A Few Minutes With The Madman: Catching Up With Superbike Legend Josh Hayes

As part of his brand ambassador and rider coach gig with Yamaha, Josh Hayes offers up advice to the likes of his former teammate Cameron Beaubier. Photo by Brian J, Nelson.

Four-time AMA Superbike Josh Hayes has said, on many occasions, that he’ll stop racing when someone “pries his cold-dead fingers from the handlebars.” The Mississippi Madman got kind of a late start in motorcycle road racing – not getting involved until after he graduated from high school – and he was bound and determined to not have an early exit. And, when Yamaha Factory Racing decided to go in a new direction after the 2017 season, they moved well-deserving two-time Supersport Champion Garrett Gerloff up to Superbike and offered Hayes a job as brand ambassador and rider coach for the team and for Yamaha’s contingent of “bLU cRU” riders, particularly Yamaha YZF-R3 riders competing in the brand-new Liqui Moly Junior Cup Championship. All the while, Hayes has maintained that he didn’t retire from racing. We caught up with the very busy Hayes to find out how this season has gone for him, what his thoughts are on the Motul Superbike class, and what the future might hold for him.

Josh, one thing we’ve known about you for a long time is that you’re a very generous rider when it comes to providing advice or guidance to other riders. And, as a Brand Ambassador and Rider Coach for Yamaha, you’ve done more than your fair share of that this year. Can you give us an update on how that’s been going this year for you?

JH: I’m a pretty open book. One thing that I’ve tried to make clear to the Junior Cup riders is that I’m a resource that’s available to them. I wasn’t going to chase them around and beg them to let me help them. It was a matter of, if I can help, I sure would love to help.

Several Junior Cup riders already have coaches, including Ken Hill, Garrett Willis, and a handful of others. A lot of those guys are kind of covered already. So my deal with Yamaha means that anyone in the Graves program, I was available to work with, through the Junior Cup program and through Graves Motorsports. I do my best to take part in that. Of course, I think Cory Ventura is probably who I’m closest to because I’ve spent the most time with him, with him being on (my wife Melissa’s) MP13 Racing team. I touch base with some riders more than others. I talk with the Deutschlanders a little bit, and both Dylan and Ryan have been utilizing me more and more. Hunter Dunham and Joe Blasius over at Tuned Racing have reached out to me from time to time. The other boys… I make sure that Jackson Blackmon and several of the others, like Gavin Anthony and Kevin Olmedo, know that I’m available if they want to reach out to another resource.

As far as the Yamaha Factory Team goes, JD (Beach) and I have always had a pretty good relationship. We touch base and talk about things from time to time. He has other resources that he reaches out to, also. It’s all about finding out what advice you need at the right time to help you make the right step. Cameron (Beaubier) and I have been close for a lot of years, and now quite honestly he’s able to reach out to me just a little bit more, seeing as to how we’re not competitors anymore. I think he’s a little more comfortable about talking to me this year. Garrett (Gerloff) and I are starting to speak a little bit more here in the latter half of the season. I think in the beginning it is still a little fresh for him, and he has a lot of pride. He wants to do the work himself and figure it out. The big thing is just, when things get frustrating for him, it’s a little reminder that this is hard, and that with time this stuff will get better and I can give him some ideas and directions to look to for improvement.

The other thing we’ve noticed with you – you mentioned the Junior Cup riders and then the Factory Yamaha team – but I’ve seen you from time to time even talking to some of the Stock 1000 riders. Is that true?

JH: I think it’s in my nature to help a little bit with just about anybody who feels like they need it. Most people are open to come by and say hello and ask a few questions. I don’t really have a problem with taking the time to just pass on a little bit of information. There are a few other Superbike riders who I’ve worked with a bit more. But it’s kind of in my nature. I want to see people succeed. I want to see our sport do well, so I’m invested a little bit in every single rider out there improving their craft and working their way up so that we have good, competitive races. Our sport needs every single one of our riders to be a quality show. I want to help make that happen for our sport. The big thing is, just how much time do I have to go out on track and invest and watch each of the riders do their thing. That’s the part that gets a little bit difficult. I’m pretty slammed with watching all three of the main classes, which is Superbike, Supersport, and Junior Cup. So it makes it a little bit more difficult, but when Melissa’s on track in Stock 1000, for sure, I’m out there rooting her on and watching her and the other riders. It’s proven to be quite a bit busier day than when I was riding.

One thing you made clear last year is that you definitely didn’t retire, and you agreed to do this for this year. We don’t know what the duration is of the thing, but we suspect that you are not done riding or racing yet. What’s your stand on that? What are your plans for next year?

JH: I can say that I wasn’t ready to stop riding, but that being said, I really have no idea what 2019 and the future hold. The truth is the truth. Next year, I’ll be 44 years old. I will have spent a year on the sidelines. It’s never going to be easy to bounce back from that. So, the other thing that makes the situation difficult is just the fact that, whether I wanted to or not, I became an adult at some point in this process, and now, I’m a family man. I can want things really bad, but I have to be – my ability to just be flat-out selfish is diminishing more every day. I may be able to be selfish in the aspect of my time in some sense or another, but for me riding a motorcycle competitively and making a living is more difficult now than it was a couple of years ago because of the sacrifices that if it didn’t go well, it would only really hurt me. Melissa was an adult who could take care of herself, but now I have a family to think about. It’s tough to be able to afford good insurance, and for me to dedicate the time to the job as a rider, I would need to make sure I made enough money to pay the nanny so that I can be selfish with my time. My situation has gotten complicated because of my life. If the right situation came around, the desire is there to ride. No question about it. There’s nothing I’m more passionate about than actually being out there on the motorcycle, being competitive, and putting my heart and soul into it. As much as I want that, the situation just has to be right for me to be able to figure out how to do that.

Let’s talk about this season, and specifically, the Motul Superbike class. It seems to have taken a little bit of a leap forward. The change in the tires has resulted in Beaubier breaking lap records at some of the tracks. At Sonoma, it was an 11-year record that Spies had. What do you think about the competitiveness this year, or the performance, or the quality of the Superbike class?

JH: Superbike is actually about what I expected it would be. I knew that you would have the four hot seats that would be good, along with a few guys who were fast in Superstock 1000 and would make the step up in the Superbike class and get into the mix. None of that stuff has disappointed. There’s a good group of guys at the front. The good thing about the championship is that it’s not just a two-horse race. If it was, then things get decided in weird ways when you’re trying to win a championship and you can never put somebody between yourself and your competition. Now, there are actually a few guys who can get into the mix and make things a little more interesting.

I’m not bitter about it – not much anyway – but It’s a different time now than it was in 2015 when Beaubier was able to cruise around in fifth or sixth place on the racetrack but third in Superbike, with a huge gap to the next Superbike, and end up winning the championship. Now, every bike on the track is fast and there are a lot of guys who are riding well. I have huge appreciation for that, and I think it’s fantastic. It’s exciting for me.

I got to test the new Dunlop rear tire early in 2017. In the middle of the season, we tested it again. I begged them every single time to please, please, please let me have that tire installed on my bike. I thought it was going to be the next step for me in my racing career. So I’m a little bummed that I didn’t get to race with that tire, but it wasn’t ready to be available to everybody until 2018. Every time they did bolt it on my bike, I thought, “Oh my god, this is the feel I’ve been looking for, instantly.” Then, we got to test it a couple more times, and each time, I immediately went faster than I had been going prior to that moment. So, for me, it was a good fit with the way I ride. I think some riders have had a little bit more of a difficult time, and they may be complaining a little bit but they’re all going faster than they did the year before. So I think this tire, overall for the series, is a better tire, and it’s helping them make progress. Though some say it has thrown a wrench into their program, I still think that the overall is good because now we’re seeing the lap times drop and things like that.

Beaubier is a corner-speed rider, while you’re more of a point-and-shoot rider. Beaubier has really adapted well to the new, larger Dunlop 200/60 rear tire, but you’re saying you like the new tire, too, which is really interesting since your riding styles are completely different from one another. One of the things Beaubier has said that’s helped him is that the new extra-soft front tire completes the package. The new front and rear Dunlop tires work so well together for him, which has really helped his riding, and it shows in his results. What are your thoughts?

Old Guys Rule: Former champions Jason Pridmore, Scott Russell and Josh Hayes watch the action from the other side of the fence. Photo by Brian J. Nelson

JH: The new tire on the rear of the bike had a big effect on consistency, on corner exit, with grip and slip, and things like that, which helped steady the bike a little bit and let me just ride it the way that I wanted to ride it. It was just something that we bolted in at Yamaha, and it really helped our motorcycle. I don’t honestly know, because I haven’t ridden any of the other brands of motorcycles. But I do know that Toni and those boys, when they got to the test in Barber, they sure went awfully fast when they put that new rear tire in. So, I know it’s a good tire. It benefitted some bikes more than others, and it’s kind of offered us some good racing here in this part of the season.

The extra-soft front tire, for me, was not a help at all. That definitely comes down to riding style. When I’ve tried softer front tires, they were never there for me when I felt like I needed them. On a fast lap, they might work just fine, but when it came to racing and out-braking somebody tight up the inside, I never felt like I had that extra-soft tire underneath me. So I can fairly confidently say I don’t know that I would have raced that extra-soft tire a single time, even if it were available to me. But, with the feel that Cameron has for the front-end of a motorcycle, the way he likes to ride the motorcycle, it has suited him really well.

There are two MotoAmerica Superbike riders that I know of – one of them is Mathew Scholtz and the other one is Beaubier – who are experimenting with a left-hand lever for the rear brake. What do you think of that? Did you ever try something like that? Would it have benefited you?

JH: I never had anything like that. I had the hardest time in the world when we got to auto-blip to not use the clutch on backshifts. The amount of my concentration it required for me to think not to do that, for a really long time, was ridiculous. It was really a difficult thing for me to learn to do. I just didn’t have enough bandwidth to ride the bike well and not blip the throttle because it was just a second-nature kind of thing. I’ve got to be honest, I don’t understand what the benefits are of the hand brake for the rear. I’m a believer that you don’t live by the rear brake, but the rear brake is a tool that you can use in certain situations that will help you in several ways. I think maybe now that we have the auto blippers and don’t need to use the clutch, being able to work the rear brake with your left hand a little bit, maybe there’s something to it, just on settling the bike on corner entry or something like that. But it wouldn’t be second-nature to me. I feel a bit like it’s a gimmick or a gadget. That’s just one guy’s opinion. It might work really well for somebody and make them feel like they can make some impressive headway. Without experience, I can say I don’t think it would make a huge difference in my riding.

So, technically, you haven’t retired yet. There is a rider in the paddock who did just announce his retirement, which is pretty rare, especially for somebody with the last name of Hayden. He’s the only one of the three brothers that did officially retire. I think you, better than pretty much anybody, are qualified to comment on it because, out of any rider in the past and present, you’ve probably ridden with and against Roger Hayden more than anybody. What do you think about his decision?

JH: I don’t know. I don’t really have a thought, other than, if he’s ready to stop, I understand. I’m sympathetic to that. Good on him. He’s had an amazing career. We started pro racing the same year. He’s had a fantastic career. He’s gotten to ride some amazing motorcycles all over the world, and he’s getting out intact. He’s in a good place in his life with (his wife) Dana. It seems like they want to start a family and do all the right things. I think that those things are, definitely based on my experience, easier to do when you’re not focused on selfishly racing a Superbike in a national series and trying to reinvent yourself every year. That’s what’s on his horizon. He’s been doing this for a long time. It sounds like it was his idea and that he will not miss it very much. I think that’s easy to say. We’ll have to wait and see. Good on him and good luck to him and his family, if this is the right move for him. I haven’t gone through the experiences that Roger has gone through, especially just here recently with his family and all those things. We talk about him being in pro racing for 20 years, but the dedication to a racetrack started many, many years before that with that family. I think he’s paid his dues and he’s due for a little bit of whatever he wants. So, if he wants that break, it’s good. Honestly, if Roger’s mind is that way, and he thinks he’s ready to be done, I’d rather see him bow out and allow a young, hungry racer to take that seat and try to prove himself. I think that’s what we would all like to see if he thinks he’s done. If he were to say, “I’m kind of done but I can make a living and stay in there and do this and do that,” from a personal side, I can understand that but I’m glad that he’s not going to just hang onto the seat simply on the fact that he could. To move onto the next part of his life and let the next guy come up and show what he can do is very honorable.

Let’s talk about that seat for a moment. Let’s just say, theoretically, you are Pat Alexander of Suzuki, or possibly you are Don Sakakura of Yoshimura R&D, or you’re both. If it were your decision, whom would you put on that bike?

JH: For me, it’s pretty simple. I would put JD Beach on the bike. I would at least be courting him very, very seriously. For me, JD has the resume that is far beyond everyone else. He’s won at every level that he’s ever raced at. He went to the Red Bull Rookies Cup. He won the World Championship in the Rookies Cup. He came back here and he raced in what was then Supersport. He won that. He moved into Daytona Sportbike, and he won there. He’s just a solid guy who works harder than just about anybody I’ve ever seen. I don’t think that he would let them down given the opportunity to do that. But I think there’s a bit of human nature. JD has been here for a long time and we’ve seen JD for a long time. He’s been in the support system for a decade, and when that happens – it happened to me – it’s really easy to overlook a veteran and look for something shiny and new, which is a bit of what we have with Mathew Scholtz and Valentin Debise who are both fantastic motorcycle riders. Valentin has come to America and gotten right up to speed and made JD race for it. Mathew Scholtz jumped right onto a 1000 and has shown that he can ride a 1000 at a high level. They’re just both exciting things. I think the fact that JD is a problem-solver. I’ve seen him go through his moments where he struggles and he has to fight his way out. I really have a huge appreciation for that. He would be my choice, without question.

Do you think, as far as a teammate goes, that body type might come into play there with the fact that JD and Toni Elias are kind of the same size? Maybe the data would mirror each other a little bit? Do you think there’s any benefit to that?

JH: No, I think that’s a little bit of journalistic license right there. I don’t think that’s the case. I do think that Toni came in with a riding style that suited that machine quite well. Even though Roger had great success with that motorcycle, he wasn’t quite able to change himself enough to take such good advantage of the strength of that motorcycle. I think JD is, not to say better, but a pretty good student. He would recognize the things that have happened and how Toni was successful in it and be able to put some of those pieces together, possibly a little better, rather than kind of being set in your ways and having to change the way things are done a little bit. JD would be stepping into a good situation, and he’d adapt well.

Let’s go back to Roger for a minute just because he has said that he’s been talking with Pat Alexander of Suzuki and with Don Sakakura of Yoshimura R&D about continuing with Suzuki’s Factory Racing team, which is something you did this year with Yamaha and may continue to do going forward. Also, Roger has said that he wants to stay in the paddock. What are your feelings about being in the paddock? If it were not with Yamaha, would you like to get involved with MotoAmerica? You’ve got a lot of knowledge, and I know you spend a lot of time talking with Wayne Rainey and Chuck Aksland as it is. Where are you on that?

JH: I hope I can keep a strong relationship with Yamaha for the rest of my life. I’m just so thankful that I was able to get into the family at Yamaha and that call I finally got, after so many years of trying, that they would get me my opportunity in Superbike. At the time, it was the only call I received, but I was so thankful for it. I couldn’t sign the paperwork fast enough, and look where it led me. The relationships I was able to build with Keith (McCarty) and Jim (Roach), Steve (Rounds), Vitto (Bolognesi), Jeff (Myers) and Glenn (Grenfell), Halvie (Tom Halverson), Ron (Heben). Everyone on that team helped me succeed. They helped me grow. All of the people involved. No matter how many names I give you, I’m going to leave some out because there were so many people who made me feel at home and helped me do some amazing things.

I was just in the condo the other day, and I saw the poster from our 2010 championship and all the people and employees at Yamaha, their families and children signed it and said, “Great job!” To think that it carried on from there for another seven years doing good work and winning races. I can’t thank them enough. It’s not even about much of anything other than that they were so good to me and I’m so thankful for it. I bleed blue blood. No matter what happens, I’ll be a Yamaha fan for life.

I want to be around the paddock regardless of if it’s with Yamaha or if I were to go in some other direction and be part of the racing paddock. I definitely want to be a part of it. I care about the future of motorcycle road racing. I love it so much. I think it’s such an amazing sport, and I definitely want to help figure out how to get it out there to people who are not watching. I’m pretty sure you’re watching a professional sport that’s very, very calculated, well thought out, safety is definitely a big part of it, and we want to put on fantastic entertainment and exciting entertainment. If you can get out there and show people a compelling product, contribute and make some kind of thing, whether it’s building good racers, bringing in new fans, whatever it is. I definitely want to do something to give back to a sport that gave me such a full life.