecutive 500cc World Championships from 1990-92 on a Yamaha. It was one of the most competitive eras ever in Grand Prix motorcycle racing, as Americans Rainey, Schwantz, Mamola and Lawson, along with Australian legends and World Champions Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan, raced handlebar-to-handlebar for supremacy around the globe.
During Rainey’s reign, American John Kocinski also won the 250cc World Championship on a Yamaha, in 1990. He became the only American besides Spencer to win that title. In 1993, Rainey was headed toward his fourth consecutive 500cc world title when he suffered paralyzing spine injuries in an accident during the 500cc Grand Prix at Misano, Italy. Schwantz earned his only World Championship that season. Doohan brought five consecutive 500cc world titles Down Under to Australia from 1994-98 on his Honda, with Spaniard Alex Criville winning in 1999.
But Kenny Roberts Jr., the son of America’s legendary first 500cc World Champion, Kenny Roberts, won the 500cc crown in 2000 on a Suzuki. The younger Roberts held off a rookie Italian 500cc rider who had just won the 250cc title a year earlier, Rossi. Rossi then reeled off five consecutive titles, capturing the final 500cc title in 2001 and then winning crowns in the renamed top class, MotoGP, from 2002-05.
In 2003, Rossi’s teammate with the powerful Repsol Honda team was rookie Hayden. He won the AMA Superbike title in 2002 after a successful American dirt-track career, following the career tire tracks of the legendary Roberts and many other elite American riders on the world stage.
Hayden finished fifth in 2003 and was named the MotoGP Rookie of the Year. Hayden finished a disappointing ninth in 2004 but rebounded in 2005 to finish third behind Rossi and Rossi’s countryman, Marco Melandri. Hayden earned his first MotoGP victory in 2005 on home soil, at Laguna Seca.
In 2006, Hayden became the leader of the Repsol Honda team and won his first MotoGP World Championship in thrilling fashion.Nothing came easily for Hayden in 2006 despite two victories, including a repeat at Laguna Seca. In the second-to-last race of the season, at Estoril, Portugal, Spaniard Dani Pedrosa collided with teammate Hayden, eliminating both riders from the race and seemingly ending Hayden’s championship hopes.
Rossi finished second that day, giving him an eight-point lead over Hayden entering the season finale Oct. 29 at Valencia, Spain. But with Hayden charging hard near the front, Rossi stunningly slid off course on Lap 5 of the race after a poor start. Hayden smoothly raced to third place, clinching the title, 252-247, over Rossi.
Hayden led four American riders in the top nine in the final point standings in 2006. Roberts was sixth riding for his father’s Team KR, Colin Edwards was seventh as Rossi’s Yamaha teammate, and John Hopkins tied for ninth on a Suzuki.
In 2012, Hayden, Edwards and Ben Spies represented the U.S. in MotoGP.
Besides capturing 15 titles, an American rider also made another piece of Grand Prix motorcycle racing history. American Gina Bovaird is the only female rider to compete in the 500cc class, in 1982 at the French Grand Prix.
Edwards, at age 40, made his final MotoGP start at the 2014 Red Bull Indianapolis GP.