Even if you don’t consider yourself a college football fan, you’ve probably heard that Virginia Tech will play the University of Tennessee this fall in a game that has been years in the making. Long before it was formally announced in October of 2013, fans of both teams had clamored for this gridiron clash to become a reality. Surprisingly perhaps, the idea of hosting the contest in Blacksburg or Knoxville (home to the Volunteers) was barely given a thought. No, fans didn’t just want to see these two teams play, most had a very specific venue in mind – the Bristol Motor Speedway.
So, on Saturday, Sept. 10, it will finally happen. The Hokies and the Volunteers will square off in the Pilot Flying J Battle at Bristol in front of approximately 150,000 spectators, making it the largest crowd in the history of college football.
“It’s definitely a ‘bucket list’ deal,” declares former Hokie standout and long-time broadcast analyst Mike Burnop. “I’m excited about it.” Burnop has probably witnessed more Tech football than anyone over the last 30-plus years, and he’s seen the Hokies play in their share of big games. He says the Battle at Bristol will be a unique experience for both the program and its fans.
“On paper, there isn’t much of a history between Virginia Tech and Tennessee, but we’re fairly close to one another geographically, so I suppose that helps fuel the rivalry,” Burnop explains. “This game is going to be a spectacle – it’s history. From a fan standpoint, it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Twenty years from now, people will be saying, ‘Yeah, I was there’.”
Tennessee and Virginia Tech were each supplied with 40,000 tickets, and both schools quickly sold their allotments. Bristol Motor Speedway officials have indicated that the remaining 70,000 grandstand seats are sold out, and they have a waiting list. Needless to say, the 239-mile stretch of the Interstate 81 corridor between Blacksburg and Knoxville will be even busier than usual that weekend. As if the game wasn’t enough, the Speedway will also host a concert the night before, featuring country music megastar and East Tennessee native Kenny Chesney, along with Grammy winners, The Band Perry. A crowd of approximately 45,000 is expected for the concert.
“Fortunately, because we are used to seeing large crowds at the two big races held at the Speedway each year, we sort of know what to expect,” says Michelle Earl, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) Bristol District. The traffic going in and out of Bristol before, during and after the football game will no doubt cause frustrations for some, but you won’t hear Lori Worley complaining. She serves as director of communications and public relations for the Bristol (Tenn.) Chamber of Commerce and acknowledges that the state border showdown will be an economic boom for the “Tri-Cities” region (Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport).
“We’re going to be making history,” Worley notes. “Fans of both teams are excited about the game, and it will be a huge tailgating experience. It’s such a cool event; entirely different from what we typically see because a lot of folks coming to the game are not necessarily race fans.” Worley, who once worked for Bristol Motor Speedway, says local businesses are just as excited as the Hokie and Volunteer fans. In fact, downtown business owners along State Street – which is divided down the middle by the Virginia-Tennessee border – are planning to decorate their buildings and store fronts in support of their “home” team. Businesses on the Bristol, Tenn., side of the street will be decked out in Volunteer orange and white, while Bristol, Va., business owners will shower their shops with Hokie maroon and orange. “This is about bragging rights after all,” declares Worley with a chuckle. “There’s a lot of back and forth obviously. Bristol embraces that, and we’re really looking forward to it.”
As one might imagine, holding a game of such historic proportion in a facility that was designed to host NASCAR races will require an equally epic amount of work. The fact that this transition must happen in a matter of days only adds to the challenge. The Bristol Motor Speedway hosts its annual NASCAR Sprint Cup Series night race on Sat., Aug. 20. Immediately after that event concludes, a crew of approximately 400 will begin bulk cleaning and detailing the speedway. Amazingly, build of the actual field will be completed in just eight days.
Preparations for the game have already resulted in one very noticeable change at the speedway. Earlier this year, crews replaced the facility’s existing video board tower – which would have intersected directly with the field’s 50-yard line – with the world’s largest suspended video board in the world. Called “Colossus TV,” the video board features four massive high resolution screens and a premier, 428-speaker, 540,000-watt sound system.
As for the game itself, Burnop says Tennessee will likely be favored to win and he expects a majority of the “neutral” seats to be occupied by Volunteer fans. The Hokies finished last season – the final season of legendary coach Frank Beamer’s career – with a 7-6 overall record, capped by a narrow win over Tulsa in the Independence Bowl. Tennessee, under third-year head coach Butch Jones, finished its season with a 9-4 record, including a dominating victory over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
“Virginia Tech has an entirely new coaching staff for the most part, and we don’t really know what to expect from the team at this point,” Burnop adds. “Tennessee looks to have a very strong season and pick up where they left off last year. So, it’s going to be a tough game. The Hokies will have to play well, they’ll have to be healthy and a little lucky,” he concludes, “but, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, you never count the Hokies out.”
Text by Mike Wade
Photo courtesy of Bristol Motor Speedway
Mike Wade is a lifelong resident of the New River Valley and has worked as a journalist and PR professional for more than 20 years. He freelances as a writer, graphic designer and portrait artist.