By Gray Bostick
(This article first appeared in the September/October issue of “Playlist” magazine, and is republished here with their gracious permission.)
When it comes to Darlington, the arguments about “The Best” are both timeless and endless: Petty or Pearson? Yarborough or Waltrip? Earnhardt or Gordon? Hamburger steak, plain or loaded?
Say what? Yep, while arguments as to which driver of which era was THE best at taming “The Lady in Black” might always be a staple among race fans, there’s little argument about one thing: if you’re dining at the Raceway Grill, then you’re a winner.
Tucked just off Turn Two, in the literal shadow of “The Track Too Tough To Tame,” close enough to those hallowed grounds to smell the Sunoco racing fuel fumes, burning oil and blistering hot Goodyear rubber, the Raceway Grill, to those in the know, is just about as legendary as it’s more renowned neighbor.
Sitting on SC Highway 151 much longer than its been known as Harry Byrd Highway, the Raceway Grill, in keeping with the recent Darlington race event theme, is a “throwback” all it’s own, boasting a history almost as storied as that of the track next door.
Originally opened by the Campbell family back in 1950 just as the race track was being constructed, the Raceway Grill hosted many of the early stars of the NASCAR circuit back when it more closely resembled a twice-annual, circus-come-to-town than the slick, corporate-financed, high-speed show of today, and the Grill was a favorite stop of many of those daredevils who would often party as hard together on Saturday night as they drove against each other on Sunday. That continued through the years with the legend of Darlington – and the Raceway Grill along with it – both growing as perhaps the most unique stops on the stock car racing circuit. The Grill eventually changed hands in 1989 when Earnest and Judy Scurry took over, but the Raceway crew didn’t miss a beat – despite the new ownership or even Hurricane Hugo blowing away its sign, which was never replaced. (It also bears noting that a successful restaurant operating without any type of sign is a sign unto itself: Eat Here.)
The latest change took place just last year when, after asking several times about the possibility, Bishopville native and former Darlington Sheriff Deputy Tony Baird was contacted by the Scurry’s with an offer to sell and a change of ownership took place, effective January 2016, only the third owner in its 65+ years of operation.
While the Raceway Grill hasn’t skipped a beat or missed a shift thru another “driver” change, Baird has definite plans to effect some changes to bring the Grill up to more modern standards, including improving the dining area lighting with more effective and efficient fixtures and also remodeling the kitchen to be able to better prepare and present meals, including a special dessert treat. He also has plans to expand and modernize the takeout order process, and build a outdoor dining deck out front.
And just as the pages of Darlington Raceway’s record book is packed with Southern legends and heroes, so is the Raceway menu stacked with traditional southern staples, combinations as tasty as the tales from the old days of Darlington Raceway, all served up chock full of time-honored country goodness, every meal cooked to order, especially their signature entree, the 12 or 18oz hamburger steak that is often mentioned as the very best on the NASCAR trail.
But perhaps even more importantly in this rat race world, the Raceway Grill is the kind of place where, thankfully, the service is not nearly as fast nor the atmosphere nearly as rushed as that on the Pit Road just down the street. Which is actually ideal, as the wise patron also knows that the Raceway Grill is the kind of place you just don’t race away from.
In fact, as you’ll immediately notice upon entering, the Grill is a virtual NASCAR museum/time capsule, filled with decades of racing memorabilia worthy of a stroll around looking it over as your meal is being prepared. Amazing mementos of times past line the walls and the bar area, including signed photos and original paintings, a “Throwback” Goodyear racing tire from 2016 featuring NASCAR Hall of Fame members’ signatures, and countless other items, many one-of a kind. Maybe you can even sit in the chair Earnhardt Sr. favored, or the table that the group from Spartanburg, including David Pearson, would occupy for a few hours on the occasional Saturday to just shoot the breeze.
And once they drop the Green Flag and your meal hits the table, you may need a Caution Flag to keep your tongue from gobbling up those goodies so fast it slaps a hole in the roof of your mouth. Very few places today should issue bump-stops on their forks. This is one. And a Darlington Stripe at The Raceway Grill is the one your last home fry leaves as you’re wiping up your plate
Not coincidentally, given the nature of racing fans, the Raceway Grill also boasts the coldest beer in Darlington, serving diners from two original four-door 50’s-era – naturally — Coca-Cola coolers, which still maintain product at a steady 30 degrees.
And while today’s NASCAR drivers are pretty much forced to remain isolated within the track, nestled in million-dollar motor coaches, venturing out only on carefully-controlled media commitments, and even with most adhering to strict diet and health regimes these days, there are rumors of a knowing and lucky few who still slip off behind Turn Two and make their way to a favorite table or booth during Race Week or a testing date for a Raceway special, or a lucky dish. With or without onions and peppers, mushrooms or gravy.
Old habits die hard. And the best ones never do. Tony Baird’s doing his best to make certain of it.
So if you want to revisit racing’s past, argue about its present state, or debate the best path to its future – or maybe drop in to catch an old race on the HDTV, while also filling your belly with delicious vittles and enjoying a glass of sweet southern ice tea, or perhaps a cool brew or two, maybe even with a guy you used to watch on Sunday afternoons, you can do it all under one roof at the Raceway Grill. And there’s no better place.
Team Raceway Grill wins stage points in all categories, folks: service. menu, quality, hospitality, and atmosphere. Don’t Black Flag yourself; do you and yours a favor and Green Flag it over to the Raceway Grill.
And remember, in the infamous words of “Talladega Nights” Ricky Bobby: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
I’ll race you there.