GLORY DAYS: Honda's Nicky Hayden flies the US flag after winning the 2006 MotoGP championship in Valencia, Spain. He'll be the only American on the grid for the 2015 US MotoGP on April 12. Image: AP / Bernat Armangue
AUSTIN, Texas - Ex-MotoGP champion Nicky Hayden will not only be the only American on the grid when riders line up for the Circuit of the Americas MotoGP on Sunday (April 12).
He'll also be aboard one of the factory bikes expected to challenge for the win and that's a far cry from the golden era of America motorcycle racing when an American rider won 13 of 16 MotoGP championships from 1978-93.
Kevin Schwantz, 1993 MotoGP champion, said: "The question wasn't if an American was going to win, it was which American was going to win. This was a breeding ground for champions."
Since then an American has won only two championships, none since Hayden's title in 2006.
Hayden said from his family home in Owensboro, Kentucky: "I feel some pride and responsibility to keep carrying the flag and representing our country until we're ready to develop some young talent to come in and take my place."
Hayden and Schwantz hope a new series kicking off in support of the MotoGP races this weekend in Austin, Texas, will help re-open the pipeline for US riders to reach the top level of motorcycle racing.
The US series, called MotoAmerica. is headed by three-times champion Wayne Rainey, who's working to align its rules with international series; bring back regular TV coverage; restore involvement of major manufacturers still recovering from a collapse in motorcycle sales during the recession.
Hayden's younger brother Roger is racing in the top class of the MotoAmerica series and is room mate and mentor to 19-year-old team mate Jake Lewis of Princeton, Kentucky.
"I want to be positive," said Nicky Hayden, who made the jump directly from the old AMA series to MotoGP in 2003. "They've made a splash and obviously Wayne's a really big name to lead the charge."
Hayden said he was encouraged by MotoAmerica's initial nine-race schedule - up from six under the previous rights-holders of 2014 - and the full three-day race weekends that will give young riders on-track experience.
"It doesn't matter if you're racing motorcycles or playing golf - if you have less time to practice your sport and it's against lesser competition you're just not going to develop as fast."
The growth of developmental series in Europe is bearing fruit. Reigning two-times champion Marc Marquez of Spain became the youngest rider to take the title since American Freddie Spencer won his first of two at 21 in 1983.
Hayden said it wasn't good for MotoGP to have an Italian or Spaniard dominating the series: "It's a world championship so they clearly want some young Americans in there as well."
American riders have left a lasting impression on the sport. Kenny Roberts popularised the knee-down riding style when he arrived on the scene in 1978 and promptly won three consecutive championships.
Fellow former dirt-tracker Eddie Lawson won four titles on the basis of his speed and consistency; Kenny Roberts jnr's title in 2000 was the first time a father and son had each become a champion.