Hans Christian Andersen said it best: “Where words fail, music speaks.” Music has a unique intimacy, which often tends to reflect how we feel at a particular moment or time when we can’t seem to describe it ourselves. Due to this particular power that music holds, it’s not uncommon for people to create a playlist for every feeling, event, and situation. Suppose you go to Spotify, and search NASCAR in the search bar. In that case, a plethora of playlists appear, all trying to relay the same adrenaline-rushing excitement that comes alive when watching a race unfold before your eyes. However, with years of music to delve into, and millions upon millions of possible songs to choose from, what exactly are the essential tracks for a race day playlist? Sit back and relax, and dial into Radio Sweetheart, as I help you curate the perfect race day soundtrack.
Let’s take a step back in time to your early school days when your third-grade teacher sat your class down to teach you how to write the perfect essay. They probably told you that the first step to a great paper was a strong opening. The same could be said for a track listing. The first song that appears on an album sets up the entire atmosphere for the rest of the listening experience. So you need to have a song that is incredibly enticing and leaves your listener wanting more, and over the years NASCAR has had a fair share of great opening tracks used in pre-race introduction segments to get their audience pumped up for the show ahead. Some great examples include NBC’s current introduction track “The Well” by blues-rocker Marcus King with its easy-going hard thumping drum introduction and wailing guitar riffs, and former NASCAR on FOX’s opener “Sideways” from multi-time Grammy-nominated country superstar Dierks Betley with its unforgettable banjo chords and Bentley’s deep southern laced vocals. However, if there is one timeless tune that really delivers on leaving fans wanting more, it’s none other than Tom Petty’s, “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”
TRACK 1) “Runnin’ Down A Dream” || TOM PETTY
Full Moon Fever (1989)
Originally released in July of 1989, this song was the second single from Petty’s first solo album. Both a hit in the U.S. and Canada, the song went to #1 on the U.S. Billboard Album Rock Tracks and #23 on the Billboard Hot 100. Since its release, it’s been used across a variety of media. It was used as the theme song for both the 2006 and 2008 NBA Finals, was featured in the video games like Rock Band 5 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andres, and was featured in the Tom Hanks film Larry Crowne. However, the song earned its legacy in NASCAR when it was used as the pre-race introduction song for NASCAR on NBC. Replacing Blake Shelton’s “Bringing Back the Sunshine”, the song was covered by American singer-songwriter ZZ Ward, and was paired with a fun music video opening that included Bubba Wallace playing the drums, and Kyle Larson crowd surfing. It went on to run as the opening theme for NASCAR on NBC for both the 2018 and 2019 seasons. With an infectious, all too familiar opening riff, paired with the smokey vocals of Petty’s voice, the song is the perfect stepping-off point for the perfect race day playlist.
Let’s now take a trip down south. NASCAR’s roots are embedded into the soils of the southern half of the United States, and if there is one genre that the south is known for, perhaps more than any other, it’s country. Country music can go one of two ways, you have your sad songs detailing the hardships and realities of life, and then you have songs that are just a flat good time, all worries of the world put aside. For anyone who’s attended a NASCAR race weekend, that’s the attitude of generally everyone in attendance. No one is concerned about going back to work or school on Monday, or the bills to have to pay, or everything else they have to take care of, because all everyone at the event wants is to have a good time. And there are a ton of great country songs that reflect this exact attitude, from the easygoing nature of just kicking back and relaxing that comes with Kane Brown’s “Weekend”, to the drink in your hand, smile on your face, sunshine on your skin euphoria of Frankie Ballard’s “Sunshine and Whiskey.” This category also fits Kenny Chesney’s “Summertime” and the previously mentioned “Bringing Back the Sunshine”, by Blake Shelton. For this one, however, I’m going to go with a more modern option and give it to Jimmie Allen and Brad Paisley’s ode to the open road, “Freedom Was A Highway.”
TRACK 2) “Freedom Was A Highway” || Jimmie Allen ft. Brad Paisley
Bettie James (2020)
Jimmie Allen originally penned this #1 Billboard Country Airplay hit as a reminiscent look back to the hot summer days of his youth growing up in Milton, Delaware, which were spent driving around with friends, not caring what lay ahead but the long open road. It was released as the second single off of Allen’s second studio album Bettie James and features three-time Grammy award-winning country artist Braid Paisley on both guest vocals and guitar. This song is all too fitting for the carefree nature of a NASCAR race weekend, as it perfectly aligns with that ‘nothin’ but a good time’ attitude, due to its worries away lyrics, beautifully angelic harmonies, and Paisley’s epic guitar solo. Jimmie Allen even performed the song at a pre-race concert at the 2021 Dover Motor Speedway race weekend, a performance of which I myself was able to catch a glimpse. It’s safe to say that while still a relatively new song, it’s very easily already managed to work its way into the race day soundtrack catalog, perfectly.
Let’s keep on track with talking about songs fitting for the entirety of a NASCAR race weekend. Now we need a party anthem, because what is NASCAR if not one big old party? To anyone who has attended a race weekend or any sporting event for that matter, then it’s safe to assume you know about tailgating. Tailgating includes usually four big things: games, food, alcohol, and one hell of a jamming soundtrack to get you pumped and ready to go for the spectacle you’ll be seeing very soon. “Party Hard” by Andrew W.K. is a great choice for this spot in our tracklisting, as Andrew with his vocals is shouting at us to get a party going and party hard, and if you were tailgating at Talladega Superspeedway, Lynryd Skynryd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”, would be a magnificent choice. However, over the last 50 years or so, many party anthems have been put out into the world of music, so finding the perfect one, is a little harder than you may think. So that’s why this category, takes up the next two slots on our playlist because it was just too damn hard to pick between them, and those songs are NASCAR team owner Pitbull’s and TJR’s “Don’t Stop the Party” and Luke Combs’s “Beer Never Broke My Heart.”
TRACK 3) “Don’t Stop the Party” || Pitbull ft. TJR
Global Warming (2012)
In 2020, Grammy award-winning rapper, Pitbull, joined Justin Marks to establish Trackhouse Racing. Since joining the sport, the team has gone on to obtain three victories and earned their first championship four appearance with driver Ross Chastain. So if there is anyone who knows a good share about celebration it’s NASCAR-winning team owner Pitbull. This hit from the musician-turned-team owner was the third single released from his seventh studio album Global Warming in 2012. It features samples from the song “Funky Kingston”, by Toots & Maytals, and slid inside the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #17. The song has been used across a variety of media over the last ten years, including such films as Last Vegas, About Last Night, and Despicable Me 2. The song has also become the home game victory anthem of many sports teams across the United States. With an infectious rhythm that just compels you to dance, “Don’t Stop the Party”, is the perfect party anthem for any occasion.
TRACK 4) “Beer Never Broke My Heart” || Luke Combs
What You See Is What You Get (2019)
Remember how earlier I said that one of the four things involved in tailgating was alcohol? Well, the central theme to this #1 Country Airplay hit is when all else fails, drink, drink, and drink! Released in 2019 as the first single off of Comb’s second studio album What You See Is What You Get, the song was a major hit for the artist, who has performed at the pre-race concert for the Daytona 500, two years running. With Comb’s eerie southern drawl, and hard-thumping rocking guitar and drums, the song practically commands you to grab a beer and drink up. So with a message like that, how could it not be perfectly fitting for all your race-day partying desires?
Alright, we have got our audience engaged, now let’s keep it that way. In order to keep it that way, we need to dial everything that was so great about the last two tracks to ten. For this track, you need to imagine it playing, just as the cars take the green flag and come to life. So that means that we need more volume and more energy. This is where the heavy metal genre really gets to shine, and there are some great options for this slot. You have “Round and Round” from pretty boy hair rockers Ratt, which with its title alone is all too fitting for the sport of NASCAR, or the more modern likings of Powerman 5000’s “Action”, which actually was featured in NASCAR Thunder 2004. However, if there is one group that steals this slot on the roster with their party monster energy, and loud choppy guitar sound, it’s Mötley Crüe, with their 1989 smash hit, “Kickstart My Heart.”
TRACK 5) “Kickstart My Heart” || Mötley Crüe
Dr. Feelgood (1989)
Although the song was originally written in response to the miraculous event that brought bassist, Niki Sixx, back to life after an overdose, from its inception the song dug its heels into the world of racing. Released in 1989 as the second single off the band’s album Dr. Feelgood, it was an instant success, peaking at #27 on the Billboard Hot 100. Its music video featured action sequences of stock car wrecks as well as drag racing, spliced in-between footage of the band performing the song. Its legacy within the racing industry lives on much in part to its appearances in video games such as Gran Tourismo 3 and the hit comedy film Talladega Nights. With a choppy opening guitar riff, much like the sound of a motorcycle starting up, and its talk box wails in its latter half, the song is a perfect tightly wrapped package of energy bursting at the seams. Perfectly fitting for the high-octane adrenaline-pumping excitement of all things NASCAR.
So the race is now underway, and the cars are thundering down the backstretch. Our fans are thrilled, but a race can sometimes turn mundane and boring rather fast, as fans we all can honestly admit this. So we need to furthermore keep our audience on their toes with our next song selection. Maybe we don’t need as much energy or volume this go around as we did last time, but enough to keep everyone invested. This track has a number of qualifiers that could have potentially earned a spot on our playlist, including the likes of “The Heat Is On” by Glenn Frey or Free’s “All Right Now.” Some more modern options include “Supercharged” by Ayron Jones, and even Roddy Rich’s “Nascar”, however, it really is hard to argue with choosing a true classic like the next track on our playlist “Born To Be Wild” by Steppenwolf.
TRACK 6) “Born To Be Wild” || Steppenwolf
Every once in a while, you have an artist that hits it out of the park on their very first try and the American-Candian band Steppenwolf managed to do just that, with this single from their debut self-titled record, originally released in 1968. The song reached the #2 slot on the Billboard Hot 100 and went to #1 on the Canada Top Singles. The song was also the first in rock music history to use the term ‘heavy metal’, leading it to often be referred to by many as the first heavy metal song. This song has been used in countless forms of media over the last almost 55 years (perhaps most notably to NASCAR fans in Herbie: Fully Loaded), but it first appeared in the film Easy Rider, forever cementing its place into the world of motorcycle culture and all things tough and fast. With arguably one of the most iconic guitar riffs in history, this song is hard not to bob your head along to and makes you feel like the ultimate badass. If this track doesn’t keep you on your toes, I don’t know what will.
We’ve been partying and rocking for a while now, so I think now is as good a time as any to take a cool-down lap. There is a good chance that on race day, you are either at the track with friends and family, or at home watching with them and the sport of NASCAR, since its inception, has been built around family. From the Frances to the Pettys to the Elliotts, family has always been at NASCAR’s core. So when it came to picking a relaxing fitting track that perfectly embezzled the family spirit of NASCAR, it was a very easy choice. Before we get to that, however, I would like to honorably mention the song “Numbers On The Cars” by Riley Green. Green’s song hauntingly but beautifully told from the perspective of a grandson, tells the story of an old man whose memories are fading, but how despite it, he can still recall the number’s on the cars of the field and the drivers behind the wheels of them. It perfectly shows the deeply embedded love of family, that lies in the roots of our sport. Green’s track very well could have taken this next spot on the perfect race day playlist, had it not been for the timelessly heartfelt track “I Got A Name” by the late great Jim Croce.
TRACK 7) “I Got A Name” || Jim Croce
I Got A Name (1973)
Before this track was released on Croce’s 1973 album of the same name, it was first featured in the motion picture, The Last American Hero. The film told the story of a fictional southern man named Junior Jackson, who comes from a family of moonshiners and later becomes a racer. It was semi-based on the real life of NASCAR legend Junior Johnson. For a film about racing and family, the song perfectly fits the narrative, as the song tells the clear message of carrying the name you were born with and moving ahead with your dreams. Tragically, Jim Croce would pass away in a plane crash, just a day shy of the song’s official release. The song would peak at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100, and would forever carry a legacy by being featured in films like Django Unchained and Logan. However, the song perfectly showed the relationship between NASCAR and family, when it was used in a 2018 commercial for Goodyear, featuring Dale Earnhardt Jr., showcasing the relationship between him and his late father Dale Earnhardt Sr. Perhaps even more fittingly, the song was rerecorded and performed for the commercial by Croce’s son A.J. I don’t think you could get any more perfect than that.
Do you need a tissue to wipe your tears? It’s okay, cheer up, the race is almost over and there is one hell of a battle going on for the lead. It’s time to get pumped up again, and perhaps even more pumped up than we were at the start of the race, as we are edging close and closer to crowning a victor. There is no shortage of energized pump-up jams in music, but for one that is fitting for the sport of NASCAR, I decided to look into the catalog of songs that have been featured in the different NASCAR video games over the years (something we will talk more at length about at another time.) These soundtracks had some really good tracks, jam-packed with intensity, perfectly fitting for the occasion, including the previously mentioned “Action” by Powerman 5000, featured in NASCAR Thunder 2004, and AVOID’s “Heat”, fitting featured in NASCAR Heat 5. But for the next track, I went with a personal favorite from the NASCAR Heat 3 soundtrack, and that is none other than Greta Van Fleet’s “Highway Tune.”
TRACK 8) “Highway Tune” || Greta Van Fleet
Black Smoke Rising EP (2017)
Remember before how I mentioned that remark about an artist sometimes hitting it out of the park on their very first try? Well judging by the song’s 174,017,669 streams on Spotify, and 87 Million views on the song’s music video, I guess it’s fair to say that Greta Van Fleet, really hit it out of the park on their first try. Released as the band’s debut single in 2017, it was an instant success peaking at #12 on the Billboard Rock Airplay chart. It would later that same year be featured on the band’s double EP From the Fires, which would then go on to win the Grammy for Rock Album of the Year. Yeah, that’s not bad at all for your first try in the music industry. Meanwhile, it was featured on the soundtrack for NASCAR Heat 3! With an earworm of an opening riff and lead singer Josh Kiska’s out-of-this-world wailing vocals, you are completely sucked into the song and sprouting with energy, much like how you probably would be nearing the end of a NASCAR race.
That’s it, the checkered flag has waved and we have a winner! What should their victory anthem be? It’s probably not shocking to you at this point when I say our options are unlimited but, hey, it’s true! There are some ones I could of chose for this position, like “All I Do Is Win” by D.J. Kahlid and a handful of featured artists, or Queen’s “We Are The Champions.” Jokingly even, I could have gone with “Sweet Victory” from Spongebob Squarepants, (don’t deny it, you know it’s a bop). However, I’m gonna go with a song, that maybe by name you might not recognize, but as soon as it starts playing you’re singing along, and that is Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now.”
TRACK 9) “How You Like Me Now” || The Heavy
The House That Dirt Built (2009)
Opening with a chorus of horns and a groovy little riff, this song demands your attention as soon as it hits your ears. If you are the winner, you command everyone’s attention and if you are the winner you don’t care who knows it, or what they think about it, and that’s exactly what this song is saying. First released as the third single off the band’s second studio album The House That Built Dirt in 2009, it took time for it to build a legacy, unlike other songs we’ve discussed so far. It built its legacy fittingly in the world of athletics, being used in association with the MLB, NHL, and even 2020 Daytona 500 promos. It’s also been featured in the Academy Award-winning film The Fighter and the videogame Forza Horizon 2. This song is a modern sports anthem, and the perfect victory soundtrack.
All good things must come to an end they say, and at some point so does our playlist, and the race weekend. So now we need a big closing number. A closing number needs to be as compelling as the opening, it really ties everything in a neat little bow. So for this one, we really needed a track that combined all the elements of the tracks already on our playlist. It needed to be engaging, energizing, fitting for a party, easy to relax to, and could stand as a victory anthem. I was very nearly close to picking Foghat’s “Slow Ride” for this final place on this soundtrack, but there really was no picking anything else, other than Rascal Flatt’s cover of “Life Is A Highway.”
TRACK 10) “Life Is A Highway” || Rascal Flatts
Me and My Gang (2006)
This country hit, was first released in 1991 by rock music star Tom Cochrane, for his second studio album Mad Mad World. It was until 2006, that Rascal Flatt’s put a country spin on the track for the soundtrack of the 2006 Disney Pixar film Cars. To save everyone time, I’m gonna assume that if you are a NASCAR fan you have seen the film Cars, and not explain the plot to you, and if you are a NASCAR fan who hasn’t seen the film Cars, I’m gonna assume you live under a rock. When Rascal Flatt’s released their cover of the song it was a massive success, reaching #7 on the Billboard Hot 100, and since its release has gone 6x platinum. When all is said and done at the end of a race weekend, it’s a bummer, but the song’s message is to ignore then the things you can’t control and keep moving on. And if you’re a fan of NASCAR, that just means moving on to the next track on the schedule!
If you search NASCAR on Spotify, a wide variety of playlists will pop up. And although I just took your time and explained to you what the perfect race day playlist should consist of, at the end of the day it’s up to you what you think is perfect. Yes, I think these songs perfectly speak to me when trying to recreate the feeling of all things NASCAR, but you may think of other songs that speak to you, and that’s okay too. After all, like Hans Christan Andersen said, “Where words fail, music speaks.”
Featured image credits to Patrick Valley