BRISTOL — “The Biggest College Football Game Ever” is scheduled for September 10, 2016 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Representatives from Tennessee and Virginia Tech signed contracts at the massive auto racing stadium Monday morning for a game dubbed the “Battle at Bristol, The Biggest Football Game Ever.”
A large banner was unveiled below the race track’s suites as fireworks went off and an artist rendering showed how the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile” would transform into the “World’s Largest Football Stadium.”
It is expected to draw a crowd of over 150,000, the largest ever to see a college football game. The current record is 115,109 set Sept. 7 at Michigan Stadium to watch the Wolverines’ 41-30 victory over Notre Dame.
“It’s a reality, as big as anything that’s ever happened in college football,” Virginia Tech athletic director Jim Weaver said.
Monday’s announcement was the culmination of a 15-year quest by Speedway Motorsports chairman Bruton Smith, who first floated the idea of late speedway president Jeff Byrd to the public in 1998. Smith went a large step further in 2005, offering $20 million to each school for a proposed contest.
Smith wasn’t at Monday’s announcement, but his son, Marcus, the Chief Operating Officer of Speedway Motorsports, talked about the dream becoming a reality.
“It was just a lot of time, discussion and we just continued to knock on the door,” Marcus Smith said. “We never let the idea go. There were times when it didn’t work on the schedule for one school or another. The cards weren’t all in our favor.
“This time, it fell into place and both schools were thrilled about the opportunity. (General manager) Jerry Caldwell and the Bristol Motor Speedway team have really put together the perfect execution plan, the logistics that need to happen to make this a reality.”
Immediately following the August 2016 NASCAR race at the track, approximately 400 workers will begin the process to get the facility ready.
The turf and field build is to be completed in eight days with around 8,500 tons of rock to be used to build the base of the field.
It took some movement on the Tennessee schedule as athletic director Dave Hart confirmed a home-and-home series with Nebraska was moved more than a decade away to accomodate the game.
The schools have been infrequent rivals, meeting just eight times overall with Tennessee holding a 5-3 lead in the all-time series. Virginia Tech won the last meeting, 37-14 in the 2009 Chick-Fil-A Bowl, and the last regular-season meeting between the schools was in Knoxville in 1937.
Still, there is a mutual respect between the programs which helped the agreement for the historic game being reached.
“The setting is perfect with half of Bristol in Tennessee and half in Virginia,” said Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, the winningest active coach in college football. “It took a lot of planning with the Smiths, the people at the race track and the administrations working together. I think a lot of (Tennessee head coach) Butch (Jones) and the way he’s doing the program at Tennessee. There’s a lot of respect for each other and it took a lot of working together. It’s great to be a part of it.”
It won’t be the first football game ever held at the speedway.
An estimated crowd of 8,500 watched the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles defeat the Washington Redskins 17-10 in a 1961 preseason game.
There is expected to be over 15 times that many people on hand to see the college football powers collide.
“I’m very excited for our football players, our great fan base, our university and the entire Vol Nation to be a part of history,” Jones said. “This is something big not just for football, but the whole sporting world and we’re excited to be a part of it.”
Caldwell pointed out how it’s another huge event for the region with the economic impact to be in the millions.
“We put on the equivalent of two Super Bowls a year with our races and this will be a third Super Bowl weekend,” Caldwell said. “For Tennessee, Virginia and the surrounding area, it’s a chance to shine the light on this area for the whole world to see.”
Marcus Smith said his company would love to host more football games, but the focus for now is the 2016 contest.
Jerry Punch, the ESPN motorsports and college football commentator, said it’s not hype to call it the biggest college football game ever. He expects it to rank among the biggest sporting events of all-time.
“I’ve done BCS (Championship) Games, the Sugar Bowl and the Orange Bowl,” Punch said. “To me, this event is going to have a BCS Game atmosphere, only bigger.”