Track and officials from both universities formally announced the plans Monday amid confetti and fireworks during a festive news conference at the 52-year-old racetrack. The game is scheduled for Sept. 10, 2016.
“I full well believe we’ll play in front of the largest crowd to ever watch or have watched a football game — that’s college and pro,” Virginia Tech athletic director Jim Weaver said.
Bristol Motor Speedway general manager and executive vice president Jerry Caldwell said seating capacity for the game would be in excess of 150,000. The track 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.
Bristol’s proximity to both campuses made this event a rumored possibility since the 1990s. Weaver remembers discussing it with former Volunteers athletic directors Doug Dickey and Mike Hamilton.
Caldwell said track officials explored the feasibility of a game again early this year. He then approached Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart and Weaver.
After all that talking and speculation, the game’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.”
“It’s a chance and opportunity to be part of something extremely special that will live with you for a lifetime,” said Tennessee coach Butch Jones, who was grand marshal of the Food City 500 at the Bristol speedway in March.
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer drove on the Bristol speedway as part of a charity celebrity race in 2009 and remembers sitting in the Bristol bleachers watching races as a high school student.
“Next to Lane Stadium, this is my favorite sports venue, I promise you,” Beamer said.
The game was announced amid great fanfare, though a scheduling conflict prevented BMS track owner and president Bruton Smith from attending. Beamer, Weaver, Jones, Hart and track officials sat on a giant stage on the racetrack’s infield. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam offered videotaped messages.
“We want to make this a huge, huge deal,” Smith had told The Associated Press. “Our goal is to set a world record for the largest attended football game in the world.”
To the left of the stage, numbers and yard markers were painted on the infield to create an asphalt football field, complete with artificial turf end zones featuring the Tennessee checkerboard on one side and Virginia Tech lettering on the other end. To the right were race cars in Virginia Tech and Tennessee school colors bearing the number ‘16.
“If you have an opportunity to play in a venue that’s going to set the all-time record for football at every level — the largest crowd potentially to ever witness a football game — well, you can talk about that for the rest of your life,” Hart said.
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.
Bristol is scheduled to host NASCAR races just two weeks before this football game. Only until after that’s complete can the football field be installed, with 8,500 tons of rock as its base.
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.
There also were logistical issues involving the schools.
Tennessee had been scheduled to play Nebraska in 2016 as part of a home-and-home series that has now been pushed back to 2026 and 2027.
All those hurdles help explain why this game took so many years to become reality.
“There was a collective willingness to prioritize this and make it happen,” Hart said. “It wasn’t an easy trip that we took. There were times you said, ‘Well, no wonder this has never happened.’ But we got through those rough spots and this is a great day.”