Border war

Bristol counts down the days to Hokie-Vols football game at speedway

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A sign shows a countdown to kickoff in 2016.
Photo courtesy Bristol Chamber of Commerce

Bristol Motor Speedway began simple enough: The oval track was built in 1961 — sketched out, initially, by a couple of businessmen on a napkin at a restaurant.

It has since grown to 160,000 seats, with NASCAR races held during spring and summer. The hulking track stands just a few miles south of the Tennessee-Virginia line. Still, its Volunteer State location does not put the brakes on many in the Old Dominion wanting to claim it as their own: Just ask any Virginia politician who has ever entertained someone in a suite.

In less than two years, “The World’s Fastest Half Mile” will host more than just racecars. The track has announced plans for a football game pitting the Virginia Tech Hokies against the University of Tennessee Vols on Sept. 10, 2016. The track’s general manager, Jerry Caldwell, is hoping for a sellout.

“A lot of people talk about border wars or border battles. But this truly is that,” Caldwell says. “This is truly right in the middle of two institutions that are the face of college football for their respective states.”

Track officials like Caldwell are obviously excited. But so are members of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce. On Bristol’s State Street, outside the chamber’s offices at the Tennessee-Virginia line, you’ll find a clock counting down the days, hours and minutes to kickoff.

“I think it’s going to be one of those special events to list, ‘I was there,’” Caldwell says. “Everywhere I go, that’s what people talk about — this battle at Bristol. Time and time again, I’ll hear people say, ‘I have to be here for that.’”

Dollar-wise, Caldwell theorizes that this football game will have a financial impact “equal to another NASCAR week in the region.” And that’s huge, according to Caldwell, who says the Bristol Motor Speedway has a $400 million direct impact each year on the greater Bristol region.

“You have a tremendous investment coming to a NASCAR event, especially to Bristol,” Caldwell says. “We’re a destination-type facility. Sixty percent of the people coming to our events are coming from six-plus hours away. And a lot are in RVs or campers.”

Racing in Bristol is “great for the Bristol economy as a whole,” says Christina Blevins, the director of Bristol’s Main Street program. “Those people stay at our hotels and eat at our restaurants.”

The August race, especially, pulls in people for Food City Family Race Night, when Bristol’s State Street is closed to become a pedestrian mall, and thousands gather for an all-day party of business promotions, concerts, book signings and a chance to meet NASCAR drivers.

From mid-November to early January, thousands more come to the speedway complex to tour Speedway in Lights, powered by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Here, you’ll see colorful animations of Santa Claus, Rudolph and the Three Wise Men. You can also drive down the Bristol Dragway and even on the actual track of the Bristol Motor Speedway.

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