In March, I packed a little red Coleman full of beer and headed north 25 miles to Rougemont. It felt like a long way to travel for a fried bologna burger, particularly when I arrived for the opening "test and tune" at the Orange County Speedway to find the two "Fast Food" concession stands shuttered behind checker-painted plywood. But that's what this bologna was about—driving—so I did.
A few weeks later some friends and I trekked back up U.S. Highway 501 with the small cooler; OCS allows a six beer maximum, as advertised at the entrance. I'd heard the speedway burger was worth its salt (literally, we are talking about bologna). And what I saw when I arrived confirmed just that. Round pink meat sizzled across the length of a black flattop grill (only one small corner held hot dogs). About a half-inch thick, the cuts of Gwaltney-brand bologna were a far cry from the thin slices of my childhood, and the bologna burger suddenly made sense. White bread couldn't handle it; a sturdier bun was necessary.
Bologna burgers account for at least 60 percent of business at the concession stand, according to Jerry Cash, who assists with orders. "This booth sold 300 already," he told me. Gates had opened at 5 p.m. and it wasn't quite 7. I got in line to add my order to the count, requesting grilled onions when prompted. I also took a cue from the stock of condiments—seven yellow bottles to three red ones—and added mustard to my blackened sandwich, which was crisp around the edges and clipped at one point to prevent the meat from curling. The 75 miles I'd driven for the burger, plus the 25 miles I'd soon drive home, were worth it. I entered the grandstand to glimpse what the other cars had come to see.
Drivers zipped around the 3/8-mile oval track in the pure stock race, led at the end by car No. 5, Mike Milam. He accepted a trophy from Orange County Speedway Queen Brittany Blalock and did a back flip off the top of his car before thanking his supporters and answering questions about his first win. As the track cleared, I stepped up to ask my question. "I love bologna," he responded. "It's way better than South Boston's. The buns are not hard."
Intrigued, two weeks later I drove up U.S. Highway 501 again for bologna, though this time I crossed the Virginia state line. It's said that the bologna burger began at the South Boston Speedway (SoBo), and then trickled down to North Carolina via requests of race fans and drivers. One driver—Elliott Sadler, who now competes in the NASCAR Nationwide Series—is rumored to have eaten 16 SoBo bologna burgers during a six-hour span at the track in 1992. "They were all with onion and mustard and stuff like that," he later told the Associated Press. "I was a crew member for my brother [Hermie], but I guess I wasn't doing much work on the car because I was eating bologna burgers."
I quickly came to understand Sadler's sentiment. When I arrived at South Boston slightly after 7 p.m., the race had already started. Cars buzzed on the other side of the grandstand. I put in my neon-orange earplugs (a holdover from my time at OCS) and went straight to one of the line-free concession windows to order a sandwich and fries.
In addition to onions, SoBo offered grilled green peppers, which proved a great decision along with the tallboy Modelo that I purchased on my way into town (though apparently you can buy beer and small glasses of Copa wine at the "Express Lane" window at SoBo).
It was a meal of perfect contrasts—sweet onions with bitter peppers, crisp bologna in a soft bun, salty meat with an easy drinking beer. But it wasn't cheap: $15 for SoBo's day-of admission fee, $4 for the sandwich, $2 for the fries and another $3-ish for the tallboy, not to mention a tank of gas.
I like to think I have my priorities in line. I'm not the only one. South Boston sold upward of 500 sandwiches that night—a game day average. "I've never seen anyone eat bologna like they do here," said concession co-manager Wendy Adams.
Inside the arena, hand-painted signs advertised national and local products—Bud Light, Charles Anderson Lawn Care Service, Danville Toyota—on a short wall around the 4/10-mile paved oval track. The Jesse Jones logo was flanked by bold black letters announcing "HOT DOGS" and "BOLOGNA."
I settled in to watch the PASS Super Late Model 150, but it was soon called off because of rain. Admittedly, I was relieved, having grown tired thinking about the drive I faced to get home. Other fans grumbled and stayed put through a drizzle to watch trophies be dispersed.
Driving away from the parking lot, I was confronted by an oversized banner on the side of the speedway, which advertised gohalifaxva.com. It asked, "What makes your heart race?" Bologna, I thought—although I recently heard of standout hot dogs at the Martinsville track.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bologna hits the blacktop."