The speedway that calls itself the "last great Colosseum" now will be temporarily transformed into the world's largest football stadium.
Tennessee and Virginia Tech meet Saturday night at the Bristol Motor Speedway, located approximately halfway between the two campuses. The showdown dubbed the "Battle at Bristol" is expected to draw over 150,000 fans, which would shatter the current NCAA single-game record of 115,109 at Michigan Stadium when the Wolverines beat Notre Dame in 2013.
"It's something that will live with these individuals for the rest of their lives," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
A Tennessee-Virginia Tech matchup at Bristol had been discussed for about 20 years and finally was announced in 2013. Jerry Caldwell , the speedway's general manager, said the facility's unique characteristics made it ideal for this transformation.
"We jokingly say we're a football stadium on steroids," Caldwell said. "When you walk into the place, that's what you see. That's what it feels like. You walk in and you're completely surrounded by stands just like you would be at a football stadium."
Caldwell declined to disclose the costs of temporarily converting the speedway into a football stadium. Tennessee and Virginia Tech are both guaranteed $4 million because each school sold over 40,000 tickets. According to the game contract, each school also may receive an additional $300,000 because the grandstand seats sold out.
This will be the speedway's first football game since the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles played a 1961 exhibition game here that drew 10,000 fans to a facility that seated 20,000. Saturday night's event will have an entirely different atmosphere and feel.
"I'm curious to see how the field will be and how far the stands and everything will be from the field," Virginia Tech receiver Isaiah Ford said.
The speedway is hosting the football game less than three weeks after a Sprint Cup race.
The morning after the race, 450 truckloads of rock and manufactured sand evened out the speedway's bowl-shaped infield, which had a natural drop of about 3 feet from the edge to the middle. More than 100,000 square feet of AstroTurf were brought in to form the actual field, a process that was completed in about a week. Over 5,000 seats also were added.
Sydney Stahlbaum of AstroTurf noted the company was part of similarly rapid installations before. NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans, was converted from a grass surface to turf in four days in September 2015. Three years earlier, the company needed nine days to install turf in StubHub Center in Los Angeles for the 2012 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
A drivers' meeting room was reconfigured into a locker room for Tennessee. A tire mounting area now is Virginia Tech's locker room. The coaches' boxes and radio booths are where NASCAR officials generally monitor races. Technology was installed to allow instant replay and communication between coaches.
"It's a bit surreal," Caldwell said. "It's been a lot of fun to take people in who haven't seen it. The common word they use is 'breathtaking' to walk in and see this place completely converted. It feels like a football stadium."
But of course, it's not.
Rather than having video scoreboards at each end zone, Bristol has Colossus — a 700-ton overhead scoreboard with four high-resolution screens that is suspended above the infield. The seats and coaches' boxes are much farther away from the field here than at a typical football stadium. Tennessee assistant athletic director for events management David Elliott said, "We're telling both teams to have a ton of binoculars up in the coaches' booth so they can see better there."
Both teams plan to visit the field for a walkthrough Friday. Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said he doesn't do that for all road games but feels it's essential this week so his players get acclimated to this unique environment and coaches can get a sense of their perspective from the boxes. Jones said the biggest challenge is making sure players focus on football and not the atmosphere.
All this work isn't just for one football game.
A week after Tennessee-Virginia Tech, Football Championship Subdivision programs East Tennessee State and Western Carolina will play here in front of a significantly smaller crowd. ETSU athletic director Richard Sander says it's still "a once-in-a-lifetime situation to play in that venue."
It's certainly a step up for an ETSU program currently playing home games on a high school field while waiting for its new on-campus stadium to be completed.
After that game, Bristol will be converted back into a racetrack. Stahlbaum said the stone base used to even out the infield will be reused around the property, while the field will be rolled up and stored.
In the meantime, speedway officials will look for the next opportunity for this type of event.
"Our hope is that this will lead to other things," Caldwell said. "Motorsports will remain our core business, it's who we are, but we really think this will open us up to new opportunities, other football games, possibly other sports or other entertainment events."
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