Darlington’s Raceway Grill Offers ‘Watch Party’ in NASCAR’s Return

Photo by Zach Catanzareti/Kickin' The Tires

By: Zach Catanzareti, Staff Writer

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Though there were no fans permitted into the racetrack Sunday afternoon at Darlington Raceway, a local business with close ties to the historic speedway gave fans the next best thing.

Raceway Grill, located outside Turn 2 of the egg-shaped oval, held a ‘watch party’, showing fans the race on a 75-inch flat screen. At $100 a table, each table was distanced nine feet apart, keeping with the state’s social distancing guidelines. Additionally, sanitation zones were located in the outdoor setup along with a 50-percent capacity of their typical indoor dining room.

Tony Baird has owned the 70-year-old Grill since 2016 and had the idea hit him when the guidelines and race weekend were set in stone.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen this week until Monday with the half-occupancy inside,” Baird, 53, told Kickin’ The Tires Sunday. “I thought, ‘Well, let’s do something for the race[s] outside.’ That’s when we started thinking about this thing here. We’re running drink and food specials to try and take care of them while they’re here.

“The biggest challenge was how to accommodate some of the fans that come, and of course maintain the guidelines of social distancing with how far apart the tables have to be, have people be able to wash their hands. That’s why we put the sanitation zones up.

“We always sanitize our stuff anyways, so that wasn’t a big change for us. These girls will tell you that I’m pretty rough about keeping a clean place. That’s something I strive for.”

Standing as the first race for NASCAR since the start of the coronavirus lockdown began in March, it came at an opportune time for Baird and the Raceway Grill. But the pressure was on to keep it safe while making it worthwhile for fans.

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“What we’ve done outside, we’ve actually gapped them all nine feet and we’d made 12×12 squares for them to stay in,” Baird said, noting that eight people were permitted per table. “Of course, it generates revenue, but the main thing is crowd control. If you just open it up to the community, everybody would pile in. Then, your social distancing is gone.”

The Grill has been serving race fans since 1950, the same year the track itself opened for NASCAR competition. Celebrating 70 years of business, 2020 has obviously showed its share of difficulties for small businesses. For Baird, he’s been happy at the evolution of his business during the tough time.

“We actually never shut down,” he said. “We weren’t really geared for it to go back to business. I kept all my full-time employees. We had to evolve into a to-go business — we’re more of a dine-in type thing. We learned how to do that.

“We always do stuff out here on race weekends. I have 11 camp sites out here and we’re always full on race weekend with motorhomes. I figured if there was a way we could use it. It was actually Monday before we got the ball rolling when we found out what we could do.

“We’ve had a few kinks and some things we’ve learned, so we’ll be back on Tuesday and Wednesday doing the same thing.”

With a couple dozen fans in attendance for Sunday afternoon’s debut race, one of which was 15-year-old Hunter Lee, a hardcore Clint Bowyer fan who enjoyed the outdoor experience alongside his grandparents.

“I’ve come to Darlington in the past. I’ve been a fan for a real long time, I love coming here,” said Lee, who attended his first Darlington race in 2017. “It’s been a lot of fun. I’m just glad we can have the opportunity to come to this. I know some people may not have the opportunity to come out here, you know?

“I’m enjoying it because it’s the closest we can get for now.”

Tammy Gandy is a long-time NASCAR fan and was thrilled that NASCAR picked her home track for the first race back.

“We’re so excited NASCAR chose us to be their first race,” Gandy said. “It feels great to be out of the house, but more so to be out here and enjoy the event. As we’ve gotten older, this is probably the only event we actually go to. This is our home track.

“Man… really excited. Really excited to sit on our back deck every Sunday and get to experience this and see it. That’s the best thing. To this be the first sport that has come back, we want every sport, but this is special that they chose NASCAR.”

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