Bristol Speedway unveils plan for Vols-Hokies game

STEVE MEGARGEE, AP Sports Writer
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The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sharpie 500 auto race is run under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn. on Aug. 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sharpie 500 auto race is run under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn. on Aug. 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee and Virginia Tech will finally play a football game at Bristol Motor Speedway in what is being billed as the “Battle of Bristol.”

Track and officials from both universities formally announced the plans Monday during a news conference. The game scheduled for Sept. 10, 2016 will be a national showcase for both programs that could set an NCAA single-game attendance record at the 52-year-old racetrack.

Virginia Tech athletic director Jim Weaver said this is something that he started talking to his Tennessee counterparts about nearly 17 years ago.

“I remember talking to (former Tennessee athletic director) Doug Dickey about the possibility of a game, and then (former Tennessee AD) Mike Hamilton.”

After all that talking, the rumors and speculation, it’s finally going to happen.

Weaver said the game is “a reality that’s as big as anything that’s happened in the world of football.”

Bristol’s speedway can hold around 160,000 fans. The speedway sits nearly halfway between the campuses of the two schools, off Interstate 81 in Tennessee. The NCAA-recognized attendance record for college football of 115,109 was set last month at Michigan Stadium for Michigan-Notre Dame.

“To be a part of football history is something that’s very important to both our universities, our student athletes and everything,” said Tennessee coach Butch Jones.

Added Hokies coach Frank Beamer, “Next to lane stadium, this is my favorite sports venue, I promise you.”

Hokies vs. Volunteers at BMS first came up in the late 1990s, then again when the track underwent major renovations in 2005. The conversations got serious between the track and school officials last year.

Burton Smith, track owner and president of BMS did not attend Monday’s press conference because of a scheduling conflict. But he told The Associated Press everyone wants “to make this a huge, huge deal.”

“Our goal is to set a world record for the largest attended football game in the world,” he said.

The NCAA record book does note that in the late 1920s, Notre Dame played two games at Soldier Field in Chicago in front of crowds estimated at 120,000

Smith said when he brought the idea to the schools after BMS was reconfigured in 2005, Virginia Tech was interested but Tennessee wasn’t.

But things have changed in recent years. Power conference schools such as Tennessee from the Southeastern Conference and Virginia Tech from the Atlantic Coast Conference are now more willing to bolster their schedules with potentially tough opponents and they are more willing to play neutral site games that can pay big bucks and land prime television spots.

“I think the landscape from college scheduling worked,” said Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of the track.

Tennessee AD Dave Hart said, “It’s the perfect match.”

To accommodate a football field, the speedway will need modifications, some of which will happen as soon as next year, Caldwell said.

A massive video board that sits atop a pylon in the middle of the infield will be taken out, Caldwell said.

“Screens will be added inside the facility so everyone can still see everything,” he said.

Making room for a field will be easy compared to actually installing the field.

Bristol’s big NASCAR race is in late August. Only until after that’s complete can the football field be installed, with 8,500 tons of rock as its base.

Caldwell said track officials are confident they will have a safe and sound playing surface, despite the quick turnaround.

“As we started meeting with turf companies and engineers, we learned it is not uncommon for them to do that type of thing,” he said.

Then there is the matter of fans in the stands being close enough to the field to be able to tell what is going on down there.

Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium, which holds more than 102,000, would fit inside Bristol Motor Speedway.

“It’s not a football stadium so it’s going to be a bit different, but I think you’ll see that the sight lines are great and are going to be very similar to what you would see in a college football program maybe within 10 to 20 yards from where you would be in a football stadium,” Caldwell said.

Track officials are still working on sponsorship and television deals for the game, and banking that there will be plenty of fans looking for tickets.

“I want the state of Tennessee and the state of Virginia. I want these two big states to be a part of it,” Smith said. “It’ll be the biggest production we’ve ever attempted.”

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AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report

 

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