For decades Augie Grill had seen the checkered flag from nearly every possible location...except one.
Grill stood in the bed of his dad’s truck as a child. He sat on top of the pit box and called Wayne Anderson to the win in 2001. He even spotted a few races.
Decades after his first trip to the Gulf Coast, Grill captured his first Snowball Derby win as a driver in 2007. He followed his initial triumph with another win in 2008, albeit following the disqualification of the initial winner.
Grill’s two Tom Dawson trophies are some of his most-cherished racing memories, and he doesn’t care how the races were won.
“I got both trophies and both checks cleared the bank, so it’s all good,” Grill said with a sly smile. “They both mean a lot to me, and I just hate it has been this long and we haven’t been able to get another one. Even if I never get another one, those two will mean the world to me.”
In 2007, Grill started 14th and methodically worked his way through the field during the race’s 300 laps. Over the final half of the race, Grill and Matt Hawkins waged a tremendous battle for the top spot.
Grill recalls his first win like it happened yesterday, not a decade ago.
“I had a pretty good car in ’07,” Grill said. “Me and Matt Hawkins ran first and second for good part of that race. We traded the lead a bit, but there at the end we were just a little bit better than him and got the win. That was a big time for me.”
Grill’s second win in the Derby came at the expense of Brian Ickler.
After surrendering the lead due to a slow pit stop, Grill – who was by the far the best car in the race – drove like a mad man through lapped traffic chasing Ickler. When the checkers flew, Grill was forced to settle for second.
However, Ickler’s machine was thrown out in post-race tech, and Grill took home his second-consecutive Derby win.
“In 2008, I felt like I had the best car,” Grill said. “We had a bad pit stop, got way behind and had to fight to get back to second. By the time I got there, I was too far behind to make it back. We got the trophy over in the tech line, but it was still a win. My name is on the trophy, and I don’t care how it happened.”
Grill is now one of three men, along with five-time winner Rich Bickle and reigning Monster Energy Cup Series Rookie of the Year Erik Jones, to make back-to-back trips to Snowball Derby victory lane.
Being mentioned in the same breath as Bickle and a NASCAR star is something Grill never imagined while he was welding chassis in his dad’s Alabama race shop. But even with a pair of wins, he is hungry for another.
“I don’t think anyone will ever get to five like Bickle,” Grill said. “He was the man back in the day. To be with him and Erik Jones, that’s pretty good company. I would like to get another one somewhere down the line to get to three. I may never get another one, and that is okay; but I dang sure would like to.”
Since his back-to-back wins, Grill has hit a streak of bad luck. He had a decent run in 2009, but his outings since then have ended often either on the hook or in the infield before the checkers flew.
The losses stick with Grill almost as much as the wins. His entire year is centered on performing at a high level in the season’s biggest race.
“The wins are always in your back pocket, but the ones that got away are in the back of your mind,” Grill said. “You always want to win another. We fight all year long to get our stuff and me built up to come down here and be competitive.”
One might think Grill’s most coveted Snowball memory came during one of his two victories as a driver. However, the Alabama wheelman recalled a childhood experience as one his favorite.
“When Butch Lindley won in my dad’s car in 1984 is my biggest memory,” Grill said. “The race wasn’t nearly as big back then as it is now, but it still meant a lot. I was a seven-year-old kid and it was cool to us. It was like winning Daytona.”
With more than four decades of Pensacola memories, Grill is still eager to make more. He has seen the Snowball Derby grow from “just another race” to “our Super Bowl or Daytona 500.”
Wise beyond his 41 years, Grill viewed as the elder statesman of the Deep South Late Model world. His aura far overshadows his ego, and he is quick to help a young driver advice if asked.
He has dozens of wins and titles, but he always keeps things in perspective.
“When you come over the top of the turn in to the track, you get a few butterflies every time,” Grill said. “After you get inside and get to work, it’s just another race…until you win it. It gets bigger every single year and I am just proud to be a part of it.”
Every few months, Grill – who smiled when asked – gets questioned if he is ready to call it a career.
The veteran and life-long racer hasn’t even considered the r-word, yet.
“I’m going to go as long as I feel that I am competitive,” Grill said. “If I can get it done in the seat, I am going to go as long as I can. If the right deal came along I might step aside and let someone else drive it, but until then I’m just going to keep on, keeping on.”
-By Ryan McCollough, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent – Twitter: @RyanLMcCollough
-Photo credit: Speed51.com