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VOL. 40 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 9, 2016

‘Breathtaking’ transformation in Bristol

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The University of Tennessee’s signature end zone checkerboard pattern was applied earlier this week on the temporary artificial field at Bristol Motor Speedway. The Battle at Bristol is expected to draw 150,000 fans Saturday night, a new record for a college football game.

-- Andre Teague/Bristol Herald Courier Via Ap

This isn’t just any football game. It’s the Battle at Bristol.

When Tennessee plays Virginia Tech on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, about 150,000 fans are expected to be in attendance, making it the largest crowd ever to watch a football game.

It’s an idea that originated when legendary racetrack owner Bruton Smith bought BMS in 1996. Way back then, Smith dreamed of the idea, and it gained real traction in 2013.

UT coach Butch Jones and athletic director Dave Hart joined former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer and late athletic director Jim Weaver in embracing the Battle at Bristol. Three years later, it’s come to fruition with the help of BMS general manager Jerry Caldwell and Pilot Flying J as the lead sponsor.

“It’s been a long time in the making and it’s finally turning into reality,” Jones said Monday.

Logistically, it was a colossal undertaking.

Financially, it should be a boon.

The BMS Grandstand is sold out, but a limited number of resale tickets are still available along with VIP ticket packages.

ESPN’s “College GameDay” will be on site Saturday morning showcasing the nationally televised game. At least one other football game inside BMS will follow. East Tennessee State University will play host to Western Carolina on Sept. 17 at BMS.

Caldwell says the transformed racetrack/football stadium is a sight to see.

“The comment or word (people) use is breathtaking, to walk in and see this place completely converted,” Caldwell told media members before UT’s win over Appalachian State last Thursday at Neyland Stadium.

“And it feels like a football stadium, it really does. It’s transformed in just a short amount of time, so it’s been fun to see.”

It was far from simple.

Work on the transformation started immediately after the NASCAR Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, which was run Aug. 21 at BMS, delayed by a day due to rain.

The night after the race, Sunday, 450 dump trucks began bringing in gravel and sand to build a level base for the Astro Turf field. Ground level is more than 3 feet higher than the usual middle infield of the track.

There is a gigantic four-sided video board, like a Jumbotron. Locker rooms and showering facilities for the two teams were converted from a drivers’ meeting room and tire warehouse. Additional stands were constructed on the straightaways, and VIP sections were built in the end zone turns.

It’s enough to make you forget they’re playing a football game.

Almost.

“It will be exciting,” Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs says. “There will be a lot of people there setting the college football record and everything. It will be an exciting atmosphere and an exciting opportunity for the team. That’s awesome and we’re excited for the opportunity, but we also are focused on the game plan.

“We’re going in to play a very good opponent in Virginia Tech, and if we are more focused about the environment than the actual football itself, then we won’t come out on top. So we have to be locked into the game plan and locked in from the first snap.”

It poses new challenges for both coaching staffs.

Jones took his coaches to BMS earlier in the summer to check the distance between the press box and field.

Can coaches on the field communicate with those in the press box? And can they see the field?

“I don’t see that being an issue,” Jones says.

Jones wants his players thinking football, not NASCAR, or playing in such a unique environment.

“The opportunity to break the world record for fan attendance for the game of football is something that’s a tremendous opportunity,” Jones says.

“It’s something that will live with these individuals for the rest of their lives. You look at the opportunity our football team has had in their first two games, they will have competed in front of over 250,000 people in the stands.

“That’s the power of Tennessee. You’ll have that opportunity week in and week out, but we’re playing a very, very talented football team and all of our focus has to be on your one-on-one battles and doing what it takes of playing winning football. No more, no less.

“We can’t get caught up in any of the extra curricular items out there. It all comes down to playing winning football.”

Dave Link is a freelance contributor.

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