Riki Rachtman hosts “Racing Rocks,” his music-and-NASCAR radio show, like he’s doing play-by-play commentary on the thoughts whizzing through his brain at 140 miles per hour. Sometimes, there’s a wipeout: On a recent Tuesday, he had to interrupt his hypercaffeinated patter because he tripped over a few syllables that shouldn’t have given him trouble. As he complained, “I said my name wrong.”
He shrugged. “Who wants to make a professional-sounding radio show?”
Rachtman was recording in a studio at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, with the early ’50s iconic Fabulous Hudson Hornet visible through his window. Rachtman didn’t come to fame driving a car at high speed: his breakthrough was serving as the early-’90s host of “Headbangers Ball,” the weekly heavy metal show on MTV.
Now in his early 50s, Rachtman has short spiky hair, a Fu Manchu mustache, and lots of tattoos poking out past the cuffs of his shirt. When he interviews NASCAR drivers for his show, he said, they often have no idea of his rock ‘n’ roll bona fides. Sometimes they’re informed by an older member of their pit crew that Rachtman is the same guy who once interviewed Nirvana while Kurt Cobain wore a canary-yellow formal gown.
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Brendan Gaughan, a top-ten driver in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, is a regular guest on “Racing Rocks.” Speaking from his home in Las Vegas, he said that he grew up watching “Headbangers Ball” as a teenager. When he first met Rachtman, he just wanted to ask questions about what metal singer Glenn Danzig was like – but soon discovered that Rachtman knew his stuff when it came to racing, too. “We’re both a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic,” Gaughan said. He claimed that Rachtman agreed to get a portrait of Gaughan tattooed on his body if he won the Xfinity championship. (Both were spared a followthrough by Gaughan finishing ninth.)
Leaning toward his microphone, Rachtman intones each week, “Keep the wheel turned to the left and the volume turned to the right.” The show is syndicated to more than 60 rock-radio stations, so it’s heavy on NASCAR personalities, light on stats, and completely void of conversation about aerodynamics. After each segment, Rachtman records intros for two different songs, depending on what type of rock a particular station plays—the Offspring or 38 Special, for example.
Rachtman said that he spends 15 to 20 hours every week preparing for his two-hour show. Although he’s been doing radio for 20 years – most famously as a cohost on the “Loveline” call-in advice show opposite Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew Pinsky – he never learned some of the technical aspects of broadcasting, such as operating a soundboard in a studio. He reasoned during a break, “If I start learning things, they’ll start asking me to do things.”
Rachtman grew up in California loving motor sports—his first NASCAR race was the Daytona 500 in 1994. “Now there are NASCAR fans of all types,” he said. “But before, being a guy with greasy hair and tattoos was odd in NASCAR – it was more of a good ol’ boy sport.”
He moved to North Carolina two years ago, settling in Mooresville. Just as he’s still a rock dude in the racing world, he’s still a Hollywood guy in the Carolinas. In a sign that he’s acclimating, he drives a pickup truck and bought a MasterCraft boat. “I like being the weird-looking guy in this city,” he said. “For the most part, people are very accepting.” He lamented that his neighborhood has very few people originally from North Carolina: “I wanted the ‘y’all’s.’ ” What he especially likes about living here is the good manners. “They don’t say ‘thank you’ in L.A. It always pissed me off. Here, everybody says ‘thank you.’ ”
As a kid in Los Angeles, Rachtman was mostly raised by his mother, a schoolteacher. “I was a horrendous student,” he remembered. “I was a skateboarder, drugs, alcohol – you name it, that was me.” He was so out of control that when he was 16, his mother sent him to New Zealand to live with his father, who managed some minor-league rock bands; after a year, he came back to Hollywood and barely managed to graduate high school.
In his early 20s, Rachtman lived with Taime Downe, who would later become famous as the lead singer of the band Faster Pussycat. “He always used to steal my clothes and my boots,” Downe said. “One year, he got me a tarantula for my birthday – I said ‘It’s not going in my room.’ ” Rachtman and Downe opened a rock club called the Cathouse in 1986. “We wanted a place where we could get free drinks and meet strippers,” Rachtman admitted. “But then I got sober and became obsessed with business. Even though I kept the illusion of it being this poorly run, sleazy rock ‘n’ roll club, there was a bit of a plan.”
A lot of the Cathouse’s success came from it being the clubhouse for the Hollywood hair metal scene –before they made it, Guns N’ Roses were the house band. Rachtman and lead singer Axl Rose became good friends. “In my drug days, we were up for five days straight,” Rachtman said. “Axl was singing this 15-minute version of ‘November Rain’ to us before anybody ever heard it.”
Rose personally lobbied for Rachtman to become host of “Headbangers Ball” in 1990, taking over the MTV heavy-metal showcase from Adam Curry. After some rough early shows, Rachtman proved to be a natural on air: a metal dude hanging out with other metal dudes. When he got his long hair cut off – televised on a 1992 show – it became an unlikely watershed moment in rock culture, as the Hollywood metal scene gave way to Seattle grunge.
“I got to travel around the world and meet every band I ever wanted to meet,” Rachtman said. “I’m proud of it – even though I never picked a video ever. I had no say.” After MTV cancelled “Ball” in 1995, he had some successes – hosting the VH1 reality dating show “Daisy of Love,” for example – and some low points, like when he beat up a rival DJ and went to jail. He was bailed out by his then-girlfriend, the porn star Janine Lindemulder, which only made the incident a bigger story for the LA local news. “I’m still a stupid idiot a lot of the time,” he conceded, “but violence only makes things worse.” When he lost all his radio jobs, he paid the bills as a car salesman.
“I went from three hundred grand a year to zero,” he said. He remembered being so broke that his power got turned off. To mark the occasion, he picked up a video camera and filmed himself saying, “Well, this is the lowest point of my entire life. My power is turned off and I’m freezing.” The next day, Rachtman said, “someone broke into my house and stole the camera.”
Rachtman, whose previous marriage ended in divorce, now lives with his girlfriend, Kristi, and her 11-year-old daughter, Kloey. “I don’t think I’m the greatest boyfriend,” he said, “but I’m a really good dad. I’ve done a lot of cool stuff in my life, and I’ve been onstage in front of a hundred thousand people, but when Kloey called me ‘Dad,’ that was the raddest thing in the world.”
At lunch, Rachtman was a motormouth, funny and forthright.
On the difference between NASCAR drivers and rock stars: “Nobody ever says ‘He’s got a NASCAR-driver attitude.’ ”
On being sober for 28 years: “I prefer to be around people that drink, because they’re having fun. But I can’t myself, because I don’t know how to stop.”
His unexpected personal crusade: “I’m a big anti-captivity activist about all the killer whales and dolphins in tanks.”
On preemptively deflecting criticism: “I wear a shirt sometimes that says “HAS-BEEN.”
And on his career – and life – path: “I love NASCAR. I love rock ‘n’ roll. And I love motorcycles. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever reinvented myself – I’ve just found ways to make money doing things that I really like.”
Gavin Edwards is the author of “The Tao of Bill Murray.”
Catch the show
“Racing Rocks” airs at 10 a.m. Sundays on WTZR out of Elizabethton, Tenn.