Grill is as legendary as its namesake
By: Bob Sloan
If Darlington Raceway, the fabled “Track Too Tough to Tame,” had a fifth turn, it would be into the parking lot of the neighboring and just as legendary Raceway Grill.
“The Grill,” as it’s referred to by most locals, has been serving meals for as long as “The Lady In Black” has been putting stripes on fabricated sheet metal. It’s open year-round and rarely, if ever, will you find the parking lot empty. When race week rolls around as it does this week, it’s full throttle for the restaurant and its staff.
“I’d say business at least triples,” said Tony Baird, present owner of the legendary eatery. “On most days during race week we are crazy busy. On Thursday and Friday it’s standing room only. It’s become part of the Darlington Raceway experience.”
“The Grill’ is steeped in just as much history as the raceway, which sits just outside of turn three. Its walls are filled with memorabilia from NASCAR’s past. There are photos and posters signed by racing greats, die-cast models and action-figure drivers. A $1,000,0000 bill signed by driver “Million Dollar” Bill Elliott is on the wall behind the cash register.
Two items that immediately catch the eye are a pair of signed Goodyear Eagles and the actual winner’s trophy from the 2014 Southern 500. Like everything else in “The Grill,” each has a story behind it.
After retiring as a driver, Harold Brasington bought 70 acres from Darlington farmer Sherman Ramsey in 1948 and started building a racetrack. 1950, he cut a deal with NASCAR President Bill France to run a 500-mile race at his new oval-shaped track on Labor Day that year. He called it the Southern 500.
Betting on the popularity of racing and the hungry fans that would attend the race, Jamie Campbell decided to open up a simple hamburger stand just outside the track. It became an instant hit with the fans, which flocked to the little white building for burgers and the now famous hamburger steaks.
With the passing of each year and each Southern 500, “The Grill’s”popularity grew not only with the fans, but the racing establishment as well. Drivers, car owners, pit crews all made it a point to visit The Raceway Grill at least once, if not more, during their stay. A trip to Darlington was not complete without it.
If the walls of “The Grill”could talk, one can only imagine the tales it could tell.
“We still have drivers and team owners and members come in, but they are mostly older timers,” said Baird. “Darrell Waltrip always comes by and brings people with him. He always gives us a plug on TV.”
NASCAR legends Bobby Allison and Jack Ingram often stop by when in town, as does Danny “Chocolate” Myers.
Baird said Cale Yarborough, who lives in nearby Timmonsville, doesn’t come in as often as he used to, but still drops by occasionally for a visit.
Last year Dale Jarrett and camera crews arrived at“The Grill” to reenact how in 1995 he signed his first contract with Robert Yates Racing on a napkin while sitting in a booth at the diner. Jarrett went on to win the championship with Yates that year. The lone agreement between the Hall of Fame owner and driver was scribbled on a napkin from The Raceway Grill.
Jamie Campbell sold Raceway to Earnest Scurry, who, along with his wife, Judy, operated the diner for 24 years before selling it to Baird in 2016. Campbell’s son, Ricky is still a regular at “The Grill”.
Baird said he sees part of his responsibility as owner of “The Grill” is to preserve its history.
“One day I’d like to see if we could have it designated as a National Historic Landmark,” he said.
Along with the history and the memorabilia, the food is also part of what keeps race fans returning to “The Grill” time and again.
The menu has had very few changes since it first opened in 1950. The favorite by far is the hamburger steak.
“I was at Yellowstone National Park a few years back and I was wearing a Raceway Grill t-shirt,” remembers Baird. “A guy comes up to me and says ‘you guys have the best hamburger steak I have ever eaten.’ Word has definitely gotten around.”
The secret to what makes the hamburger steaks so special? Baird says it’s not in the ingredients or the recipe. It’s the grill. “
They are the same grills that were here when Raceway opened,” Baird said.
Baird thinks the grills have seasoned over the course of nearly 70 years, allowing them to add that special something to the taste and texture of the food. There’s no telling how many burgers and steaks have sizzled their way to perfection on the heated flattop surface.
Numerous renovations have taken place since Baird took over three years ago. One of the first things he did was have a race car mounted on the roof the diner. He purchased it, body only, from Mike Beem Racing. Some work had to be done on the roof to ensure it could hold the car.
He updated the kitchen, but made sure the grills remained untouched. Also remaining from the original diner are two Coca-Cola drink boxes.
“There is definitely a lot of history in this place,” Baird said.
Baird said he came by the Southern 500 trophy in a rather unusual way.
In 2014, the track ran a contest and the winner would be presented the actual trophy from the race. Kevin Harvick won the race. He presented the trophy to the contest winner, Andy Beasley. Beasley, who lived in the nearby community of Oates, died a couple of years later. His wife contacted Baird and asked if he would like to have the trophy for “The Grill”.
“Two days later a truck pulled into the parking lot and unloaded it,” Baird said. “It’s been here ever since.”
As for the tires, Baird said they arrived following the annual Legends Breakfast at Darlington Raceway. Several were on display at the breakfast and Baird mentioned in passing that they would look great in “The Grill.” Days later the Goodyear Eagles landed and are now perched atop a shelf behind the bar.
There is even a little history in the parking lot. Baird says he is aware of at least one fan of “The Grill’ who has had a family member’s ashes scattered in the parking lot following his arrival at the Eternal Victory Lane.
“The Grill” is simply that special to some folks.
The Raceway Grill is a treasure trove of NASCAR history and memorabilia, not to mention great food.
This week race fans will flock to “The Grill” for its down-home atmosphere, its history, its collection of souvenirs, and its mouth-watering hamburger steaks. They’ll sit and eat and try to take it all in. When it comes time to leave, they will gladly hand over their money to the friendly waitress at the register.
It’s hard to put a price on visit to the legendary Raceway Grill.