BRISTOL — Speedway Motorsports chairman Bruton Smith doesn’t like to take no for an answer.
Say what you want about the Bristol Motor Speedway track owner, but his determination is admirable. Fifteen years after floating the idea of a college football game between Tennessee and Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway to the public, the dream became a reality on Monday.
An announcement was made for the teams to meet in the “Battle of Bristol, College Football’s Biggest Game Ever.” It is a game which organizers believe will attract in excess of 150,000 fans, easily the largest crowd ever to see a football game.
Smith wasn’t at Monday’s announcement, but his son, Marcus, the Chief Operating Officer of Speedway Motorsports talked about getting late track president Jeff Byrd’s idea, which was fully endorsed by his father, to come to fruition.
“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. (Track 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.”
The announcement came eight years after Smith offered $20 million to each institution at the 2005 August night race. At the time, many in the motorsports media thought this hare-brained idea was some kind of pipe dream and Smith was merely drumming up publicity.
Now, the contracts are officially signed.
The outline of the football field was laid out in the BMS infield on Monday with astro-turf end zones in place.
There will need more work done such as elevating the field to have a crown like other football fields. The most important logistic was making sure the game would be fan-friendly to the live audience.
“We will have all the big screens you need and there will be fantastic seating,” Smith promised. “While it’s much larger than the biggest football stadium, it’s not too big. We have excellent seating angles. One thing we’re passionate about with our company when we build our speedways is perfect sightlines for our fans. Even the stands at the top of the grandstands will have excellent viewing.”
Over the years, there were challenges coordinating the game with the universities, mainly Tennessee as the home team not wanting to give up one of its home games. Since then, the schedule has expanded to an extra game and the whole landscape of college athletics have changed.
“The timing of it was just perfect,” Caldwell said. “One of the challenges years ago was the conferences. Their schedules were locked in so far out. With a lot of this conference realignment, it proved for an opportunity for us to discuss putting this together.”
They found willing partners in both institutions.
Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart went as far as to reschedule a home-and-home series with Nebraska to a decade later.
Hart believed it was worth the effort with any top recruit to be intrigued about the opportunity to play in front of such a large audience.
“There’s no question any player would want to be a part of this,” Hart said. “This is something they could talk about for the rest of their lives.”
Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer is a NASCAR fan who has attended multiple BMS spring races. Beamer fondly remembered his first visit to Bristol Motor Speedway in the 1960s when he saw a wreck between Junior Johnson and Fred Lorenzen and the fight which ensued afterwards.
Beamer served as the honorary pace car driver for the STP 500 at Martinsville in April and even participated in a celebrity race at BMS in 2009.
Needless to say, he was jacked up about a game at Bristol.
“I really enjoy this place,” Beamer said. “After Lane Stadium, this is my favorite sporting venue. To be able to play in front of a crowd that is the largest to ever see a college football game is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
The opportunity is certainly unique and one which ultimately must be credited to Smith’s vision and dogged determination.
“I really owe it all to my dad and Jeff Byrd for them to have the vision and make Bristol what it is,” Marcus Smith said. “Jerry and I are both blessed to carry on this opportunity and bring it all together.”
Jerry Punch, the ESPN auto racing and college football commentator, isn’t surprised the dream became a reality. He even quoted a colleague of his about what a special place Bristol Motor Speedway is in the world of sports.
“Brent Musburger once said if you’re a sports fan, on your bucket list, one of the 10 items has to be spending a Saturday in Bristol, Tennessee because you will not believe the atmosphere,” Punch said. “Guess what folks, not only do you come here for a NASCAR race, you come here for a college football game which is going to be the biggest, the best, the all-time record. That’s Bruton Smith.”