It has been discussed since the late 1990s, and it is now reality. Tennessee will play Virginia Tech at the 160,000-seat Bristol Motor Speedway on Sept. 10, 2016.
The iconic racing venue sits on the Tennessee/Virginia border, just over 100 miles from the campuses of both schools.
Through the years, BMS’s capacity steadily expanded before becoming NASCAR’s first fully enclosed facility.
Racing fans need no introduction to Bristol, which hosts two race weekends per year. The Cup race in late-March for years sold out despite frequent wintry conditions. The track was one of the first to install lights and the late-August date became the toughest ticket in any sport, even more so than a Super Bowl or Final Four. With its half-mile configuration and 24 to 30 degree banking, races at Bristol became the most anticipated in stock car racing.
That was before the NASCAR bubble burst a few years back. Now, the spring Cup race just reaches over half of capacity and even the August race does not sell out.
Something is needed to fill the bowl. Hello college football.
Bristol Speedway owner Bruton Smith has pushed for Tennessee-Virginia Tech football in recent years, at one point offering $20 million to each school.
There are logistical questions. With the traditional late-March/late-August dates, it has been assumed that college football would have to wait until later in the season, possibly late October or November.
With the Sept. 10 date, 2016 is far enough in the distance that BMS could switch race dates for one year. Many race fans clamor for the fall Bristol race to be held later in the season, during the 10-week “Chase for the Cup.”
The other concern is configuring a football field. There are obviously garages, a media center topped with an area where Victory Lane celebrations are held, and an infield care center.
There is an outdated scoring pylon/video board in the center of the infield. I figure that could be removed and replaced by a much larger video board. Smith has already installed a video board at Charlotte Motor Speedway and is installing another at its sister track Texas Motor Speedway. Both screens will be larger than the Dallas Cowboys video board.
With the elevated banking, I imagine the garage and other structures can remain while obstructing few existing seats.
Then there are the football programs. Tennessee is coming off some down seasons and Virginia Tech gets overlooked on a national scale. Both schools could use the bump from recruiting and financial angles.
To make room for the 2016 game, Tennessee rescheduled a home-and-home series against the University of Nebraska from 2016-17 to the 2026-27 seasons.
Tennessee and Virginia Tech need Bristol Speedway as much as Bristol Speedway needs them. At the very least, the game will sell out as a one-off, and maybe even as a yearly occurrence. Smith (who dreams big) has even considered a temporary dome for ball and stick events (a permanent lid presents a carbon dioxide nightmare for racing). NBA All-Star Game anyone? Or even an NHL Winter Classic (without the lid).
For football, the seats will not be THAT far away. It will just be a little more distant than the old Soldier Field configuration, which once hosted its own NASCAR event and unofficially has the distinction of having football’s largest crowds ever, as approximately 120,000 attended a pair of Notre Dame games held in the 1920s.
College football at Thunder Valley will be a blast. It will be fun to see the winning team do a victory lap.