rolling stones sears point raceway altamont 1969 coverArticles

The Rolling Stones and the Nearly Infamous Altamont Concert: How Sears Point Raceway Escaped Rock’n’Roll Tragedy

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Sears Point Raceway

Original site planned for the Altamont concert, located north of San Francisco. Sears Point asked for thousands of dollars in escrow against damages, and their parent company, Filmways Corporation, demanded film distribution rights. Ronnie Schneider (then Head of Stones Promotions Ltd., a company which ran the 1969 U.S. tour) refused, and then Filmways upped their fee to $100,000. The Stones ended up being forced to move everything to Altamont Speedway and, in January 1970, sued Sears Point Raceway for £4.5 million for fraud and breach of contract because the Raceway forced them to move the concert at the last minute.

From The Press Democrat:
On Dec. 6, 1969, the Rolling Stones headlined a concert at Altamont Speedway that changed the course of rock ’n’ roll. Hastily arranged and poorly planned, it was suffused with incredible music, but also with dehydration and cold, drug overdoses and violence. By the time Altamont was empty again, four men were dead. One, frying on LSD, drowned in an irrigation ditch. Two were killed by a hit-and-run driver who plowed into their campsite. And Meredith Hunter, 18, was stabbed to death by a member of the Hells Angels, who had lined the stage as a security team and initiated much of the chaos.
Don McLean’s ballad “American Pie” was the first rock song I memorized all the words to. It’s an extended allegory, and “the day the music died” was Dec. 6, 1969. It was less than four months after Woodstock, but seemed to conjure little of the joy and togetherness.
In Esquire magazine, Ralph J. Gleason wrote, “If the name ‘Woodstock’ has come to denote the flowering of one phase of the youth culture, ‘Altamont’ has come to mean the end of it.”
Now substitute “Sears Point” for “Altamont.” Our local track nearly became shorthand for the dark descent of the Summer of Love. (Ref. sears point raceway)

“I have thought about that many times, particularly as I heard Ken (Clapp’s) stories about how close they came to hosting, and what a potential disaster it was,” said Steve Page, president of the ?motorsports hub now known as Sonoma Raceway. “It could have been the end of the facility.”

Some say it was the Grateful Dead who came up with the idea of a “Woodstock West” in the Bay Area. Some insist it was Jefferson Airplane. In any case, those groups recruited the Rolling Stones, Carlos Santana, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – a superstar lineup.

The problem was finding a venue. Attention focused first on San Jose, but the city nixed the idea. San Francisco? One hangup was that the 49ers were scheduled to host the Chicago Bears at Kezar Stadium on Dec. 6, making Golden Gate Park impractical. The bigger issue was then-mayor Joseph Alioto, who was fed up with the Haight-Ashbury scene and refused to issue permits for a hippie mega-concert.

Less than a week from showtime, the music had nowhere to play.
That’s when Craig Murray, one of Sears Point International Raceway’s co-founders, offered up 120 acres near the junction of highways 37 and 121. On Wednesday, Dec. 3, Rolling Stones tour manager Sam Cutler announced that Sears Point would host the concert. A banner headline in The Press Democrat the next day read: “Sears Point ‘Woodstock West’ May Bring 300,000 Rock Fans.”

The mobilization began almost immediately. “Our season was over and things were pretty quiet,” Ken Clapp told me by phone. “I came to work one morning, and I saw all this activity going on.”
Bands like the Rolling Stones and CSN&Y had large support teams, but this thing was coming together piecemeal.
“They were shy on manpower,” Clapp said. “But when I went up there that (Thursday) morning, all these hippies were putting up tents and stuff, and my observation was the hippies were not part of the operation. They were groupies, you might say. Big trailers with all the equipment hadn’t been unloaded yet. This was 8 a.m.”

Clapp, now 80, is a stock-car legend who is currently chairman of the West Coast Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame, among other roles. He was there for the Sears Point groundbreaking in 1968, and by ’69 he was a vice president at the facility. He remembers the concert prep as if it happened yesterday. (Ref. sears point raceway)

“You go up the straightaway on the dragstrip, then a slight incline into the carousel,” Clapp said. “Then beyond that, oh, another eighth of a mile, and there’s a high area there. That’s where they were gonna put the stage. So you’d be looking up at the stage if you were in the audience. They would have had their backs to the start/finish line.”
Local law enforcement began mapping out traffic control and the manager of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce said his group was looking into setting up a soup kitchen or providing medical care. Another Sears Point VP, Steve Castoldi, had already cooked up a slogan: Rock today with the Rolling Stones, roll tomorrow with Parnelli Jones.

The Press Democrat reported on Friday, Dec. 5, that 100 or so people had hopped the fence in hopes of securing good seats.
And then it all crashed to a halt.
While there was plenty of disagreement (and some lawsuits) in the aftermath, the general explanation goes something like this. In 1969, Sears Point was owned by Filmways, a production company best known for TV comedies like “Mister Ed” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The Rolling Stones, as it turned out, had backed out of a show at The Forum (the Los Angeles Lakers’ former home in Inglewood) that November, leaving the promoter holding the bag. That promoter was Filmways.

Two days before Woodstock West, the production company placed new demands on the Rolling Stones. Filmways reportedly wanted $100,000 held in escrow to cover security and cleanup. According to the book “Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont,” by Saul Austerlitz, Filmways also wanted sole control of the distribution rights for the documentary being shot on-site, a film that would be released as “Gimme Shelter” in 1970. (Ref. sears point raceway)

I’ve seen the beef framed differently. Some say both parties had agreed to donate proceeds of the movie to charity, but couldn’t agree on the beneficiary. The Stones wanted the money to fund creation of a Bay Area music center. The landowners preferred it go to a combination of Sonoma County charities and Vietnam War widows and orphans.
Clapp tells a completely different story. The racing veteran takes full responsibility for quashing the show.
Before hearing his explanation, there’s something you should know. Like Mayor Alioto, Ken Clapp was no fan of the counter-culture.

“I didn’t understand the Haight-Ashbury era,” he told me. “I didn’t understand the music. I didn’t understand the drugs. I was very defensive of our Vietnam veterans and the way they were being treated. I was pretty radically to the right.”
This was the man who walked onto the scene at Sears Point that Thursday morning, and it wasn’t a scene that pleased him.
“I drive up there, toward the end of the dragstrip, and I see these crazy-looking vans and vehicles with flowers and all that,” Clapp said. “A lot of people with long hair and not well dressed. I see a girl, I think she’s probably 13, she’s driving stakes in the ground to put up a tent, and she’s dragging a newborn baby. I mean, newborn. The (umbilical) cord wasn’t even properly done.

“I said something to her. And she was totally coherent, she knew what was going on. I said, ‘This baby needs to be where it’s warm.’ She kind of ignored me, like whatever. I didn’t talk to anybody else. I went right back to the office, and I called a friend of mine who was the sheriff of Sonoma County.”
He called the CHP, too. And an ambulance for the baby. And Filmways. According to Clapp, that’s all it took. His bosses supported him, the cops supported him, and the scaffolding began to come down.

On Dec. 5, the day before the scheduled performances, The Press Democrat reported: “Following a night of cancellation rumors, the manager of the Grateful Dead, also scheduled to play for the day-long ‘freebie’ (a hip term for a free concert), told Red Cross officials in Santa Rosa shortly before 10 am that they could stop preparations for setting up first-aid stations and other emergency services.”

Attorney Melvin Belli, who was representing the Rolling Stones, made it official at 10:10 a.m.: The concert was homeless once again. Bye-bye, Miss American Pie.
Next into the breach was Dick Carter, who owned a lesser-known speedway in the hills between Livermore and Tracy. Carter had grown up in auto racing, had lost parts of his liver, spleen and bladder after a wreck at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Clapp had known him since the mid-1950s.
“I called Carter, and I said you’re getting yourself into a can of worms,” Clapp recalled. “He said, ‘This is gonna get Altamont famous.’ I said, ‘Dick, you’re not hearing what I’m saying.’ It was going to destroy everything we’d worked for. I didn’t even know about the Hells Angels being security.” (Ref. sears point raceway)

Carter was unmoved. He and concert organizers mobilized an armada of helicopters to harness pieces of stage, scaffolding and equipment, and carry them to the barren hills of the East Bay. Workers had roughly 24 hours to set up one of the biggest shows in Bay Area history.
The rest is infamy. The ingress at Altamont Speedway was even worse than Sears Point. As the show began Saturday, eastbound traffic was backed up for 20 miles on Highway 50 (now converted to I-580). People began abandoning their cars on the shoulders and median strip, and walking to the show.

The CHP would estimate attendance at 200,000. Promoters claimed a half million. Clapp, who has some experience with crowd measurement, insists it was more like 55,000. Let’s agree it was a lot of people, dumped into a truly inhospitable environment.
“Why it never succeeded (as a raceway) and never will is the wind,” Clapp said. “It’s either hot or cold. It wears your skin out, chaps your lips, makes your eyes burn. It’s good for grazing cattle or sheep. Not for racing.”
Or for music. That night, temperatures dipped into the 40s. There was no food or water available, minimal medical staff and at most 100 portable toilets. The stage, rather than being elevated, was at the bottom of a slope, immediately giving the musicians a feeling of unease. Everyone was high as a kite. And the Angels weren’t feeling the peace-and-love vibe.

The whole mess was captured in “Gimme Shelter,” and has been researched extensively in the years since. Clapp’s warning to Carter proved prophetic. Altamont Speedway was out of business a few months later. Carter didn’t sell the property, though. He eventually re-opened the track. Clapp worked as the general manager there for a short time.
“To be honest, in my racing career, which will be 69 years next year, I haven’t had many failures,” Clapp said. “That was a total failure.”
I asked him why. “Reputation,” he said. “The carryover from 1969.” (Ref. sears point raceway)

Might that reputation have taken a different shape in Sonoma County? As reflected in a Rolling Stone magazine article in 1970, one of Belli’s legal partners, Vasilios Choulous, told reporters, “Sears Point was so well organized and planned out, the festival would have been great.”
It’s true that Sears Point had a lot more parking than Altamont, and the stage wouldn’t have put the bands in such a precarious position. But the food and bathroom and shelter situations would have been just as grim. And yeah, the Hells Angels almost certainly would have been at Sears Point, too. Chapters had worked previous Rolling Stones concerts.
There’s every reason to believe a similar scene would have unfolded here.
On Dec. 30, a few weeks after the Altamont fiasco, The Press Democrat ran a short item of local news. It noted that Milford Harris, Sonoma County zoning enforcement officer, reported finding four small signs, not approved in the raceway’s use permit, on the east side of Highway 121. The signs read: Rolling Stones Gather Elsewhere. (Ref. sears point raceway)