Thursday, July 4, 2013

Grateful Dead Performances At Race Tracks 1969-88


The poster for the New Orleans Pop Festival, on August 31-September 1 1969, held at the Baton Rouge Speedway in Prairieville, LA
The Grateful Dead were pioneers in moving rock concerts into new spaces. Rock concerts in the 1960s moved beyond buildings formally designated for performance into wide-open spaces. The Grateful Dead were at the forefront, as the first of the major Fillmore bands to start playing regularly for free in public parks in order to promote their music. When multi-act, multi-day rock shows moved beyond County Fairgrounds to empty farms, the Grateful Dead were at the major early events.

However, the immediate and vast popularity of rock festivals posed a very specific land-use problem. Places like Indian Reservations and farms were not really viable for major, multi-day events, since too many things could go wrong. Equally importantly, despite or because of the increasing crowds, it was all but inevitable that rock festivals would become "free concerts." Liberating as this may have seemed at the time, it insured that the events could not make enough money to provide a safe, repeatable event for bands, patrons and host communities. The financial opportunities of rock festivals were huge, however, and since nothing says "rock and roll" like "land use," over the years there was a concerted effort in the concert industry to find spaces that could successfully and profitably host occasional, loud outdoor events with giant crowds.

One of the intriguing solutions for hosting giant rock festivals was to use facilities designed for auto racing. Race tracks were usually somewhat removed from urban areas while still being near enough to civilization to attract a crowd. Auto races themselves were noisy, and major race events tended to occur just a few times a year and last an entire weekend, just like a rock festival. Since race tracks were permanent facilities, they generally had fences, bathrooms, water, power and parking, so in many ways they would seem like ideal venues for huge rock events. Indeed, some of the major rock events of the 1970s were held at race tracks, and the Grateful Dead's performances at race tracks from 1969 to 1988 offer a useful snapshot of the evolving rock concert market.

This post will review all of the Grateful Dead's scheduled performances at permanent facilities designed for auto racing. The most notorious of these events, the December 6, 1969 show at Altamont Speedway in Livermore, CA, was probably instrumental in insuring that race track operators were leery of rock concerts. Ironically enough, the concert at Watkins Glen Grand Prix Course in New York on July 28, 1973, showed how well race tracks could work. However, the economic evolution of the rock concert and auto racing industries veered in opposite directions, and the possibilities of rock concerts at race tracks was replaced by baseball stadiums and then custom built facilities like Shoreline Amphitheatre.

Jim Hall's legendary 1970 Chaparral 2J, the "Sucker Car," driven by English rallying legend Vic ("Quick Vic") Elford
A Thumbnail History Of American Auto Racing After World War 2
In order to properly frame the different facilities that the Grateful Dead played, I will provide a brief history of the different types of Postwar auto racing. Automotively knowledgeable readers will have to forgive my simplistic categories. Generally speaking, while auto racing had been popular since the invention of the automobile, horse racing had been hugely popular in cities and county fairs throughout the United States, long before cars were invented. However, after WW2, when the GIs returned and economy boomed, America moved from its rural roots to a more urban and suburban universe, and the automobile became a more important part of everyone's life. A national boom in the popularity of auto racing corresponded with a slow decline in the popularity of horse racing.

There were three major forms of auto racing in the United States. One was sports car racing, which emphasized European or European-inspired cars driving on something resembling real roads. Initially sports car races were held on closed public roads, but by the mid-50s the cars had become too fast, and sports car races tended to move to custom-built road racing facilities. Sports car racing was most popular on the East and West coasts. California and the New York region led the way, with famous tracks like Riverside (in Southern California) and Bridgehampton (in Long Island).

A second popular form was drag racing. Drag racing tended to be more urban and suburban, since the facilities were smaller and fit more easily into the landscape. Needless to say, drag racing evolved from illicit automotive fun, usually at night on empty roads, into a serious competitive sport. Drag racing was hugely popular nationwide, and was culturally influential, but the tracks and events tended to more local or regional. The best known drag racers barnstormed across the country in local meets, with some sorts of similarities to touring rock bands. As a more urban phenomenon, drag racing had both a more working-class audience and was less exclusively white.

The third popular form of auto racing was oval track racing. Initially these speedways, as they were called, were less than a mile long--sometimes only a 1/4 mile--and often not even paved. The hard clay of the Midwest and the South was particularly conducive to this kind of auto racing. Speedways proliferated throughout the country, but oval tack racing was biggest in the Midwest and South. In the Midwest, with the inspiration of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, emphasized custom-built specials. The South, with its tradition of moonshining and bootlegging, emphasized modified versions of production cars. NASCAR (The National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) was financed in 1947 by many local bootleggers, and some of the principal early drivers had been well-schooled in building and driving "stock" looking cars that were anything but.

To some extent, all types of auto racing were prevalent all over the country, particularly in heavily populated regions like California and the industrial Midwest. However, the basic distinction of the three types of auto racing had some association with their different regions. Sports Car racing was the province of the coasts, drag racing was an urban and suburban pastime, and oval track racing was king in the Midwest and South, particularly in more rural counties. Just as the 1960s were a time in music when legends were born and everything seemed possible, the 60s was just as much a time of excitement and wonder in all forms of auto racing as well.

The increasing popularity of auto racing in America, in all of its forms, meant that from the end of the World War 2 to the birth of the Grateful Dead, numerous race tracks had been built up around America. When rock concerts got too large for indoor arenas, race tracks seemed to provide an answer. Rock concerts were loud, not always popular with the community, and the bands roamed from place to place. In that respect, race tracks seemed to provide pre-existing spaces that could be used for large scale concerts. It was no surprise that the rock festival industry came to that conclusion, too.

Lots of great bands played the Labor Day New Orleans Pop Festival, and there was a Custom Bike show and a "Heavy Fireworks Display."
September 1, 1969 Baton Rouge Speedway, Prairieville, LA New Orleans Pop Festival
The Summer of 1969 was the Summer of rock festivals. Woodstock is the most famous, of course, but from May to December, there were huge outdoor festivals all over the United States and Canada. Many if not most North American rock fans were in range of a major outdoor festival sometime that year, even if their parents would not let them go to it. To name just a few events, these included The Big Rock Pow-Wow in Florida (May 23-25), Sky River 2 Festival (outside of Seattle, July 25-27), The Atlantic City Pop Festival (August 1-3) and of course Woodstock itself (August 15-17). All of these events featured a slew of major bands. All of them had various successes and failures, but in general they all struggled with accommodating giant crowds in a comfortable manner while still retaining economic viability. Woodstock, for example, was a financial disaster, only rescued by the extraordinarily popular film.

The festival promoters were learning as they went, however. Some of the most successful rock festivals occurred at the end of the summer. The Atlanta International Pop Festival was held on the weekend of July 4 (July 4-6), at the Atlanta International Speedway. Promoter Alex Cooley held a similar event two months later in Texas, on Labor Day weekend (August 30-September 1). The Texas event was held in Lewisville, TX, outside of Dallas, at the Dallas Motor Speedway. The Atlanta International Speedway, in Hampton, GA was built in 1960 as a 1.5 mile Superspeedway and remains an active NASCAR track today. The Dallas Motor Speedway was mainly a dragstrip, but it had a 1/2 mile oval and a 2.5 mile road course as well. The Texas facility ran into financial trouble immediately and closed in 1973.

The 1969 Texas and Atlanta events both had crowds of 100,000+, and both ran safely and on schedule. Other than the melting Southern heat, there were no real problems, and the events are fondly remembered by fans. The Atlanta event was profitable, and the indications are that the Texas event was too, or at least could have been. These two events seemed to be the first major rock events that suggested that auto racing tracks were a good place to hold a big rock concert. One of the biggest problems at both events, however, was that the surrounding communities were not comfortable with the "hippie invasion," even if every convenience store, motel and gas station were sold out for miles around. The cultural gap between hippie rock fans and the rural South was still very large in 1969.

That same Labor Day weekend of 1969, the Grateful Dead played their first rock festival at a racetrack. The New Orleans rock festival was held at a tiny oval track outside of Baton Rouge. Prairieville, LA is actually 60 miles West of New Orleans, most of the way to Baton Rouge (which is another 26 miles to the Northwest of Prairieville). Besides lots of great bands, like Santana, Janis Joplin and Canned Heat, the poster advertised a "Custom Bike Show," a whiff of the motorsports aura. The festival was fairly successful, but the tiny facility was no superspeedway. It had only been built around 1966, under dubious circumstances perhaps unique to Louisiana.

This 1971 aerial photo of the Baton Rouge Speedway in Prairieville, LA, seems to be the only photograph of the site
A forum on old racing cars and tracks has uncovered what little information there is about the Baton Rouge Speedway in Prairieville (as opposed to the current Baton Rouge Speedway, in a different location):
There is very little info on this track out there, same with pictures.
It was known as Baton Rouge Int'l Speedway, and also Pelican Int'l Speedway.
You picture of the track is taken looking south; the track ran east/west, and the pit area was on the south side. The track was advertised as a 5/8ths mile, but in reality was almost 3/4 mile through the racing groove.

The track has a very checkered history; it was originally built by a man named Ed Grady; he was a teamsters boss. The track is rumored to have been built by the Louisiana Highway Department using taxpayer-bought material, under orders of the LA governor at that time. Not saying it happened that way, but it was never denied...
The governor had a kid who wanted to race, and they had the track built to give him a place to race. The kid was sponsored in part by the LA Tourism Bureau. Funny that, he hardly ever left LA to race, spent the tourism dollars in his his home state. And he could'nt drive a tricycle down a sidewalk, thankfully, he didn't last long.The governor, whose name I can't recall, and the kid both later did time; nothing unusual down there.
The track initially ran friday nights so as not to compete with Houston, Jackson and Mobile, all half mile tracks within 3-4 hours. The friday was an issue, as the traffic from the east around slidell hampered getting to the place. Track promotion was itself it's own nightmare story. I only got there once, in 1979; last time it ran.
It was originally built about 1966, and was off and on until 1978. The 79 race was the only event that year, twin 50 lap races won by Georgia Hotshoe Ronnie Sanders. The first event raced at the track was won by David Pearson.
The location is long gone, replaced by housing. If you go on Bing Maps, the location is easy to find. If you follow Hwy 73, aka Old Jefferson Highway southeast out of Baton Rouge, look for where it intersects Hwy 42, just North of Prarieville. You will actually be in Oak Grove. Just south of the intersection of 42/73, you will find Charleston Road running east. That was the track entrance. On your original pic, the road that makes a curve south of the track is the now Charleston road. Just North of Charleston is a road called Race Track road; that runs through the middle of the track footprint. 
As Labor Day weekend ended in 1969, however, it did seem like racetracks made pretty good facilities for rock festivals. Atlanta had been a big success, Texas had worked and New Orleans hadn't failed. Most people perceived Woodstock as a sort of lucky break--the festival got completely out of hand, but it all worked out anyway. The next to last rock festival of 1969 was a three day event in Palm Beach, Florida, at a sports car track and dragstrip (now the Palm Beach International Raceway). The November 28-30, 1969 Palm Beach International Pop Festival was headlined by no less than the Rolling Stones. So since the Rolling Stones were planning to headline a huge, free outdoor concert in San Francisco the very next week, doing it at a racetrack seemed like a pretty good idea.

December 6, 1969 Sears Point International Raceway, Sonoma, CA Rolling Stones/Grateful Dead/others (canceled)
The restored Penske Racing Chevy Camaro with which Mark Donohue won the inaugural race at Sears Point, a round of the Trans-Am championship on September 21, 1969 (photo: Meccas Of Speed)
Sports car racing was hugely popular worldwide in the 1960s, and Northern California was prime sports car country. Road racing was hugely popular as well, and by a peculiar accident the best road track in Northern California was rarely available. Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey was a beautiful, exciting track in a resort area, but unfortunately it was located on the grounds of Fort Ord, a U.S. Army base. Thus Laguna Seca was only available for a limited number of events. The Sports Car Club Of America's SF Region had given up on using temporary facilities--I saw the last race in the Candlestick Park parking lot in 1965, when the cars were simply too fast and two drivers died--so they looked to create their own custom built race track.

Sears Point International Raceway in Sonoma was in a nature preserve, far from any housing, yet it was still only an hour from San Francisco and the East Bay. The exciting, twisty course had 11 turns and many elevation changes, and it first opened in late 1968. The track had some financial problems, and by mid-1969 it was owned by Filmways, a movie studio. Although the race track was finished, the facility had not been fully built out by 1969. Nonetheless, the first major professional race was held there on September 21, 1969. At the time, the SCCA Trans-Am series had a half-dozen factory teams and numerous famous drivers, like Parnelli Jones, Dan Gurney and race winner Mark Donohue. I attended the race, and even I could tell that the facility was unfinished, but it was a beautiful setting with great sightlines.

Although this photo is from a motorcycle race in 1985, it gives a pretty good idea of the panoramic vistas of Sears Point that made it appealing to Sam Cutler as a concert site. The "natural bowl" that Cutler refers to was probably off to the right of the photo (I think this is above Turn 6), but you can still get a feel for the site
Sam Cutler was no race fan, particularly, but he had been intimately involved in the Rolling Stones' search for a site for their promised free concert in the Bay Area on December 6. In his book You Can't Always Get What You Want (ECW Press, 2010), Cutler describes turning down various unacceptable sites offered by people who did not fathom the practical matters of over 100,000 people crammed into one space. Yet Cutler was suitably impressed with Sears Point as a prospective concert venue. He said (p.127)
[We] borrowed a car and [went] to see the site at Sears Point. We drove North [from Marin] for about half an hour, through rolling hills, and arrived at an isolated site. It seemed ideal. It had good access to the main north-south highway [CA37] and enough parking spaces for 100,000 cars. To one side of the racetrack there was a huge natural amphitheater. I walked around its perimeter to a point on its ridge where a stage could be erected. 
I could see for half a mile, in an arc of 180 degrees. It was a perfect spot for a concert
Concert preparations got underway at Sears Point, a stage was constructed and a giant sound system was put together. As we all know, however, negotiations stalled at the last minute and the concert was moved to the tiny Altamont Speedway. The name "Altamont" has been synonymous with everything wrong with outdoor rock festivals ever since. Its worth thinking, however, how a successful concert at Sears Point might have changed not only the rock concert landscape but the auto racing business as well.

What kept the Rolling Stones from playing Sears Point was the film rights. Sears Point Raceway was owned by Filmways, probably as a tax shelter, and while they could have cared less about racing,  film rights to an historic rock concert was something the corporation understood. They pushed too hard, however, and the stage and sound system were moved to Altamont in about 24 hours. Yet what if the concert had come off? Sears Point Raceway could handle the cars, and the sightlines were great. If people had had a relatively good time, Sears Point could have remade itself as a concert venue. Cutler was right--it was a perfect concert venue, and perfectly located. Even today, the same people who still see the Rolling Stones in California would be very happy to do it in Sonoma.

Yet Altamont was a disaster. The auto racing industry, which had to have quietly noticed the successes at Atlanta and Dallas, would have wanted nothing to do with rock after Altamont. Compared to the South, the Bay Area was a lot more hippie friendly, and Sears Point could have been Shoreline Amphitheater twenty years before its time. Nor would it have interfered with Sears Point's history and potential as a race track. It could still be holding the annual NASCAR road race and all its other events, while sparing a few weekends for some big outdoor rock shows.

Filmways Corporation ran into serious financial difficulties in 1970, and Sears Point Raceway remained closed until 1973. There were not even any road races at Sears Point, much less rock concerts, until then. In any case, thanks to Altamont, outdoor rock concerts at a race track would be haunted by the specter of Altamont until the 1980s. Everyone was the worse for it. I saw a great Trans-Am race on a glorious day at Sears Point in 1981 (George Follmer spun out in the opening lap, and came from last to third by the end). If only the Grateful Dead had played when the race was over...but a failed negotiation over film rights erased that possibility.

December 6, 1969 Altamont Speedway, Livermore, CA Rolling Stones/Grateful Dead/others (Grateful Dead did not play)
Donnie Epperson and Gary Allbritian racing at Altamont Speedway sometime in the 1970s
The unfortunate story of the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969, has been told so many times, I won't re-tell it here. Suffice to say, the Altamont pass was a windy, desolate area in a mountain range at the Eastern edge of Alameda County. The little speedway had no neighbors to bother, with the nearest residents in the then-tiny town of Tracy, but the truth was the tiny oval had never been a success. The track had opened in 1966, but it was really too far for fans and drivers who wanted to enjoy the kind of casual, fun minor league racing that thrived on tiny half-mile ovals.

The owner of Altamont Speedway offered up the track in the hopes of providing some publicity for the struggling little track. He got the publicity all right, but the wrong kind. After the December concert, Altamont Speedway remained closed until 1973. It re-opened various times and was mostly operative, but never successful, and it finally closed for good in 2008. Tiny Altamont, which should never have hosted a major rock concert in the first place, much less a giant free event by the Rolling Stones, must have made race track operators shudder at the thought of a rock concert. If the Stones had played Sears Point, things might have been very different.

July 28, 1973 Watkins Glen Grand Prix Racecourse, Watkins Glen, NY Allman Brothers Band/Grateful Dead/The Band
The great Ronnie Peterson in the pits at Watkins Glen at the US Grand Prix on October 7, 1973. Peterson would go on to win the race in his Lotus 72-Cosworth, just edging out James Hunt (photo source: Sports Car Digest)
The Allman Brothers/Grateful Dead/Band concert at Watkins Glen Grand Prix Racecourse in upstate New York on July 28, 1973 was the largest single day rock concert up until that time. The crowd was estimated at 600,000. It is generally believed to be the largest rock concert ever, although I don't know exactly how that would be calculated. In any case, it was a major event, fondly remembered by everybody who went, profitable enough for the promoters and the bands and generally went off without serious incident.

Indeed, the only problem was that the show was so well attended that the huge crowd overwhelmed the roads and made everyone nervous about what would have happened if something had gone wrong, so once again any plans for future rock concerts at the Glen or similar facilities were shot down.  Yet the logistical success of the Watkins Glen show was one of the key reasons that I think a 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Sears Point might have come off fairly well. Although the Glen was somewhat larger than Sears Point, with a longer 3.2 mile layout rather than the tighter configuration at Sears Point, the basic idea of the tracks were the same. The tracks follow the elevation changes of the sites, and so there were natural sight lines for a large number of people, along with access, water, power and parking.

Watkins Glen, NY, about five hours Northwest of Manhattan, had been one of the centers of postwar East Coast road racing. There had been races as early as 1948 using closed public roads, but increasing speeds made this unsafe. The permanent course was built in 1956. From 1961 to 1980, "The Glen" was home to the Formula One United States Grand Prix, the most prestigious road racing event on the US racing calendar. The Glen also hosted a famous international sports car event, the Six Hours Of Watkins Glen, and races in all the important series, such as Can-Am, Trans-Am and so on.

Ironically enough, if the Grateful Dead had just played Watkins Glen by themselves, or with the New Riders and the Sons instead of the Allmans and The Band, they would have drawn about 50,000 people. That sounds like a lot, but Watkins Glen could have absorbed that crowd easily, and then it could have been an annual event. Yet the spectacular success of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix course insured that it would not be used as a concert venue again. Once again, race track operators must have taken note and decided that they did not want several hundred thousand people at their facilities, even if things went well. The Glen proved Sam Cutler right, more or less, but it still didn't start a trend. Watkins Glen has continued to thrive as a track, particularly for its annual NASCAR race, but save for a single 2011 Phish concert, rock bands have not been seen there.

August 24, 1975 Trenton Speedway, Hamilton, NJ Aerosmith/Poco/Kingfish/Slade/others
Bobby Unser takes the checkered flag at an Indycar race at Trenton Speedway in 1966
Just an hour or so from Manhattan was the Trenton Speedway, actually located in Hamilton, NJ, just outside of Trenton. The 1-mile oval was part of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds. There had been racing at the Fairgrounds from 1912-1941, and a new one mile dirt oval was built in 1946. The track was paved in 1957. In 1968, the track was expanded to a 1.5 mile "Kidney Bean" oval. The race track was active until 1979. Although an old, unassuming facility, it was the biggest oval track near New York city, so Trenton Speedway hosted major races on the Indy Car and NASCAR circuits for much of its postwar history. Richard Petty won The Northern 300 three times there (in 1967, 70 and 71), and AJ Foyt won Indy Car races twelve times at Trenton, racing against Mario Andretti, the Unser brothers and all the other great Indy car racers of the era.

There were a few rock concerts held at the Trenton Speedway in the early 70s. A show headlined by the Allman Brothers in 1973 was overwhelmed by people trying to get in for free, and the Fairgounds had been very uneasy about a repeat episode. Kingfish's first Eastern appearance was at the next attempt at a show at Trenton Speedway, on August 24, 1975 as they opened for Aerosmith. Things went OK, apparently, but not so OK that I am aware of another concert there.

The fate of Trenton Speedway was the fate of many popular post war racetracks. While many racetracks became too unsafe as cars continued to get faster, even the fast, successful tracks were no match for suburbanization. Hamilton, NJ was once fairly far out in "the sticks," but no more. Now Hamilton is considered well with commuting range of Manhattan and Philadelphia, and it is a well-to-do community.

Racetracks are noisy, and they are never popular when they are encroached on by new housing. The New Jersey State Fairgounds, and Trenton Speedway, are now a UPS Shipping Facility, a housing development called Hamilton Lakes, and a museum called Grounds For Sculpture. Grounds For Sculpture is a custom designed outdoor facility for housing sculptures, financed by the Johnson And Johnson pharmaceutical fortune. The evolution from noisy racecars to a quiet museum epitomizes the transition of postwar suburban communities throughout America.

Pictures from the 1977 drag racing season at Raceway Park in Englishtown, with highly modified "Funny Cars"
September 3, 1977 Raceway Park, Englishtown, NJ Grateful Dead/Marshal Tucker Band/NRPS
The Grateful Dead's concert at Raceway Park in Englishtown, NJ on September 3, 1977, was one of their most legendary events. It was a form of coming out party on the East Coast, the first large East Coast concert for the band after Terrapin Station was released. It was labor day weekend, and every Deadhead on the Eastern Seaboard seems to have not only gone to the show, but brought their brother, their girlfriend and their roommate, too. The crowd was estimated at well over 100,000, so the show was a huge success for promoter John Scher, cementing his solid reputation with the band.

Raceway Park had been founded in 1965, and it was primarily a dragstrip. New Jersey had been a manufacturing area for much of the first half of the 20th century, since it was near to seaports, New York and Philadelphia. As such, there had been various auto factories in New Jersey over the years, so there was a strong gearhead tradition throughout the state. In order for drag racing to succeed, it needed a local fanbase who likes popping the hood and tinkering with the engine, and New Jersey had a huge number of those people. When Bruce Springsteen wrote, "some guys get home from work and wash up/And go racing in the streets," he wasn't imagining it, as any late night trip on US9 will tell you.

Unlike many dragstrips, however, due to its proximity to New York and Philadelphia, Raceway Park was equipped for a much larger crowd than a local place. In its current configuration, Raceway Park can hold 85,000 people in the stands. I don't know if that was the configuration for the Grateful Dead concert, but at least its an indicator of the size of the venue. Originally built on 330 acres, by now it has expanded to over 500 acres, so there was plenty of room both to park all the cars and absorb all the people.

Despite the success of the Englishtown show, however, the Grateful Dead never returned, nor am I aware of another major concert at Raceway Park. Many racetracks, closed in the mid-70s, either victims of the recession or unable to afford safety improvements for ever-faster cars, but Englishtown has continued to thrive and expand ever since, and it is still thriving today. 

However, for those racetracks that made it through the late 70s, one result has been that they are often in use for every weekend, much of the year. Since there are fewer racetracks, and almost no temporary facilities (like old Air Force bases), those that remain are heavily used. New Jersey itself has become considerably more prosperous, so a track like Englishtown is appeals not only to race fans but to well-to-do hobbyists who need to a place to exercise their expensive toys or let their kids race go-karts. I doubt Englishtown has had a free Labor Day since 1977, even if the Grateful Dead or anyone else had been available. Rock concerts never became a regular part of racetrack scheduling, so there was never really any room for them.

Part of the 300,00+ PAID attendance at Cal Jam II, Ontario Motor Speedway, March 18, 1978
California Jam and Cal Jam II at the Ontario Motor Speedway, Ontario, CA  
California Jam
April 6, 1974 Ontario Motor Speedway, Ontario, CA Emerson, Lake & Palmer/Deep Purple/Black Sabbath/Black Oak Arkansas/Seals & Crofts/The Eagles/Earth, Wind & Fire/Rare Earth
Cal Jam II
March 18, 1978 Ontario Motor Speedway, Ontario, CA Aerosmith/Foreigner/Santana/Dave Mason/Ted Nugent/Heart/Bob Welch with Stevie Nicks/Mahogany Rush/Rubicon
The Grateful Dead played at neither of the two rock concerts held at the Ontario Motor Speedway, 40 miles East of Los Angeles. While both shows featured the typical 70s touring bands that played baseball stadiums during that era, the two Ontario Speedway shows stand out not for the 300,000 plus who attended both events. Rather, they stand out for having the highest paid attendance of any rock concerts ever, numbers of great interests to promoters and band managers. The two Cal Jam events prove that the unique architecture of race tracks could easily be repurposed to high capacity rock concerts.

[update: Commenter runonguinness points out that a Grateful Dead/Allman Brothers show was scheduled for Ontario Motor Speedway on May 27, 1973:
The Dead almost played Ontario Motor Speedway on 1973-05-27 with the Allmans and Waylon Jennings. Randy Tuten produced a poster for Bill Graham based on David Byrd's Nassau "He's Truckin' She's Posin'", it's on his website rtuten.com

http://preview.tinyurl.com/oycdn6y

It was also advertised in Deadhead's newsletter 9 for April 1973 but as the next day, 1973-05-28 with Waylon and NRPS.
So the Grateful Dead could have had Watkins Glen at Ontario, but it was yet another woulda-coulda in this counter-history]

At the same time, the increasing suburbanization of America meant that land that had once been far enough from any city for a noisy racetrack was now extremely valuable to real estate developers. The Ontario Motor Speedway, in Southern California, had opened in 1970 in Ontario , as a facility for Indy Cars, NASCAR and road racing. It was fairly successful as a racing venue, though not spectacularly so. Yet the land underneath the track was too valuable, and the bonds were foreclosed on by the Chevron Land Corporation. The track was torn down in 1980, and to be replaced by a Hilton Hotel and a shopping mall (you can still see traces of Turn 3, however). Ontario Speedway could have been a prime venue for major rock concerts in Southern California, but instead it is now a mall  an office park and a hockey arena.

Jun 30, 1979 Portland International Raceway, Portland, OR Grateful Dead/McGuinn, Clark and Hillman/David Bromberg Band

Gianpiero Moretti's Porsche 935 Turbo at the Portland 100 IMSA GT race on May 8, 1979 (photo: Brent Martin from RacingSportsCars)
Automobiles represent prosperity, and auto racing rarely thrives when the economy is weak. Thus racing in the United States was in a holding pattern for much of the late 70s and early 80s. From the point of view of land-use, however, road racing was hit particularly hard. For various reasons, sports car racing had been extremely popular throughout the world in the 1960s, heavily supported by manufacturers in a variety of series. In the 1970s, that interest shifted somewhat to Formula One, which was not popular in the United States, and to Indianapolis-style cars ("Indy Cars") and NASCAR, both of which favored oval tracks. Road racing venues suffered as a result.

Many fine road racing venues faded away in the 70s and 80s, often swallowed up by eager housing developers. Those tracks that survived often had some peculiar reason that they were preserved and could not be developed. One such track was Portland International Raceway, on the outskirts of Portland, OR. The history of Portland International Raceway was even intimately tied up with the history of the Grateful Dead.

During World War 2, Kaiser Industries had huge shipyards on both sides of the Columbia River, in Portland, OR and Vancouver, WA. In 1943 they constructed the housing development of Vanport City for the workers, which ultimately had a population of 40,000 by war's end. 40% of the population was African-American. After the war, the shipbuilding jobs ended, and the population dropped, but Vanport City had became a home for many returning veterans. One of those veterans was Robert Hunter's father, and Hunter ended up in Vanport in 1948, when he was 7 years old. By that time, the town had a population of just 18,500, and it was not a well-off community.

Vanport City was built on land that had been reclaimed from the banks of the Columbia River, and thus was very vulnerable to flooding. There was a system of dikes in place, but there were a series of heavy rains throughout May of 1948. At 4:17 p.m on May 30, 1948--Memorial Day--the dike burst, and a 10-foot wall of water rushed through the town. It took half an hour to reach the houses, giving many a chance to get away. Many more were saved because they were at Memorial Day celebrations. Fortunately, only 15 died, but Vanport City was lost, and the people who lived there lost everything. After weeks of rain, the sun finally came out, and Hunter has said that the lyrics to "Here Comes Sunshine" recall his relief at the sunshine after the Vanport flood.

The land for Vanport City could not be used for housing or industry, so it became a protected city park in Portland. In 1961, as part of the Portland Rose Festival, some sports car enthusiasts organized some races through the paved streets of the deserted Vanport City. Over time, the dangerous street track was converted to a formally constructed road racing course in 1970. Since the racetrack is part of a city park that cannot be developed for other uses, Portland International Raceway is never in danger of being swallowed up by hungry real estate interests. PIR does not hold as many events as other full time facilities, but as a result it could be used for the occasional rock concert. The Grateful Dead have only been extraordinarily popular in Oregon, on a per-population basis, so PIR made a good facility for them. However, the weather in Oregon is always iffy, so an outdoor venue always carry some risk. In later years, the band played the football stadium in Eugene (an hour South), so the Dead never played PIR again.

May 9-10, 1987 Laguna Seca International Raceway, Monterey, CA Grateful Dead/Bruce Hornsby/Ry Cooder
The Group 44 Jaguar XJR7 at Laguna Seca on March 5, 1987, driven by Hurley Haywood and John Morton, which finished 4th in the IMSA GT race (photo by Kenneth Barton, from RacingSportsCars)
By the mid-1980, rock concerts were  big business. Nobody benefited more from that than the Grateful Dead, and rightly so, since the Dead had done so much back in the 60s to carve out the circuit in the first place. More and more basketball arenas were designed as multi-use concert facilities, so there were more venues than ever before. Yet the big movement in concert venues was towards what were known as "Sheds" in the industry, like Shoreline Amphitheatre. Modeled on classical musical venues, with a covered stage and premium seats, surrounded by a grassy bowl, the custom built shed has grown to dominate the concert industry.

However, in the mid-80s, there still weren't that many sheds nationwide. Thus, forward looking promoters like Bill Graham and John Scher were still looking for venues that could be repurposed for larger concerts. Although auto racing was booming, too, and most race tracks were also custom built facilities that did not have a place for non-automotive events, a few old racetracks got a look before America was fully shedded up.

Laguna Seca Raceway, between Monterey and Salinas, was constructed in 1957. There had been a series of popular sports car races that had moved from Golden Gate Park--I kid you not--to the streets of wealthy Pebble Beach, but by the mid-50s sports cars had simply become too fast to race safely on public roads, even closed ones. The land for Laguna Seca originally belonged to Fort Ord, the local army base. in 1974, with the Army downsizing, the land for Laguna Seca was deeded over to the Monterey Parks Department. As a paradoxical compromise, the land handed over by Fort Ord was marked as a Nature Preserve, so there can be no development around Laguna Seca. The track is popular with racers and fans, and famously picturesque. It is familiar from many commercials, and apparently it is quite popular as a backdrop for video games.

Laguna Seca Raceway could not have been used as a concert site in the 60s, or up until 1974, since it was still on an Army base. Military police used to direct the traffic out of the track--I doubt that would have been comfortable with a Grateful Dead crowd. After 1974, the juju of Sears Point and Altamont must have hung over any thoughts of collaboration, and in any case there was no meaningful intersection between the auto racing and rock and roll communities, so I assume the idea never really came up.

By 1987, however, a two-day Grateful Dead concert at Laguna Seca seemed like a great idea. The track could absorb a huge crowd, it had power, water and bathrooms, and it already allowed camping. At one time, seeing a Grateful Dead concert at Laguna Seca would have been the perfect merger between my childhood and adolescence, and to see Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh where I had seen Jim Hall and John Surtees would have been a perfect convergence. By 1987, however, for a variety of reasons having to do with work, attending the Laguna Seca Dead shows was extraordinarily difficult for me and I did not do so. Every account I have ever heard about it, however, was fulsome in praise, and I am not surprised. Even if the moment had passed, a road racing track like Laguna Seca was perfect for the Grateful Dead, and at the end of the line it was finally proven.

July 2-3, 1988 Oxford Plains Speedway, Oxford, ME Grateful Dead/Little Feat

The layout of the Oxford Plains Speedway in Oxford, ME

Auto racing venues shift in importance for a variety of reasons, some related to the local area and some related to promoters and racing organizations. The Oxford Plains Speedway, in Oxford, ME, was established in 1950. Originally a half-mile oval, it was shortened to a 3/8 mile track at some point. Over the decades, it had been a regular stop for the second-tier NASCAR races, such as the Nationwide Series (and such predecessors as the Busch Grand National or Late Model Sportsman series). The seated capacity of the track is apparently, 14,000, which is large for a small oval.

In 1988, with the Grateful Dead looking for larger venues throughout the country, and without a shed in every region, they put on a weekend of shows at Oxford Plains Speedway. The speedway had put on a Monsters Of Rock heavy metal show earlier that summer (June 24, 1988), but I do not know whether the track was used as a concert venue much at any other time. From what I know of reading about the show in old editions of Deadbase, the site and shows were fondly remembered by New Englanders. In terms of physical layout, Oxford Plains was similar to Altamont, so a little oval could work fine for a Dead concert, as long as no one invited the Rolling Stones and made it a free concert.

However, whatever exactly happened, by 1988 the Grateful Dead were growing out of such venues, and into the bigger sheds in major venues. They never returned to Oxford Speedway. Oxford Speedway ultimately lost its Nationwide race--I won't bore you with the NASCAR politics associated with this--but the track continues to host smaller races every Summer.

July 29-30, 1988 Laguna Seca International Raceway, Monterey, CA Grateful Dead/Los Lobos/David Lindley and El-Rayo X

The crowd at the Grateful Dead show at Laguna Seca in 1988. It appears that the stage is just in front of Turn 5, which used to be Turn 3 (before the track was lengthened)
The Grateful Dead returned to Laguna Seca for another weekend in 1988. Once again, by all accounts, it was a fun, profitable, mellow event. By this time, auto racing was a big, specialized business, just like rock concerts, and there was little room for collaboration. The Grateful Dead had an interesting role in the history of rock concerts, in that they often tried out things before other bands. The Dead were adventurous, their fans were easygoing, and Deadheads were going to come to the concert anyway, so promoters could take a chance with a new venue or a new setup.

Yet the Dead's high profile opportunities at race tracks had been scuttled by other events. A potentially glorious event at Sears Point in 1969 had turned into a nightmare at tiny Altamont. The Watkins Glen event was so large that its very success must have frightened race track operators and local communities. Throughout the country, many classic race tracks closed, so there was no chance to demonstrate how good it could have been. Finally, at the very end, with two weekends at Laguna Seca and one at Maine, they Dead showed how well racetracks could work for as an outdoor venue, before they too traveled on up the ladder.

Appendix: Other Venues
Although large outdoor rock concerts are now annual events in Golden Gate Park, I do not believe we will ever see high speed sports car races though the park ever again. This track map is from the 1952-54 races. The race moved to the streets of Pebble Beach from 1955-57, and finally to a permanent site at Laguna Seca Raceway.

This post was written from the perspective of the concert history of the Grateful Dead. I'm aware that I dramatically simplified some aspects of the history of auto racing after World War 2, but I had to draw the line somewhere. My goal here was to write about land use, and my specific interest was in Grateful Dead concerts at facilities custom-built for auto racing. I'm aware of some places the band played where auto races were held, but they didn't fit my paradigm. However, for completeness, let me list them here:
  • Sports Car races were held on the paved roads of Golden Gate Park from 1952-54 (they were later moved to Pebble Beach, and then to Laguna Seca)
  • Midget auto races were held at Soldier Field in the 1950s (the Grateful Dead played there in the 1990s)
  • On September 22, 1968, the Grateful Dead played at an ostrich racing track (yes) in Del Mar, CA, that was later turned into a race track (Del Mar Raceway). However, from a land use point of view, it wasn't a race track at the time the Dead played there
  • The Grateful Dead played a number of county fairgrounds sites where auto races were held, but the band did not play on the race tracks themselves, to my knowledge. To name one example, the Dead played the Watsonville County Fairgrounds in 1983, but they played at main arena (probably the old horse race track), not the speedway.
  • I'm also aware that sometime around the 1990s, a promoter tried to tie in Trans-Am races with rock concerts, but I don't know such events were actually held. In the 1970s or 80s, that would have been unforgettable for me, though of course it would never have happened, but by the 1990s it was not a viable concept.
If any Deadhead racing fans see something I missed, please Comment or email me, and I will include it in the post.

10 comments:

  1. The Dead almost played Ontario Motor Speedway on 1973-05-27 with the Allmans and Waylon Jennings. Randy Tuten produced a poster for Bill Graham based on David Byrd's Nassau "He's Truckin' She's Posin'", it's on his website rtuten.com

    http://preview.tinyurl.com/oycdn6y

    It was also advertised in Deadhead's newsletter 9 for April 1973 but as the next day, 1973-05-28 with Waylon and NRPS.

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    1. guinness, this is another great addition to my peculiar narrative. Ontario proved its success as a rock venue later, and a Dead/Allmans show would have been more lucrative than the California 500 was at the time.

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  2. Apologies if this is a repeat post but my first attempt seems to be lost in the ozone.

    This show got as far as printing, if not selling, tickets

    http://www.psilo.com/dead/showimage.php?iid=3014&text=05-27-73%20Ticket

    It could be why Jerry booked a coupla nights with Merl 29/30 at the Ash Grove, well away from his usual haunts.

    Anyway, dig deeper into that Ostrich racing/GD connection, that is what we need to know about. Mickey as Ostrich jockey, yeah!

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  3. I was at the Portland Speedway show and it was actually billed as the Dead and the Byrds. Don't even remember Bromberg playing, funny how the memory slips away.

    I do remember a couple things about the show. An epic other one with incredible cloud/skyshow backdrop and what I thought was a rather callous and intemperate comment by Weir.

    Lowell George had just died ( I happened to be at his last show back in D.C. days before) and Weir said words to the effect of "Bye Lowell, it was fun while it lasted." Gallows humor.

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  4. I saw the Dead in 1980 at the Lewiston, Maine Fairgrounds and I'm pretty sure it was a big oval race track....A great second set as I recall...The other highlight was the 2 hour drive home in the bed of a Chevy pickup truck. My back still hurts.

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    1. napaben, thank you very much for this. I looked it up, and while the Maine State Fairgrounds were mainly horse racing track, auto races were held there from 1949-51.

      However, in order to keep my post manageable I was focusing on custom built auto racing tracks. The subject of State and County Fairgounds as concert sites is an interesting one that is worthy of a separate post.

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    2. for some more details about auto racing at Lewiston, ME, see here
      http://mainevintageracecars.com/MORRIS_SITE/Memories_Lewiston_Fairgrounds.htm

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  5. I believe that both the Santa Fe and Manor Downs facilities were combo horse and auto racing tracks. My pal John Morris promoted several Grateful Dead shows at the Santa Fe Downs in both 1982 and 1983.John was the technical director for Woodstock and one time manager of the Fillmore East.

    Manor Downs in Texas still operates as an auto track.



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    1. Blue Heron, I'm very interested in multi-use facilities, but I couldn't pin down an auto race at Manor Downs. Do you have a link?

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  6. This link lists it as a car racing track however it could be bull.

    http://touristattractions.usa121.com/cgi-bin/onlineshop.pl?val=gp&mcat=site&t=s&ref=102305

    In any case, the track has now shut down. I will continue to hunt for a better link.

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