It's easy for us to overemphasize our own experiences, to quickly bestow the title of GOAT (Greatest of All Time) to the racers doing amazing things in front of us, while we overlook talents of the past we didn't see. Greats like Ángel Nieto.
The 13-time world champion (or, as the superstitious Nieto insisted on saying, 12+1 titles) died today following an accident in Ibiza. He was riding a four-wheel ATV on the street and was hit from behind by a car driven by a German tourist, according to local news reports.
It's the second time this year a MotoGP Legend has died from head injuries sustained in a street accident. But while U.S. roadracing fans knew Nicky Hayden, they may know little about Nieto. His influence in Europe, however, is hard to overstate, especially in Spain. In the press conference before this week's MotoGP round in the Czech Republic (and before Nieto died), Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi offered their memories.
From watching El Clásico together to parties in Ibiza, Rossi & Marquez share their fondest memories of the "12+1 World Champion" Ángel Nieto pic.twitter.com/qsdb45sETK— MotoGP™🇨🇿🏁 (@MotoGP) August 3, 2017
With 90 victories, Nieto sits third in all-time grand prix wins behind Giacomo Agostini and Rossi, and that's in addition to numerous Spanish national titles. But his importance goes far beyond his race wins. As the first Spanish rider to attain such success, he is also responsible, to some degree that's impossible to determine precisely, for the success of the current-day Spanish GP armada.
Nieto's victories came in the small-displacement classes, racing 50 cc and 125 cc motorcycles, mostly. In today's more glamorous GP world, it's appropriate to remember just how different things were in Nieto's racing days. This video, narrated by Nieto, shows a 1972 race in Spain — racers taping up old leathers to get through another race, mechanics working out of the backs of vans while their kids play around them, crews putting hay bales on the curbs of streets to mark the course. (For more, here's a full-length Spanish television documentary on Nieto's 1972 season.)
Adios, too soon, to a true MotoGP Legend.