Gearheads And Deadheads

As I was out running errands today I pulled up beside a Chevrolet Yukon at a traffic light. The rear window of the SUV was festooned with sticker tributes to the Earnhardt family with grinning dancing bear stickers in and amongst those stylized 3’s and 8’s. Through the windows of the Chevy China Cat Sunflower was segueing into I Know You Rider. The driver took note of my tie-dye T-shirt (I forget when the Tie-die Tuesday tradition began) looked over grinned and winked. It’s always amazed me how many former and current Deadheads are also in stock car racing.

On the surface the two cultures would seem to have little in common. Stock car racing has its roots in blue-collar mill towns of the Southeast where folks tend to be pretty conservative. The cultural phenomenon that was the Grateful Dead was borne of San Francisco, a decidedly hip and liberal area. Yet you don’t have to wander far through a parking lot prior to a stock car race to hear Jerry Garcia picking away amidst all the McGraw and Keith. And the two cultures have more in common than the uninitiated might think. It amazes me how many Deadheads I’ve run into at the races. You probably have to, you just didn’t know the subtle signs we communicate to each other with. I don’t think many people ever realized every night he did RPM Tonight John Kernan wore a Jerry Garcia designed tie.

It was less than a generation ago, stock car racing wasn’t hip. The Grateful Dead also tended to cruise below the radar of popular culture. Back then if you were a stock car racing fan folks tended to think you were a redneck. If you followed the Dead people immediately labeled you a “hippie.” And of course we were all rather proud of being rednecks and hippies. And when the clan gathered for a concert or a race there was always a lot of grinning because we all knew we were part of something special and thrilling that was a secret to most of the outside world. In our own subcultures we were hip to the secret and that made gatherings of like-minded individuals an oversize family reunion, where folks became friends almost instantly. Whether it was tailgating outside the Spectrum when the Boys were in town or in the parking lot outside Dover when Billy France’s Magical Mystery Tour rolled north, the atmosphere was one huge party.

Attending local shows or races was fine, but for the true hard core members of the fraternities, the road trip was a way of life. Whether it was heading south the Southern 500 or north to Providence to see the Dead, often on the spur of a moment decision a bunch buddies would clamber into a vehicle and take off down the road. You could find tickets to the race or the show once you got there. It was just taken as a given. I’d guess I’ve traveled to about as many Dead shows as I have races and while the actual number escapes me (the 70s were very, very, good to me) I’d guess if I had all the money I’ve spent chasing NASCAR or the Dead back I’d be able to go out and buy myself a brand new Z06 Corvette. Of course if someone offered me that Corvette in exchange for my memories it would be a no sale. I’ve got too many special memories I cherish from both race weekends and concerts.

Of course there tend to be a lot more pickup trucks than microbuses at races, though denizens of both subcultures often make campers out of school buses. The Deadheads tended to have more interesting paint schemes on their buses, but more than once at a race I’ve seen remnants of a psychedelic paint scheme showing through scratches in the race buses paint. There weren’t any Newells or Prevosts I call at Dead concerts, but then the folks who followed the Dead in the 70s are older and usually more prosperous these days.

As far as couture both cultures cherish jeans, the more faded the better. The Deadheads prefer tie-dye, while the race fans tend to wear T-shirts celebrating their favorite driver. Of course nowadays our hair tends to be a bit shorter and thinner on the top than it was back in the day, and most of us are a bit softer in the middle, a possible consequence of having long since switched from Panama Red to Coors Light. (Though I recall having more than a few, way more than a few, beers at Dead shows and if you know the signature smell it’s not hard to find folks toking a number at the races as much as that concept would shock Brian France.)

Both cultures had their high holy days, whether it was the New Years Eve concert in Oakland or the Southern 500, events so special everyone had to make the pilgrimage at least once in life. Deadheads trade their tapes of special concerts like the Englishtown show just as race fans trade their videos of special races like the 1986 Southern 500. Both groups have grown adept in waiting out traffic hanging out in parking lots. At either a race or a show long time fans will doubtless run into old “friends” they have seen since the last gathering of the clan and treat them like long lost relatives. Every time I see that Nextel commercial about how no normal fan would show up to an event three days prior to show time I recall hanging out in Dead Tent Cities with my buddies.

Hard core fans of both the Dead and racing suffered shocking losses. For race fans it was the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. For the Deadheads it was the loss of Jerry Garcia to a heart attack. There’s still something missing without that black 3 car out there on the track. I’ll still attend an occasional “Dead” show put on by the surviving members of the band, but to me the golden age of the Dead is over. I was an orthodox Deadhead, a left-sider, one of Jerry’s Kids. I think the world of Bob Weir. I’d give him a kidney if he needed one. But without Jerry the show just isn’t the same.

As both NASCAR and the Dead grew more popular there were some hassles. Tickets got harder to get. Traffic got worse. Some new folks at both the races and shows didn’t understand the unwritten rules that governed our cultures. But the hassles were always worth it. Because when you were at the show and you heard that special sound, whether it be a pack of forty cars coming out of turn four to take the checkered flag or the opening notes of Box of Rain, you were on your feet screaming and getting ready for yet another day or evening.

There are some key differences between the two cultures. The Grateful Dead never sold out to some record company remaking “American Beauty” to get themselves on the radio and the charts. They remained true to the music, the fans and the tradition. They didn’t need airplay or gold records. They sold out every show anyway. Would that NASCAR would have done the same when they negotiated the new TV deal. NASCAR racing this year kind of reminds me of what would have happened if the Dead fired Jerry, replaced him with Britney Spears and released a compilation of the Carpenters Greatest Hits on K-Tel in exchange for a six figure advance.

The Dead were a lot more fan friendly. They were one of the few bands that allowed fans to bring in tape recorders to the show to immortalize the evening. As Jerry once said, “When we’re done with the music, you do what you want with it.” NASCAR® tends to take a much dimmer view of fans who dare to blaspheme the name.

But maybe some closet Deadhead at NASCAR would reply:

Now, I don’t know but I been told,
it's hard to run with the weight of gold
Other hand I heard it said
it's just as hard with the weight of lead

And either way it doesn’t matter. I feel a road trip coming up this summer. It’s time to load up some live Dead CDs in the car, pack a cooler, grab a hold of a few buddies and hit the road. See you out there.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2004

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