"The Race Is On" is a song written by Don Rollins and made a hit on the country music charts by George Jones and on the pop and easy listening charts by the unrelated Jack Jones. (This is not the Don Rollins who co-wrote It's Five O'Clock Somewhere for Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett.) George's version was the first single released from his 1965 album of the same name. Released as a single in September 1964, it peaked at number three on the BillboardHot Country Singles chart and at number 96 on the BillboardHot 100 in January 1965. Jack's version topped Billboard'sEasy Listening chart and reached number 15 on the Hot 100 the same year. The two recordings combined to reach number 12 on the Cashbox charts, which combined all covers of the same song in one listing and thus gave George Jones his only top-40 hit. The song uses thoroughbred horse racing as the metaphor for the singer's romantic relationships.
Jones had recorded "The Race Is On" in June 1963 but it was not released until September 1964 on the album I Get Lonely in a Hurry. The single reached #3 on the Billboard country chart. It also climbed to number 96 on the pop charts, a rarity for a Jones single, and United Artists capitalized on its success by making it the title of his next 1965 LP. According to the Bob Allen book George Jones: The Life and Times of a Honky Tonk Legend, Don Rollins wrote the song one day after visiting Turf Paradise Race Course in Phoenix, Arizona. Allen observes:
"George imbued 'The Race Is On' with a masterfully frenetic, on-the-edge vocal reading, full of whining emotional ambivalence and mock sadness. By gleefully bending and stretching the notes and singing, at times, slightly ahead of or behind the song's fast-clipped meter, he embellished it with a subtle sense of tension and release that perfectly complemented the rapid-fire cascading effect of the song's lyrics."
In the 1994 retrospective Golden Hits, Jones recalled that Dewey Groom first played him the song in his office at the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas. Jones was unimpressed with all the demo tapes Groom played for him and had started to leave when Groom played the Rollins song; Jones heard the opening line and exclaimed, "I'll take it!" The singer on that 1961 demo recording was Jimmie Gray, for whom Don Rollins wrote the song. Gray's version is one whole step higher than Jones' version, and prompted George to seek him out. The two became friends, Jimmie eventually roading in George's band, on bass and high harmony, and Jimmie was in the studio when George cut his hit.
According to the liner notes for the 1994 Sony compilation The Essential George Jones: The Spirit of Country, the throbbing, echoey six-string bass guitar solo was played by Kelso Herston, who went on to write hit songs for Jones and produce one of his later MCA albums. Jones was extremely fond of the tune, recording it again with Musicor, Epic, and as a duet with Travis Tritt for The Bradley Barn Sessions in 1994. He almost always performed it live in concert as well.
Country Singer Jody Miller covered the song prior to late 1965. In a 1965 episode of The Jimmy Dean Show, including guests Forrest Tucker, Mollie Bee, and Homer & Jethro; Jody, after singing the song, believed it to be "her song". She was completely unaware that George Jones had already had a hit with it and that others had covered it. Miller recorded a Scopitone promotional video for her version of the song.
The Grateful Dead covered the song on their 1981 live album, Reckoning. The song was performed 59 times in concert during the band's 30-year career.
Rockabilly artist Dave Edmunds, in collaboration with the Stray Cats, whose debut album Edmunds had recently produced, recorded a version for his 1981 album, Twangin.... Released as a single, it peaked at number 34 on the UK charts, but failed to chart in the United States.
"The Race Is On" returned to the country charts in September 1989 when country music band Sawyer Brown covered it and released it as the lead single from their album The Boys Are Back. It peaked at number five in the United States and number three in Canada. The music video was directed by John Lloyd Miller and features Sawyer Brown on their concert tour.
Elvis Costello performs this song in concert occasionally.