No. 17 Tennessee will face Virginia Tech Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC) at one of the most historic venues in all of motor sports: 153,000-seat Bristol Motor Speedway. The matchup, which has been in the works for about three years, has been coined as “college football’s biggest ever.” Sounds pretty cool, right?
Here’s how and why the Battle at Bristol came to be.
So, how exactly do you transform a NASCAR speedway into a college football venue?
For starters, the folks at Bristol have had just 19 days to complete the transformation; the speedway was last used on Aug. 20 for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Jerry Caldwell, the Executive Vice President and General Manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, spoke with SB Nation about the arduous, rapid process:
Every minute of every day for those 19 days will be choreographed. We have to move all the tractor trailers out, we have to raise our infield almost three and a half feet. We’ll bring in 450 dump truck loads of material to do that, and then put the field on top of it. At the same time, start building grandstands on the front stretch and the back stretch — we will add grandstands in the end zones, we will start converting some of the buildings in the infield into locker rooms.
Yeah, but how the hell are you supposed to watch football in a NASCAR “stadium?”
Excellent question! It’s going to be a little weird, and awkward for many fans who go watch in person. But wait! The folks at Bristol really tried to account for the seats being quite far by having a 30-foot tall and 63-foot wide video display directly over the field.
This is twice as high and nearly three times as wide as the video displays atop the scoring pylon currently in the BMS infield. Not to mention its 54 million LEDs and 18 million pixels will make a picture quality that’s expected to exceed that of large-scale outdoor displays seen in Times Square. (!)
But here’s what your view would look like if you were sitting in the nosebleeds.
Let’s hope they bring their binoculars.
Why this game, and why these schools? What’s the point?
Big games like these, especially at neutral sites, make a ton of money for both the venues and the schools. According to reports, Tennessee and Virginia Tech are both guaranteed $4 million. According to the game contract, each school also will get an additional $300,000, because the grandstand seats sold out.
This matchup also makes perfect geographic sense. The state lines of Tennessee and Virginia run through downtown Bristol, creating the twin cities of Bristol, Va. and Bristol, Tenn. The city of Blacksburg, Va. isn’t far from Bristol either. The cities sit roughly 125 miles apart from one another.
“The people in this region, Southwest Virginia, Northeastern Tennessee, they are salt of the earth. They love NASCAR, and they love college football,” said Jerry Caldwell, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Bristol Motor Speedway.
When this game was first announced, it was revealed that in 1996, Bruton Smith, the chairman and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., reportedly offered Tennessee and Virginia Tech $20 million each. Tech apparently wanted to pull the trigger, but Tennessee wasn’t willing to change schedules that were already in place.
Will this set a new American football attendance record?
The current NCAA-recognized record for attendance is 115,109, from the Notre Dame-Michigan game in 2013. Bristol can hold a hell of a lot more people than that. Now let’s see how many show up.
“There has always been a desire by fans to see a football game at our historic Speedway,” said Smith when the news was officially announced in 2013. “We couldn’t be more excited to turn this long-time rumor into a reality and to provide sports fans with an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of the biggest college football game ever.”
How long has this game been in the works?
Programs across the country plan big games far in advance. The official announcement came back when former Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Butch Jones was in his very first season in Knoxville, Tenn. Also at this time, Tech still had good ‘ole Frank Beamer as its head man. Miss you, Beamer Ball.
“Look at what we’ve done here. it was right here in an area that a lot of us are proud of, and proud to be from,” Beamer told SB Nation.
How much beer is this going to require?
A lot of beer:
— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) September 8, 2016
So, is this something that we could see again in the future?
The answer obviously remains to be seen. But earlier this week, Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock, speaking to SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey, suggested that there could be a legitimate future for college football at Bristol.
Honestly we haven’t given that much thought just yet. The circumstances of this game are so perfect, to have these two teams from Virginia and Tennessee at Bristol, where the track almost straddles the state line. [Returning] is something we’ll have to think about for the future.
Since the matchup’s announcement, Beamer has since retired, and VT’s under a new regime with new head coach Justin Fuente. Tennessee is expected to legitimately contend for an SEC title (some would argue a national title, but I’m not there yet) this season.
It’s a bizarre game. However, that shouldn’t take away the uniqueness of bringing the spectacle of college football to an iconic sports venue that can hold 150,000 people.