BRISTOL, Tenn. — The sign hanging over the garage entrance to Bristol Motor Speedway is — like everything else around here — oversized.
WELCOME TO THE LAST GREAT COLOSSEUM, it all but screams in four-foot-tall type.
You find yourself looking around for horse-drawn chariots.
They have decided to play an oversized college football game here basically because they can. Sure, everyone is making oversized money from Tennessee-Virginia Tech, a Woodstock-on-Wheels, NASCAR-on-roids spectacle.
But … why? Essentially, it’s ‘Merica.
If big is good, huge is better. Upwards of 150,000 will descend on a 55-year-old speedway Saturday for a game that just simply had to be played in the mind of an 89-year-old billionaire.
Bruton Smith is the man responsible. He and his family have owned the track since 1996. Smith is the sort of patriarchal figure common to auto racing. Forbes called him self-made and one of the world’s richest persons.
It was his idea 20 years ago to transform his iconic track into a college football arena 50,000 seats larger than Neyland Stadium.
“If we came up with a lot Christians and [others] came up with the lions, we’d be back to the biblical period,” Smith said. “If we decide to do the Christians and the lions, I don’t know how it would draw.”
But this first-of-its-kind game basically equidistant from each school’s campus? It’s all but a physical sellout. The remainder of the senses wait to be assaulted. Dive into the Kenny Chesney concert Friday night. Marvel at the 700-ton custom-made video board. Party with the thousands in their RVs dotting the countryside.
“I almost peed in my pants [in anticipation],” said Dylan Regan a Vols fan from Halls, Tennessee. “We’ve been waiting about it, talking about it. Big-time Vol fans. No way you can miss it.”
Regan and friends are bonded by an email address and a purpose in their RV camp.
“Everybody here hasn’t experienced it,” friend Dylan Jones said. “Everybody wants to experience it.”
Your pregame experience varies from RV lot to RV lot. Some are asphalt. Good luck with that in the 90-degree heat. Some lots are carved out of the sides of hills. Just about all of them are filled.
“Lots of gravel, dust,” Moon said of his particular spot within site of the speedway. “There’s not a lot of room the way they have it laid out. Everybody’s crammed in. Hardly any tailgating room. Not the best set up.”
But it is the best atmosphere — maybe ever.
“It’s too early,” Moon added after emerging from his trailer early Thursday. “There will be Bloody Marys and Mimosas on Saturday.”
When tickets went on sale last year, 45-year-old Bill Heck grabbed a lawn chair, drove two hours from his Mountain View, Tennessee, home and plunked down $80 for a ticket.
The chair doubled as his hotel room.
“I came at 2 o’clock the day before and stayed in the chair and slept,” Heck said. “My dad said, ‘Son, you’re crazy.’ It’s just, I love Tennessee.”
There are a 1,000 stories here from 1,000 points on the map. Heck is telling his from the backyard of good friend Randy “Crusher” Lewis.
Crusher considers himself an inventor. He claims that his “Nut Job” lug nut cleaning tool almost made it onto “Shark Tank.” He invites a visitor to his custom-made backyard bathroom fashioned out of old metal garage doors.
It comes complete with a shower and the unique “money seat.”
The clear plastic toilet lid inlaid with cash (about $40) was donated by Robert “Bubba” Butler.
You take your swag where you can get it.
“I’m here for history,” said Bubba, a plumber from Sarasota, Florida, whose been coming to Bristol races for more than a decade. “I’ve never been to a college football game.”
Bubba has seen plenty of Crusher. They met years ago when Foster basically wandered into his yard as asked if he could camp out for the races.
“I said, ‘Uh, Ok,'” Lewis recalled.
A tradition was born. Crusher will spend the next few days as unofficial off-site toastmaster general of the event. His home sits in subdivision across I-81 from the speedway. While not cooking or yapping or showing off his bathroom, at least a dozen folks will be flopping at his home.
And on game day, he’ll be shuttling friends back and forth to the Bristol entrance.
“This is much bigger because of the way NASCAR has gone,” Crusher said. “The attendance has dropped off and they don’t have as many things going on outside the race track. A football game is very different. Everybody wants to be a part of that.”
There’s no doubt Bristol and NASCAR can use the bump. In general, NASCAR attendance and TV ratings have dropped recently. Bristol once sold out 55 consecutive races.
College football in a coliseum could be the start of something big — or at least a symbiotic partnership. One slumping spectacle meeting another that continues to rise.
“This is the biggest event that we’ve ever touched,” Smith said. “This is bigger than a Super Bowl.”
There are already whispers of attracting soccer games and the NHL Winter Classic. Every possibly is on the table, one official said.
Smith claims to have offered Virginia Tech and Tennessee $20 million each to play the game 20 years ago. It was a different economic time. The Hokies were receptive, he said.
“Our athletic director in Knoxville didn’t like it,” Smith added. “He bad-mouthed it like crazy.”
“You just heard something that’s never been heard,” one surprised Bristol publicist said.
That AD was the retired Doug Dickey. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.
For two decades, though, a Bristol football game has been sort of an urban legend with fan bases of both schools. The game was finally announced in 2013.
“I’ve heard about it for years,” said Michael Moon, a VT fan from Roanoke, Virginia, “but then it was just a wive’s tale. Then all of the sudden it’s happening. S—, it’s actually happening.”
But why did it have to happen?
“I don’t know if I can answer that,” said Rob Ballard, a Tennessee fan and Moon’s RV neighbor.
Adam Rust can try. Rust is Bristol’s 36-year-old senior director of purchasing and technology. Yeah, the title sort of baffles him, too. Just call Rust Bristol’s logistics guy.
He’s the one who makes sure that video board — “Colossus,” they’ve nicknamed it — is high enough to avoid being hit by punts. He’s the one in charge of Colossus getting shipped out to be used by the Ryder Cup after this event.
He’s the guy who won’t let so much as a golf cart roll across the artificial field it took 450 trucks worth of gravel to build. He’s the one who had to clear out a tire storage area just to build out Virginia Tech’s lockerroom.
“I was there last night and I ran into a bomb dog and it scared me. Every hair on my body stood up,” Rust said. “The security guy was on the other side of the lockers. I said, ‘Don’t kill me.'”
How do you clear a 150,000-seat venue for walk-throughs? Rust will do that Friday afternoon for the teams’ traditional stadium site visit the day before a game.
“I have dogs hunting for [intruders],” he said.
There are field testers with NFL credentials just to make sure the field is playable. Not a bad idea considering what happened last month at the Hall of Fame Game.
“I think it will be like no other atmosphere anyone has ever seen,” Rust said. “We’re going to have 150,000 fans that now cheer for two teams instead of 43 [NASCAR] teams. If the game is what we hope it is, this place will erupt.”
A passel of “Guinness Book of World Records” auditors are showing up to certify it as the biggest college football game ever. Taking it a step further, if you eliminate motorsports and horses, it might be the highest-attended athletic event in American history.
There are still 50,000 folks still looking for tickets, Bruton Smith said.
“You can play a football game anywhere, I guess,” said Jerry Caldwell, Bristol’s general manager. “I don’t think you’d be able to replicate this experience.”
That experience includes a Ferris wheel. There are 485 speakers around the speedway so the throngs can hear. The crowd is so large that no one will be able to leave for an hour after the game so Bristol can control traffic flow.
Bristol has stopped short of the NASCAR practice of allowing fans to bring in their own coolers. This is college, after all.
It’s in the human spirit to achieve. Think of the Great Wall of China, the Egyptian pyramids, Lollapalooza. We’re pioneers at heart. We went to the moon because we could do that, too.
From the 50-yard line, it feels like the whole world is staring down at you. It makes Michigan Stadium or Neyland look like minor league parks. Players will have to lend their entire focus and concentration to the game and not be distracted by the show.
The field — built from the ground up in 10 days — feels like your living room carpet when you first moved in. One of the 10 best football fields in the country, Rust was told. This is the rug’s opening day. Next week Western Carolina and East Tennessee will play on it and that will be it. Games over, for now.
There are $1,000 seats in the end zone so close you feel like you’re calling signals. There are premium seats on the side that feature table tops and personal service. The turns aren’t the only high-banked features. The speedway is configured so that the stands almost rise straight up out of the ground. The blue Tennessee sky seems like a hole in the top of the world. Be prepared, you might get a serving of vertigo with your nachos and Miller Lite.
It’s a given that some of the seats are outrageously far away. In that sense, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss $40 goodbye, but you can damn sure say you were part of the biggest college football game ever.
Why not see how far the eyeballs can stretch watching from the absolute worst seat in the house — top row, north end zone — hundreds of feet from the 50-yard line?
At least you can tell your friends you were there. Sort of.
“I’m bringing binoculars,” said Moon, whose tickets are high up on the 35, “but I’ve got 20-20 eagle vision.”
So settle in for some good-old fashioned amateur athletics. Each school will be paid $4 million for selling its 40,000-seat allotment. Using a conservative average price of $60 per seat, Bristol will gross $9 million in ticket revenue alone.
The NCAA can’t, won’t and doesn’t have anything to do with extravaganza. Tennessee, Virginia Tech, NASCAR and Bristol Motor Speedway made it this far. Is it too bold to suggest amateurism is an afterthought in this Colosseum spectacle?
“I don’t think it matters now,” Smith said.
Cue the chariots.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / College football meets NASCAR: Inside the spectacle of the Battle at Bristol