The Battle at Bristol

Football game at speedway is expected to set a record

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The game between Virginia Tech and University of Tennessee will
take place 2½ weeks after a NASCAR race. Photo by Tim Cox

Bristol Motor Speedway soon will make history in another sport, college football.

On Sept. 10, just 2½ weeks after it hosts a NASCAR race, the speedway will turn its half-mile track into a football field for a game between the Virginia Tech Hokies and the University of Tennessee Volunteers.

The much-anticipated event (the local chamber of commerce has a clock ticking away the days, hours and minutes to kickoff) officially is known as the Pilot Flying J Battle at Bristol.

The most recent football game between the teams occurred at the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta in 2009. The Hokies won, 37-14.

“The last time the schools met in regular season was 1937,” says Pete Moris, associate athletics director of strategic communications for Virginia Tech’s athletics department.

The idea for the matchup between Tennessee of the Southeastern Conference and Virginia Tech of the Atlantic Coast Conference first popped up in 1998. “But the stars didn’t align at that time,” says Jerry Caldwell, the speedway’s executive vice president and general manager. “There was some interest from the two schools. The idea was revisited a couple of times over the next few years.”

Serious conversations involving the speedway and the schools started in 2012. “Both schools responded enthusiastically, and we were able to put it together,” Caldwell says.

Each school has a tremendous fan base, giving the teams the opportunity to play “in front of the largest crowd ever to witness a college football game. That’s enticing,” says Moris. “This is something historic, and it appealed to both football programs.”

Once everything is in place, the speedway will have a seating capacity of 155,000 when it adds about 5,000 temporary seats on the track. The current single attendance record for a football game is 115,109 for a 2013 contest in Ann Arbor, Mich., between the University of Notre Dame and the University of Michigan.

The temporary seating is just one of the transformations on tap. The speedway will haul in rock to build a base for the football field in the infield shortly after the August NASCAR race. Currently the infield slopes inward so water can flow toward drains, a necessary feature for racing.

“For football you need it running off the sides,” says Caldwell, noting that the middle of the infield will have to be raised three-and-a-half feet before AstroTurf can be laid on top. “It will take crews six to eight days to get all the material into the track and create the field.”

The speedway also will have to install temporary restrooms, mobile kitchens and concession stands as well as hospitality tents to accommodate fans in the extra 5,000-seat area. Other details that had to be ironed out included finding locations for coaching booths and the play clock.

The speedway will host a second football game on Sept. 17 between East Tennessee State University and Western Carolina. “Then we will go through the process of taking the field down,” says Caldwell. “We will release economic impact numbers and attendance numbers after the game.”

He believes the two games will not only have a strong impact on the community but will also introduce new people to the racetrack. “Anytime you can expose new fans to our facility it’s a good thing,” Caldwell says.

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