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VOL. 40 | NO. 28 | Friday, July 8, 2016

‘Gimmicky’ Battle of Bristol finally finds support

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Tennessee and Virginia Tech are expecting 150,000 fans for the Sept. 10 game at Bristol Motor Speedway. That would top college football’s unofficial attendance record by 30,000.

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We’ve still got a couple of months before the sports spectacle called the Battle at Bristol arrives on the calendar.

But after a wait of almost two decades, what’s another few weeks?

This is a college football extravaganza that has been the better part of 20 years in the making. That’s how far you have to go back to find the genesis of the Tennessee-Virginia Tech game that will be played at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sept. 10.

This game will break the mold. Never before has a big-time college football game been played on the infield of a speedway, where NASCAR teams and their haulers are located the week of a race.

With about 150,000 fans expected, the game figures to shatter attendance records. In 2013, 115,109 gathered at Michigan Stadium to watch the Wolverines defeat Notre Dame.

Unofficially, an estimated 120,000 attended the Notre Dame-Southern Cal game in 1928 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

This is football’s version of the NHL Winter Classic, where a hockey game is staged outdoors at either a football or baseball stadium. But the crowd for the Battle at Bristol will be exponentially larger.

Interestingly, it actually will be the second football game at the speedway. In 1961, the track hosted an NFL preseason game between Washington and Philadelphia. Bristol Motor Speedway will play host to another football game a week after UT and Virginia Tech face off. East Tennessee State and Western Carolina and are scheduled to play on Sept. 17.

It’s been a long time coming. And credit Vols coach Butch Jones for picking up the ball and running with it.

Jones had coached only six games at Tennessee when the Battle at Bristol was announced on Oct. 14, 2013. Yet, the game has his fingerprints all over it. This is his baby.

Upon his arrival as Vols coach, Jones began working overtime to promote Tennessee football. He knew his rebuilding of the UT roster needed a couple of recruiting classes to take hold. In the meantime, why not give fans something to look forward to?

“This is why you come to institutions and this is why you come to Tennessee – to be a part of something as big as this,” Jones said. “… There was a lot of effort, a lot of thought that’s gone into this. We made it a reality.”

But it’s not a one-man show.

It takes two teams to tangle on the infield of a NASCAR track. And Virginia Tech is a willing partner. In fact, Virginia Tech has wanted to play this game for years. It took Jones and UT athletics director Dave Hart along with the brain trust at Bristol Motor Speedway to make it happen.

On the day the game was announced, Virginia Tech athletics director Jim Weaver said he remembered talking to Doug Dickey, then his counterpart at UT, about the possibility of playing at Bristol in the late 1990s.

At the time, there were reports that Bruton Smith, chairman and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., offered both schools a guarantee of $20 million to play the game at his racetrack. But Dickey never really warmed to the idea. He had questions about logistics and concerns about the quality of the playing surface.

Dickey, who was not a fan of auto racing, once applied the term “gimmicky” to the idea of playing a football game in the infield of a racetrack. He was right. It is a gimmick. But it is a gimmick that has captured the fancy of college football fans around the nation.

As for the field, don’t worry.

There have been many advances in artificial turf in recent years. The playing surface (AstroTurf) will be fine. And when you consider the well-documented issues with the turf at Neyland Stadium last season, the Vols may be on better footing in Bristol than in Knoxville.

There are many moving parts here. After the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race on Aug. 20, workers get busy. Approximately 8,500 tons of rock will be used to build the base of the field. The process of installing the turf is expected to be completed in eight days.

“Everything that this project entails is going to be huge,” said Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports and Bruton Smith’s son. “It’s going to be the biggest conversion ever. And it’s going to be the biggest football game ever. The scale will be unmatched with a lot of things. Fortunately, we’re used to doing tremendous projects.”

Even so, there are going to be issues, especially on game day.

Even for veteran racing fans who know the traffic patterns and parking locations of this quirky complex, getting into and out of Bristol Motor Speedway requires time and patience. Bringing in 150,000 football fans, most of whom have never been to the track before, will be a nightmare.

On the plus side, the facility is accustomed to staging major events. Many NASCAR fans come to the site in RVs and set up camp days in advance of the race. Look for a number of UT and Virginia Tech fans to do the same. Think of it as the college football version of Bonnaroo.

Bristol officials increased the degree of difficulty in pulling all this off by booking a Kenny Chesney concert the night before the game. The stage for the concert, with tickets capped at 45,000, will be set up on the backstretch of the track and will not encroach upon the field.

In addition to bringing that many more people to the Bristol Motor Speedway footprint, the concert complicates day-before-game preparations for the two teams. By contract, there is a window on the afternoon before the game for each team to conduct a walk-through on the field.

Even though teams seldom put trick plays or surprise formations on display during a walk-through, coaches like to conduct these things in private. With preparations ongoing for a concert that evening, there will be plenty of extra eyes at the speedway on that Friday.

As for those coming to the game, it’s fair to say that your view of the action will depend on your seat. Remember, this is a racetrack, not a football stadium.

If your ticket is in Section A of the Kulwicki Terrace, for example, you’re going to have a tough time following the ball. That giant video screen suspended above the field should help.

In short, enjoy the atmosphere and camaraderie. When you get down to it, that’s what this game is all about. It’s an event, a spectacle, a chance to try something that has never been done before, at least not on this level.

Tennessee and Virginia Tech could’ve found any number of neutral sites to play a football game. Taking it to Bristol Motor Speedway is an idea whose time has finally come.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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