Yep, it has indeed been a long strange trip. Come this Sunday night (shooting a hostile sideways glance at NBC here.) for the first time in recent memory, I won’t be tuning into a stock car race, even though I get the station it will be broadcast on and I’ll be free that evening. Again, we’re presuming that the power will still be on here at Eyesore Acres. We were in strange communion with our Amish neighbors last week as a localized storm knocked out the power for 72 hours and we didn’t have electricity, refrigeration,internet, TV, running water or a phone either. But either way, even if I have to drag the generator out of the barn, I’ll be watching the final Grateful Dead show ever Sunday, not the race.
While faith, family and friends remain the bedrock of my life, the two cultural icons that have been the center of my life and the source of countless good times are stock car racing and the Grateful Dead. (And the Boss, and Harleys and writing novels that are too long to get published, but you get the idea.)
First off, for those tuning in for your regularly scheduled race rant, feel free to sit this one out. Oh, I’ll work stock car racing in occasionally, but by and large this is about the Dead. No, there’s not much overlap between the subculture of the Deadheads and the Go Fast-Turn Left crowd, but there are in fact a bunch of us out there who are devotees of both. Over the years at the races, I’ve become adept at picking out my fellow Deadheads and stopping by to shoot the breeze with them a while, usually with Dead albums playing in the background amidst a wall of country music around us at races. Over the years, when I worked Dead quotes into my columns, I know the vast majority of them are lost on most of you who left wondering “well that phrasing is a bit awkward isn’t it?” but there’s always the others who recognize the verbal wink and a nod.
Hell, the entire “Beside the Rising Tide” title of my weekly column is lifted from a Dead song because I feel it defines my relationship with my readers so well, (“Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide” – Uncle John’s Band, though some of my fellow staffers here at Frontstretch lately don’t seem to get the “think this through with me… let me know your mind” stanza. It’s all about throwing your opinion out there and listening to those who agree and disagree to debate the topic, not expecting them to sit at your feet and listen to your inspired wisdom. ‘Cause after all, it is a buck dancer’s choice, my friends, better take my advice, cause they know all the rules by now and the fire from the ice.)
When did you become a stock car racing fan? For most of us, it was a gradual process, some interest, watching a race on TV at the home of a friend, going to your first race, maybe with your dad, and all of a sudden, your Sunday afternoons are spoken for from Valentine’s Day to Thanksgiving.
How do you become a Deadhead? For me, I sort of edged into the Dead because I was pretty young 50 years ago when the Dead started playing live. Blame it on the babysitter. That year, my parents were preparing to move the clan from a beachfront town on Long Island to Philadelphia’s Main Line. Having five kids tag along on trips to check out real estate was seen as counterproductive. Dad was already living in an apartment down in the Philly suburbs, and mom would leave Thursday afternoon and return Tuesday mid-day after a long weekend of checking out houses… and escaping the constant cacophony caused by the five of us.) This was at the height of the hippie era and ‘Nam. Our babysitter, Kasey, was the prototypical hippie chick, and I mean that as a compliment, not in a disparaging way at all. She wore those peace buttons we weren’t allowed to wear to school and had been to Woodstock.
When she arrived, Kasey always had her albums with her, and my favorite of those came to be the Dead’s American Beauty. Yeah, yeah, yeah (to mix my musical metaphors) that was the one with “Truckin’” and I learned that song first, but my favorite was always “Box of Rain,” and it was all good. Being my tender age and just starting to get interested in girls, any excuse to dance with a hippie chick was good in my book. (Kasey, I might note, also told me I had a knack for writing short stories given my age, so in the end you can blame her for what I’ve become).
It was a magical era. The guy next door had a 428 Mach One, and the kid across the street and over one had a ’66 Shelby. Cove Road was alive with the sound of muscle cars and the Dead was in what arguably was their most productive period, at least album-wise, with Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, Skull and Roses and the inestimable Europe 72 (the best road trip album ever) released in a three-year period. And while I was dancing with a pretty blonde twice my age, I thought that was how life was always going to be. Sadly it didn’t work out that way. (Well, I guess I’m OK with not dancing with 110-year-olds.) The world would be a lot happier place if it had.
From there it was on to my own Dead albums and those first few shows, my own glimpse into that secret world Kasey had told me about. And yep, the hook was set and I was dancing down the road to unlimited devotion.
Being a Deadhead wasn’t always easy. You tended to get branded and stereotyped. The Dead had after all started out as the house band and Ken Kesey and the Merry Prankster’s electric Kool-Aid (yep, eerie) acid tests. Thus, Deadheads were seen as drug-addled hippies. The fact is stock car racing was by and large the by-product of moonshine running down South, so racing fans were a bunch of drunken yahoo rednecks. So, yes, there are parallels there. But in both instances, the hardcore fans just sort of shrugged and told the rest of the world. “I don’t really give a flip what you think of me. I’m too busy having fun” Yep, we all had our cultural myths. Stock car racing was invented by Bill France and a bunch of guys sitting around at motel in Daytona Beach before there was a Daytona Beach.
And on New Year’s Eve as 1963 was about to dawn an underage Bobby Weir was wandering around the mean streets of Palo Alto, California, looking for a club that would let him in and was drawn into a place by the sound of Jerry Garcia playing the guitar. The two jammed all night and the next day the Grateful Dead was born. (Well, actually it was a bit more complex than that but I like that myth. It’s the same story the Crow told me; it’s the only one he knows.)
While the two cultures are widely divergent, I was able to shift in an out of them quite easily. Oh, there was an occasional gaffe, of course. People at Darlington look at you a bit funny when you show up wearing a tie-dye “Ice Cream Kid” t-shirt just as folks at a Dead show were a bit confused why I was wearing a Tim Richmond t-shirt. (Among the more memorable quotes: “Tim Richmond, what band is he in?” and “I like coffee too!”) But both groups always left a few bread crumbs behind us to mark a path for our fellow devotees to find us, whether it was the dancing bears sticker in the rear window or the No. 3 belt buckle. That sort of stuff flew under the radar for most people, but it was enough we could seek out each others’ company, have a few beers, a few tokes and a nice chat about our adventures on the road and the shows or races we’d been to.
If there’s an easy comparison to make between Deadheads and hardcore stock car racing fans, it is that all of us were road warriors, traveling great distances, often in impromptu caravans, to catch the next show. And while I was often at the wheel of a Boss 302 or an El Camino, there were, in fact, a whole lot of VW Microbuses chasing the Dead. I never owned one. Too damn slow, but I did own Beetles, so I knew pretty well the stone-ax simple mechanical traits of an air-cooled V-dub. Occasionally I’d pitch in and get one running again. (There were always folks willing to help a stranded brother or sister, of course, though it typically involved one or two people turning wrenches while a bunch of people hovered around nodding that the repairs were being done properly and wishing blessings upon those with the greasy hands.)
My favorite rig belonged to a guy who’d finally run his VW bus to death. He got an old school bus in its place, but had the VW bus body mounted to the roof as an observation deck. It’s hard to recall any specific vehicle that served as the official car of NASCAR fans. There have always been and will always be a lot of pickup trucks in the lot outside a race, but I’d nominate the mid-’80s Monte Carlo SS as the official vehicle of race fans, at least back before the rust or a blown transmission got to them. As for a Monte SS Aerocoupe, I always figured they had to belong to a race fan. Who else was going to overlook how stupefyingly ugly they were? Fun fact garnered from the Mecum auction last weekend: when those cars were debuted at Daytona (the street version), those driving them around the track were told to keep the windows up. The rear windows were glued in place and Chevy engineers were worried with the windows down that rear glass might blow out.
There was sometimes a little culture shock moving between the two groups. I recall Kenny and I in the infield at Pocono listening to Merle Haggard singing “Mama Tried” and both of us were badly confused. We knew the song, but it sure wasn’t Bobby Weir singing it. Dwight Yoakum doing Truckin’? Dude, did you dose me? (In all fairness it wasn’t that big a reach. The Dead had strong bluegrass-folk roots to their early music and Bobby did, in fact, have a full repertoire of what we used to call “The Cowboy Songs” always a good time to run and use the restroom and get a fresh brew so that you didn’t miss “Wharf Rat.”)
But the closest comparison I can make between Deadheads and stock car racing fans is there was an era when part of the camaraderie between both groups was the simple joy of knowing we were in on a secret lost on the general public. There was no better way to spend a weeknight in Providence than dancing at a Grateful Dead show and no better way to spend a Sunday afternoon in Darlington than watching the good old boys duke it out in the Southern 500. You all go right on with your Huey Lewis and the News concerts or baseball games. That just leaves more room for us at the shows and the races. No, I’m not sure who this Jerry Garcia fellow is or why he’s following me all over the country. Earnhardt? The name sounds familiar, but I can’t place it. But like the Boss sang, “I had a secret I should have kept to myself, but I got drunk one night and I told it.” At the Dead shows, it was “the more the merrier and we are in fact a very merry lot.” At the NASCAR races, well not so much.
The Dead never disappointed. Though their album sales never amounted to much and they got very limited airplay even on FM stations, the Dead never decided to release a disco album or maybe shorten up the songs a little. Yeah, Truckin’ is 13 minutes and eight seconds long on Europe 72 as it was, but live it could be longer and I don’t ever recall anyone telling Jerry, “you know, a five-minute version might be better” the way some folks wanted the races to be shortened nowadays. When you went to a Dead show, you knew what you were getting and the band never disappointed. Yep, it was the same old songs from 20 years ago, but we really liked those 20-year-old songs. It was a great chance to catch up with friends you hadn’t seen since the last shows and who you might have met hundreds of miles from home at another show, sort of like it used to be going to races. For the record, this old hombre don’t dance. But send me to a Dead show and I’m busting a move with the best of them, especially because all you have to do most of the time is just sway back and forth grinning like the Cheshire cat. (And, for the record, after college I enjoyed Dead shows with nothing more mind-altering than beer. The botanists went ahead and made dope too good. My brain was programmed for lower levels of THC than the whacky weed they’re dispensing legally in Colorado these days. Yep, somewhere up there Jerry is laughing his ass off.)
Sadly NASCAR hasn’t done the same. There was a style of racing and an atmosphere their fans had come to expect. But as the “secret” got out and the sport’s popularity exploded, NASCAR got greedy. In their conceit they even decided one day stock car racing was going to eclipse the NFL as the most popular sport in America. Ticket prices became insane. As the crowds grew, the amenities for fans did not keep pace. Traffic became insane. NASCAR and the track owners seemed to cop an attitude that if the fans weren’t happy, they shouldn’t come back. There were others standing in line to get their tickets and take their place. It didn’t matter that you helped build the house and framed out the kitchen, there was no longer room for you at the table. And when the bottom fell out of the boom market, they tried blaming high gas prices for declining attendance. The fact of the matter is, adjusted for inflation, gas prices are actually nearing historic lows. And we used to drive to the races through periods of recession and even limited fuel availability because that’s how we’d always rolled.
Now, as it tries to recapture lightning in a bottle, NASCAR has dumped the play-lists we’d come to expect. Nowhere is that better evidenced than the Chase, their latest “sure-fire” way to reignite interest in the sport. Sorry, no sale. This isn’t what I came expecting to see and frankly, you can’t dance to it anymore. OK, so what, Gordon or Earnhardt had already clinched a title with three races left to run. So much the better! I just want to see my driver beat the champ!
I don’t have a play-list for Sunday night’s Dead show, though I imagine I could do a little searching on line and find one. It really doesn’t matter to me what songs they play. I like em all. I just know Truckin’ isn’t going to be three minutes long and the Dead won’t be covering “Shake It Off.” If they end up playing “To Lay Me Down” and I can do the sway one more time, so much the better. Yep, Jerry has been gone 20 years now, but I don’t think there’s a concert the Dead has ever played you can’t find on YouTube or somewhere, so even as the Long Strange Trip comes to an end, the band will remain immortal and I’ll always be a Deadhead.
As for stock car racing? Well, I’m sort on the fence concerning how much longer I’ll keep watching races that tend to irritate me more than they entertain me. If NASCAR can borrow a page from the Dead’s playbook and start putting on the type of shows its longtime fans have come to expect again, well, maybe, just maybe, I’ll pack up my dancing booties and head back to Darlington again. You’ve been warned.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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