Battle at Bristol's unique nature made for success for all who attended

BRISTOL, Tenn. – The familiar chorus rang out once again — for what seemed like the hundredth time — in a very unfamiliar place. As the Tennessee fans serenaded, well, everyone with “Rocky Top,” Marcus Smith pulled out his phone and shot a video.

“Unbelievable,” said Smith, the COO of Speedway Motor Sports, Inc., which owns and operates Bristol Motor Speedway. “So cool.”

Yeah, Smith is biased. But it was a fairly common reaction Saturday night, when they played a football game at a racetrack.

Tennessee beat Virginia Tech 45-24, overcoming an early 14-0 deficit and thrilling the sea of orange that made up perhaps 70% of the crowd of 156,990, a record for a college football game (shattering the previous high of 115,109 for Notre Dame at Michigan in 2013).

And if the sheer magnitude of the event was its best asset, it was also its challenge — and the reason why, despite the desire of organizers to do it all again, this felt like a spectacular one-off.

“It’s something we can look back on in 10 or 20 years and say we were a part of,” Tennessee cornerback Cameron Sutton said.

Unless it becomes routine, that is. But that seems unlikely, even as Smith called it “the inaugural event,” adding: “I think we’ll have another one.”

But when? Where? And with which teams?

“Who knows?” Smith said.

In some ways, Saturday was more festival than football game. It began several days before, when RVs began arriving and claiming prime real estate. By Saturday morning, the fields surrounding the track were filled with campers and tents and tailgates, and the roads leading into the area were clogged with even more people on their way. It could have been a race weekend, except instead of flying flags for their favorite driver, there was plenty of Virginia Tech maroon and a whole lot more Tennessee orange.

There was an elaborate, very patriotic card stunt during the national anthem. At halftime Lee Greenwood sang God Bless the USA, and it turned into a giant singalong, with what seemed like all 156,000 joining in as fireworks shot into the skies above (on that note, the pyrotechnics could have been produced by Mordor).

After the game, the Vols took part in a staged celebration that included confetti cannons — and that was after the hats, t-shirts and the big trophy, all for the champions of the “Battle at Bristol.” It looked like they’d just won a conference or national championship.

“A little over the top,” Vols coach Butch Jones said.

And if the sheer magnitude of the event was its best asset, it was also its challenge — and the reason why, despite the desire of organizers to do it all again, this felt like a spectacular one-off.

“It’s something we can look back on in 10 or 20 years and say we were a part of,” Tennessee cornerback Cameron Sutton said.

Unless it becomes routine, that is. But that seems unlikely, even as Smith called it “the inaugural event,” adding: “I think we’ll have another one.”

But when? Where? And with which teams?

“Who knows?” Smith said.

In some ways, Saturday was more festival than football game. It began several days before, when RVs began arriving and claiming prime real estate. By Saturday morning, the fields surrounding the track were filled with campers and tents and tailgates, and the roads leading into the area were clogged with even more people on their way. It could have been a race weekend, except instead of flying flags for their favorite driver, there was plenty of Virginia Tech maroon and a whole lot more Tennessee orange.

There was an elaborate, very patriotic card stunt during the national anthem. At halftime Lee Greenwood sang God Bless the USA, and it turned into a giant singalong, with what seemed like all 156,000 joining in as fireworks shot into the skies above (on that note, the pyrotechnics could have been produced by Mordor).

After the game, the Vols took part in a staged celebration that included confetti cannons — and that was after the hats, t-shirts and the big trophy, all for the champions of the “Battle at Bristol.” It looked like they’d just won a conference or national championship.

“A little over the top,” Vols coach Butch Jones said.

And if their enthusiasm seemed a little forced, it wasn’t so much a reflection on the event itself as the reality. Not that anyone really tried, but players and coaches from both teams couldn’t ignore the exceptional nature of the event.

“I mean,” Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara said, “we played at a racetrack.”

But for all the hype before, during and after, it was still only a regular-season game. The teams have at least 10 more games, including for Tennessee six at cozy little Neyland Stadium, which seats only 102,455 but is built for football.

Several factors contributed to making the Battle at Bristol a huge success, which fueled thoughts of trying to repeat the spectacle. But this was especially important: In Tennessee and Virginia Tech, the organizers had the perfect pairing: two passionate fan bases, two schools within easy driving distance of (and nearly equidistant from) Bristol Motor Speedway.

“You have to have the right matchup,” Smith said. “Not just any matchup will work.”

Probably not just any racetrack would work, either. There’s been talk through the years of playing other games at other racetracks. The Oklahoma-Texas game, for instance, is cemented into the Cotton Bowl for the foreseeable future. But a dozen years ago, people kicked around the idea of playing the game at Texas Motor Speedway.

It would presumably have been a completely different type of experience, not just from that rivalry game’s traditional venue but also from what we saw Saturday night. While Bristol Motor Speedway with its half-mile track is intimate for NASCAR, with a football field plopped down on the infield it becomes a cavernous arena. But what would football played on the infield of a 1.5-mile track — like the one in Fort Worth — be like?

“I think you could do this at other places,” Smith said. “But I think it’s best at a place like this.”

Not long before the game, Charlie Roberts and his son Brady sat on the very last row in the Wallace Tower. The Virginia Tech fans had gotten tickets for Christmas, and drove over Saturday morning from Marion, Va. From their perch in Section 8, Row 13, Seats 1 and 2, the players warming up below might as well have been insects. But that was OK. Brady, 10, brought binoculars. And they felt like a part of history.

“It’s just being here,” Charlie Roberts said.

One section over and three rows closer to the field, that sentiment was echoed by John and Cindy Fox. The residents of Bristol, Tenn., have been to many races at the speedway. The Tennessee fans decided to attend the game at the last minute, and bought tickets last week. Shaded from the afternoon sun, they sat drinking iced tea in souvenir mason jars.

“We’re gonna watch the Vols whip Virginia Tech,” Cindy Fox said, but she admitted: “It’s hard to see on the field, but ‘Colossus’ helps a lot.”

Colossus is the giant video board suspended above the field. Installed last spring, it was a very important feature Saturday.

Smith isn’t wrong when he noted that the sight lines from almost everywhere were good. But never mind the Roberts and Fox families at the very top of the facility, even the best seats were — well, wherever they were, they were a long way from the field.

It couldn’t be helped, and because of the unique nature of the event, it was probably not a big deal that binoculars were essential from almost anywhere. Or Colossus, which was visible from everywhere.

But for many, it was about just being there.

“It’s been such a cool thing to just see everybody soak it up and have a good time,” Smith said. “You could just tell this was a fun, special day.”

But then the confetti settled onto the artificial turf. The Hokies and Vols and their fans and college football left the racetrack.

“I’m sure with the success of this, somebody will try to mimic it and do it again,” Jones said.

Maybe even at Bristol. But if college football at a race track is not a one-off, will just being there be good enough?

Copyright 2016 WCNC


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