By Matt Crossman
For years, college football at Bristol felt like the snipe hunt of the sports world in the Southeast. I wondered if the people talking about it were pulling my leg, trying to get me to mention it in print so they and the writers they duped before could laugh at me. But it had the faintest hint of possibility... and would be so cool if they pulled it off... and track owner Bruton Smith is just crazy enough to try and rich enough to lose a fortune doing so if need be. And so here we are, the game scheduled for 2016, and all that is missing are flashlights and a mad dash through the woods at night and shouts of "I got one!"
However big of a deal you think Tennessee playing against Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway will be, however much hype and craziness you think is possible, quadruple it. Bruton Smith is P.T. Barnum after ol' P.T. guzzled a half gallon of jet fuel spiked with Red Bull while laying on a bed of $100 bills he is trying to figure out what to do with. Burn them? Tie them in bundles and juggle them? Make origami racecars?
The way to get a good story when Smith is involved is to stand there and wait for him to talk. He likes reporters. I saw him pull up outside the media center at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday, and a reporter jumped on his windshield and pretended Smith was running him over. Smith laughed. When he holds press conferences he almost dares reporters to ask controversial questions so he can give answers that will cause headlines for days. Someone needs to ask him if the guys who play in this college football game should be paid because (guessing here) not only would he say yes, he'd offer to foot the bill himself.
I don't want to say everything Smith does is oversized. But the TV screen at his Charlotte Motor Speedway is bigger than the friggin' White House. One of Bruton's track presidents is Eddie Gossage, who promotes races at Texas Motor Speedway with all the subtlety of a 3,400-pound racecar barreling into a corner at 180 miles per hour. Gossage has lived in Tennessee, so he might have an idea or 20 about how to draw attention to this game.
The game will almost certainly set a new college football attendance record. The track holds 160,000, and that number could go quite a bit higher when Bristol adds stands to fill the space between where the field ends and the regular seating begins. The current record is "only" 115,109, set at Michigan Stadium.
A picture circulated on Twitter Thursday of Neyland Stadium photoshopped sitting inside Bristol, and it reminded me of those pictures of Muggsy Bogues standing next to Manute Bol.
Bristol has a stronger sense of place than any sporting venue I've been to. Not because it feels more historic or mystical, but because it's bigger while making you feel trapped at the same time. The stands encircle the track and rise seemingly straight up. Standing inside feels like standing at the bottom of a well. The first time I went there I got dizzy simply looking up. NASCAR driver Kurt Busch once said the track "circumferences" you, which somehow manages to make no sense whatsoever and be exactly perfect at the same time.
The effect outside is nearly as discombobulating. ESPN's Ryan McGee, who is simultaneously one of the best college football writers and the best NASCAR writer in the country (and a Tennessee grad to boot), has compared approaching Bristol to approaching the Death Star in Star Wars. The closer you get, the more you wonder, what in the heck is that doing here?
As for the matchup, it's perfect. Tennessee had to be one of the teams, of course. And picking Virginia Tech as the opponent is a stroke of genius. The track sits in the corner of the Volunteer State, very close to the Virginia border, roughly halfway between the two schools. Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer is a huge NASCAR fan. He will become the only man in history to attend races there as a kid, to serve as an honorary starter, to race there in a celebrity event and to coach college football there.
Will any of this do anything to, you know, provide a good football game? Who cares? The quality of the game is beside the point. This is about the pomp and pageantry of creating a must-go event, and the only sport that does that better than NASCAR is college football.
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