George Jones’ ‘The Race Is On’: Story Behind the Song

by Emily Morgan

The whirlwind emotion of love can be both exhilarating and earth-shattering– something George Jones knew all about. In addition, his songwriting ability allowed him to describe that feeling of love in ways like no other country artist. 

Jones recorded “The Race Is On” in June 1963, but didn’t release it until September 1964 on the album I Get Lonely in a Hurry. The single reached No. 3 on the “Billboard country chart.” It also proved to be a song for fans of all genres when it climbed to No. 96 on the pop charts.  

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. In the book, Allen writes about the inception of the track.

“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.”

George Jones’ Horse-Racing Metaphor to Describe Heartache

That “emotional ambivalence” appears in the singer’s narration and use of horse racing metaphors. The song describes a man whose relationship with the woman he loves ended. He feels like he loses the race when she leaves him. 

In the third stanza of the song, the narrator mentions that his ex-lover has found someone new, making him feel like he lost the game. Instead, it made him think that he only won second place because she doesn’t love him anymore. His fear that one day his love will walk away has happened.

Jones perfectly describes this universal feeling of heartbreak with Jones’ heartbreaking crooning and poetic lyricism. However, his pain led to commercial success; the song peaked at No. 3 on the “Billboard Hot Country Singles” chart and at No. 96 on the “Billboard Hot 100” in January 1965.

Many have tried to emulate the song’s success with their covers of “The Race is On.” Bands and artists such as Sawyer Brown, The Grateful Dead, Blackberry Smoke, and Waylon Jennings have tried their hand at the Possum’s tune.