On October 20th, 1970 the Altamont Speedway in Northern California hosted an historic motorcycle race. One of the greatest motorcycle races of all time was held there. The Rolling Stones, the premier rock band of the time, were the headliners. More than 100,000 people packed the small rural town to see the Stones perform. While much has changed at the Altamont Speedway over the years, the site of the original 1969 motor speedway has remained largely the same. If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the famous Altamont Speedway, here’s your answer. Let’s take a trip back in time to see the evolution of one of the most popular music venues of all time.
A Brief History Of The Speedway
In the year 1969, the Altamont Speedway located in Northern California was built. It is the only remaining original Daytona Speedway design. The track was built because of the growing interest in motorcycle racing in America. Before the establishment of the Altamont Speedway, motorcycle racing took place mostly in Europe and other parts of the world. The organizers of the race wanted to bring the excitement of motor racing to America and they chose the unique design of the Daytona Speedway for the project. The track opened its doors for business on October 20th, 1970. The first official race held on the grounds was the Pan American Championship in January 1971. A year later, the California State Fair held a Grand Prix event at the Speedway. In 1974 the track was sold to the State of California and renamed the Golden State Speedway. A few years later, the name was changed to Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum as part of a corporate sponsorship deal. Since then the track has been known as the Coliseum.
The Rolling Stones – America’s Biggest Rock ‘N’ Roll Favourite
On October 20th, 1969 the Rolling Stones were one of the biggest bands in the world. They were the premier rock band of the times and had just released their bestselling album, Exile on Main St. One look at the band’s lineup and you’d know why they were so popular: Mick Jagger was the front man, holding court with friends and followers wherever he went. His wild partying, creative stage shows, and general aura of danger made him famous. Keith Richards was the quintessential bad boy of the time, known for his quick temper, womanizing, and drug use. Charlie Watts was the steady drummer who kept the beat going and made sure the music was on time. Bill Wyman, the band’s bassist, was a bit of a nerd but was a key member in the band’s development, helping shape their unique sound.
The Rolling Stones were one of the first acts to play at the Altamont Speedway. The concert was free but there was a limit of two tickets per person. The band played two shows a day, one in the afternoon and the other in the evening. The early afternoon show usually began around noon and the late afternoon show around three or four pm. The band would usually go on a break around eight pm. The early shows were dedicated to blues and southern rock, while the late afternoon shows were more of a spectacle, incorporating more variety and even some old-school rock and roll. In between sets the band would sign autographs and take pictures with fans. During these breaks the organizers would often set up food and drink for the audience, creating a sort of hospitality center. This was something new for the audience, who were mostly used to just going to shows and getting drunk as hell. This is why the early shows are more well-known than the later ones. The energy and intensity of the performances increased as the day went on. By the time the band played the last show of the day at around ten or eleven pm, they were usually ready to drop. The show usually ended around two or three in the morning, allowing the band to catch some sleep before heading back out on the road again. This is the reason why the early shows are considered ‘Stones festivals’. They were energetic festivals that happened to feature some of the greatest rock music ever made.
Mick Jagger & The Rolling Stones – America’s First ‘Million Dollar Band’
The first year at the Altamont Speedway was not a profitable one for the organizers. The track only managed to break even, largely because of all the logistical challenges of staging a motorcycle race during the winter. Attendance was low and the band was not paid much. The organizers were forced to lay off a number of people and cut back on some of the other costs of hosting a rock festival. The year was still a huge success for the Rolling Stones. They became the first ‘million dollar band’, earning one million dollars for the first time for the band and for the festival as a whole. This million-dollar sum was shared among the four members of the band. The following year was similarly unprofitable for the track. Despite the negative financials, the Rolling Stones were determined to keep holding their legendary motorcycle races. The following year was their last at the Altamont Speedway, due to lack of interest from the band and the motorcycle community alike. The Rolling Stones played their last show at the venue in May 1972. The last two shows were dedicated to their new single “Gimme Shelter”, with the last song “Mother’s Little Helper” being a cover of the Bob Dylan song. After the last show the band went their separate ways for the summer, each taking a different tour. Later that year the Rolling Stones reunited and began a North American tour. From there they went on to play another 33 shows in North America, before heading back to Europe for the last seven shows of the tour. The Rolling Stones played their one-night-only farewell show at the Altamont Speedway on October 27th, 1972. The last show sold out quickly and the band earned themselves another million dollar payday. This was the last time the Rolling Stones would ever play at the venue. Since then the Speedway has remained mostly dormant, though in the year 2000 construction started on a new building nearby. The construction was eventually canceled and the land was sold to a developer. Whether or not there will be another motorcycle race at the site remains to be seen.