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  • Writer's pictureShehan Jeyarajah

Inside the Battle at Bristol: The biggest college football game ever

Originally published on SEC Country.

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Torrential rain poured down on the asphalt on Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Fans and drivers alike ran to find shelter from the elements. The 8 p.m. start quickly turned to 9, then 11 before being called at 11:30 p.m.

The Night Race at Bristol is one of NASCAR’s hottest tickets. Mother Nature postponing the race was an inconvenience to fans. But with less than three weeks to the Pilot Flying J Battle at Bristol, pitting Tennessee against Virginia Tech, the rain was a major setback.

Hundreds of trucks and men were on call, waiting for the weather to subside. Every second counts as the team prepared to undertake one of the most ambitious college football projects ever – converting Bristol Motor Speedway into a college football venue.

Bristol’s signature race was pushed until Sunday afternoon, but Kevin Harvick eventually crossed the finish line and pulled into victory lane at 7:37 p.m. Soon afterwards, the real work started.

When it is complete, the Pilot Flying J Battle at Bristol will be one of the most unique and historic experiences in college football history.

20 years in the making

Legendary race track owner Bruton Smith and his company – Speedway Motorsports, Inc. – bought the historic racetrack in 1996. Almost immediately, Smith and his leadership team had interest in hosting a football game.

“We’re in racing and college football country, those are the two things” said Logan McCabe, vice president of consumer group at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I guess you could throw religion in there too…

“To some, racing and college football is a religion.”

Even walking through the NASCAR crowd, the demographics are obvious. Tennessee orange and Virginia Tech maroon dominated the crowd.

Bristol is positioned perfectly for a matchup of this caliber. While the track is in Bristol, Tenn., it is a sister city with nearby Bristol, Va., right on the cusp of ACC country. When a resident says they are from Bristol, they make sure you know which side.

“Anybody who’s from the Tennessee side of Bristol is a UT fan, and the other side is full of Virginia Tech fans,” said Jeremy Davidson, director of business development at Bristol Motor Speedway. “People knew about the possibility, that this had been discussed for 20 years. This place is like a football stadium on steroids.”

Smith came to the University of Tennessee with the idea first, but struggled to get everyone on board. It was the height of the Phil Fulmer era in Knoxville, but neutral-site games had not yet reached prominence. The talks died out.

Then in 2001, on a train to South Bend, Ind., before a Volunteer matchup with Notre Dame, talks started again.

“The Tennessee athletic director came up to me and said we just planned a series against Marshall, and we think that would be a great game for your place,” McCabe said. “We came back and talked about it, but it just didn’t make sense for us.”

Then in 2005, Smith made a very sizable offer to both Tennessee and Virginia Tech to play at the racetrack. Bristol Motor Speedway is almost exactly halfway in between Tennessee and Virginia Tech – 106 vs. 108 miles. Even though talks did not play out, that matchup became the focus.

Finally, between 2012 and 2013, things clicked. The late Jim Weaver, Virginia Tech’s athletic director, was enthusiastic about the event. Frank Beamer called Bristol Motor Speedway his second favorite venue in the world (behind Lane Stadium, of course).

Tennessee also showed renewed interest in the event, pitched as the biggest football game of all time. Dave Hart and Butch Jones both agreed to the event, which was announced in 2013. Pilot Flying J, founded by former Volunteer football player Jim Haslam, was announced as the lead sponsor in 2015.

We had a game.

Demanding logistics

After the agreement was in place, the focus shifted to making it happen. The first issue? The field.

The night after the race, 450 dump trucks brought in gravel and sand to make a sturdy and level base for the AstroTurf. The procession was led by a symbolic Pilot Flying J tanker, the titular sponsor of the Battle at Bristol.

The ground barrier will rise over three feet above where the usual middle infield resides. A field is painted out as guidelines on the track infield.

Like many other raceways, Bristol Motor Speedway had a video screen on top of a giant pylon in the middle of the venue. This made sense for racing fans, as it was out of the way and easily visible. But obviously, a pylon would be a major inhibitor in the middle of a football field.

The track considered several screen options, including on top of the stadium and temporary screens on the side of the field. But ultimately, the ownership decided to create what it calls Colossus.

The four-sided video board is the biggest outdoor center-hung screen, with four screens each measuring just under 1,900 square feet. The 700-ton structure also boasts the highest-quality outdoor screen in the world with 54 million LEDS and 17 million pixels. Ownership decided it wanted to do it right.

“When we had to move the scoring pylons and created Colossus, it opened up the opportunity to do other things,” McCabe said. “We have had dozens of conversations with other events that we wouldn’t have had if not for the football game.”

The original plan gave workers just 20 days, working nearly 24 hours a day, to convert the racetrack into a working football facility. After rain pushed the race to Sunday night, the countdown clock is down to just 19 days.

Cleaning and power washing the facilities after a NASCAR race is a feat within itself. The process normally takes around six weeks. This crew will have just seven days to prepare.

But while making a field is an obvious change, several other minor additions had to be made. Bristol lacks locker rooms and showering facilities to handle a pair of 85-man football teams.

“We originally thought about putting the showers and locker rooms outside in the parking lot of Gate 3,” McCabe said. “This was after the contract was done.”

The track will convert a pair of existing facilities – a driver meeting room for Tennessee and tire warehouse for Virginia Tech – into locker rooms. Shower trailers will get added to the facility behind there.

Additional stands will also be built on the straightaways of the racetrack and a VIP section will be constructed in the end zones on the turns. The actual track will be mostly unaffected by the field construction.

Biggest and best

On Sept. 7, 2013, 115,109 people filed into the Big House at Michigan to watch the Wolverines best Notre Dame 41-30. In fact, Michigan boasts all five of the biggest North American football crowds on record.

That is, until Sept. 10.

Nearly 160,000 fans are expected to make the pilgrimage to Bristol Motor Speedway for the Pilot Flying J Battle at Bristol. Officials from Guinness World Records will be on hand to authenticate the mark.

Forty thousand seats were allotted for each school, with special student sections to keep the crowds honest. If the attendance goals are met, the payout from the stadium could be up to $4 million per school. Fans from all 50 states and several countries are expected to make the trek to Bristol.

Tennessee will still hold the Vol Walk into the stadium. Virginia Tech will run onto the field to Metallica’s Enter Sandman. The game day experience is expected to be second-to-none, especially with miles of tailgating space around the venue. Concerts by Kenny Chesney and The Band Perry will get fans ready.

But more than anything, this remains an intriguing football game.

At a time where many rivalries are dying out by realignment, this could be the chance to establish a new one. Though located on opposite borders just 214 miles from each other, the schools have played just eight times. Tennessee has a 5-3 edge, but Virginia Tech won the last matchup in 2009.

Tennessee has gone through some lean years since Fulmer left in 2008, but look rejuvenated under Butch Jones. The Volunteers are ranked No. 9 in the preseason AP poll. Virginia Tech lost longtime head coach Frank Beamer last season, but Justin Fuente is one of the hottest commodities in college football after leading Memphis to a surprising 9-4 season. Optimism abounds in both programs.

This game has a nice balance of intrigue and spectacle that should make it a must-watch occasion for both casual and hardcore college football fans.

“I think both schools were surprised and encouraged by the energy from their fan bases for this game, especially from their alumni,” Davidson said.

He’s not kidding. The event is sold out with tickets ranging from $150 to $2,340 on StubHub. Those numbers should only go up as the game draws closer.

Into the future

Though popularity remains high, NASCAR attendance has dropped precipitously over the past few years. Bristol Motor Speedway calls itself the “Last Great Colosseum,” and is one of the few tracks still selling out every NASCAR race.

However, like any other business in today’s economy, BMS is trying to look to the future with this event.

“This is part of our future. This is a foundational event for what we’re going to be doing for the remainder of this decade and into the next,” McCabe said. “This is a building block for our brand.”

Bristol Motor Speedway is setting itself up to convert from a race track to a multipurpose venue. The exposure and new video board could bring new events to the venue.

Even with the meticulous planning, it’s difficult to know what to expect from this football game. With a venue this big, it’s unclear whether the crowd experience will be compromised. The height of the stadium could also present problems when it comes to coaching sight lines from the box. More issues will likely come up through the process. Adjusting on the fly will be key.

But for at least one day, most of the college football world will have its eyes focused on Bristol Motor Speedway. With an 8 p.m. kickoff on ABC, ESPN is giving the matchup priority treatment.

Virginia Tech has a full non-conference schedule set for eight of the next nine years, so the likelihood of this becoming an annual event remains low. But if a major national matchup can add fuel to an already dynamic border conflict, it could become one of the best young rivalries in college football.

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