August 11, 2015
Excitement building for 2016's Battle at Bristol
NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Ty Dillon and track officials came to Blacksburg on Tuesday to promote the Virginia Tech-Tennessee football game

By Jimmy Robertson

As he sat in the television booth at Bristol Motor Speedway preparing for a race on one of the world’s most famous racetracks, Dr. Jerry Punch crafted an introduction to the race that essentially captured the essence of this speedway.

Shortly after ESPN went on the air, he delivered that intro, setting the scene in a way that football-loving viewers could relate. ESPN showed a shot of the speedway from a helicopter, and Punch welcomed fans to the “Rose Bowl of racetracks.”

“Bruton Smith [the owner of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., which owns the track] flew into our booth and said he loved it,” Punch said in an interview during a trip to Blacksburg earlier this summer. “Fortunately, we were off the air at the time, but I just thought it was a natural description. It’s a pretty special place.”

Bristol Motor Speedway actually will become a football venue next year when the Virginia Tech Hokies take on the neighboring Tennessee Volunteers – the two schools are just 236 miles apart – in a non-conference tilt billed as the “Battle at Bristol.” Track officials anticipate the Sept. 10, 2016 game breaks college football’s all-time single-game attendance mark. The current record occurred in 2013 when Michigan and Notre Dame played in front of 115,109 fans at Michigan Stadium.

The marketing campaign for the game took another step when track general manager Jerry Caldwell, NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Ty Dillon and Derek Vaughan, an engineer with Richard Childress Racing – and a Virginia Tech graduate (mechanical engineering, class of 1998) – along with other BMS officials came to Blacksburg on Tuesday to promote the game. The group toured Tech’s facilities, met with athletics department personnel, including AD Whit Babcock and head football coach Frank Beamer, and answered questions from the media. Dillon and Vaughan also caught passes and ran drills with assistant head coach Shane Beamer and some of Tech’s players

Even with the race more than a year away, ticket sales are going briskly. Each school received an allocation of 40,000 tickets, and Tennessee sold its allotment fairly quickly. Tech officials took a conservative approach, first offering its donors to The Virginia Tech Athletic Fund (aka, the Hokie Club) and season ticket holders the opportunity to place a $25 non-refundable deposit on each ticket. Contributors and season ticket holders have until Oct. 1 to place a deposit on tickets to the game and receive first consideration within the Hokie Club’s Point Priority System. Tech officials then plan on offering the remainder of its allotment – if any remain – to the general public at some point after the first of the year.

Speedway officials, which kept the remaining 70,000 for the nearly 160,000-seat venue, took a similar approach.

“They’re going great,” Caldwell said of ticket sales. “They continue to exceed all of our expectations. We’re encouraged. We opened up July 1, which was a milestone for us because we were only selling to our season ticket holders and now we’re selling to those that have [Sprint] Cup tickets as well. We’ve had a tremendous response to that, and now that window will close and then we’ll open to the general public with anything that is left. That will probably be at the end of this year or early next year.”

Caldwell said preparations for the game were on track – no pun intended. Track officials have attended the national title game, the Super Bowl, bowl games, and college football kickoff games to take notes and learn as much as possible about the running of a football game. Plus, the game-day operations at both Tech and Tennessee have offered insight.

The biggest concern will be getting the field ready. The speedway serves as the host for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race each August, which compresses the timetable. Track officials need to quickly wash the speedway, clean all the suites, and more importantly, remove the video scoreboard in the center of the infield and install a football field – basically within an eight-day span. They plan on hauling in 8,500 tons of rock in 400 truckloads to build the base of the field.

“Once the NASCAR haulers get out of the infield, we’ll go to work right then cleaning everything up and bringing in materials to build the field,” Caldwell said. “We’ve got to elevate parts of the infield 3.5 feet to get that field down.

“We’re in really good shape, though. It’s a daily conversation, and it’s always up on our list. It’s hard. We still have two major events that we put on each year. We put on 390 events a year, so we have a lot going on every day at Bristol Motor Speedway. To drop something of this magnitude in has been exciting, but also there’s a stress level there. We love doing things well and exceeding expectations. Thankfully, we’ve got the best team in all of sports putting it on. I’m glad we had three years to prepare. I’m excited to see it all coming together.”

Punch said not to doubt those running Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I think it’s the perfect facility for an event like this,” Punch said. “The seating is elevated, so you can see everything, and the suites can host your high-end donors. The track has a history of handling large groups of people. They’re used to parking and moving traffic along and concessions and all that. I think all that makes it the perfect venue for something like this.”

Count Vaughan as one of many Tech fans excited about the game. He grew up in Fries, Virginia, just 30 minutes or so from Beamer’s hometown of Fancy Gap. He remembers Tech playing Tennessee in the Gator Bowl when the Volunteers had some quarterback named Peyton Manning, and they beat the Hokies. Tech got revenge in the 2009 Chick-fil-A Bowl with a 37-14 win over the Vols.

Vaughan came to Tech right around the time when Smith started talking about pitting Virginia Tech and Tennessee in a football game at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Hokies were always receptive to the idea, but Tennessee preferred to play a national non-conference schedule, so the game never materialized – at least, until 2013, when Smith and the two sides hammered out the agreement.

“It’s been rumored for years,” Vaughan said. “It was like, ‘Man, is it going to happen, or is it just another rumor?’ I always thought it would be awesome. I remember being there in 1999 when Dale Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte to win the race, and half of the crowd is cheering for Earnhardt and the other half is booing him. Then, I thought about how cool it would be to have 160,000 people watching college football.

“When that [the game] was announced, I was ecstatic. This is awesome. Anyone in Southwest Virginia is for Tennessee or Virginia Tech, and for years, we had to hear about Tennessee winning the national championship [in 1998] and all that. It’s going to be nice to go in there and knock them off. At least, that’s the plan.”

Punch is another one who expressed excitement over the game. For years, he worked as part of ESPN’s NASCAR coverage, but NBC took over ESPN’s portion of the NASCAR schedule last year, and Punch decided to remain with ESPN as a college football and college basketball play-by-play broadcaster.

Like most fans, he likes big games – and this game possesses that potential.

“Butch [Jones, Tennessee’s head coach] is bringing Tennessee back, and Frank Beamer is just so revered and respected,” Punch said. “I’d put Frank Beamer in a small group of great coaches like [Tom] Osborne, [Bobby] Bowden and [Joe] Paterno, coaches who win with class and dignity. A lot of coaches have won, but Frank has run a clean program and done it the right way. When you ask people about Frank Beamer, they talk about his morals and ethics first before they talk about his accomplishments.

“I’m sure Frank’s had opportunities to leave over the years, but he wouldn’t do it. He was home.”

In a year, Tech’s Hall of Fame coach is set to coach in a game that could set college football’s all-time single-game attendance record. He could become the envy of college coaches throughout the country.

Punch knows this, too. Years ago, at a time when the game was often rumored, Punch traveled to Michigan to fill in for an ill Brent Musburger before a football game at Michigan Stadium. The Friday night before the game, then-Michigan coach Lloyd Carr asked Punch about the rumors of a football game at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I’d love to play in it,” Carr told him.

The next day, Michigan’s sports information director handed Punch a handwritten note from Carr.

“He wrote that he was serious and that if I heard anything more about a football game there, then to let him know,” Punch said. “He certainly understood the impact even back then.

“This is the type of game at the beginning of a season that rivals how the season ends, and I think that’s great. This is the type of game that’s a win-win for the programs, a win for college football, and probably most importantly, a win for college football fans.”

Tech season ticket holders and contributors interested in being a part of history can purchase tickets to the Battle at Bristol by clicking here, or calling the Tech Athletics Ticket Office at 1-800 VA TECH4.

For updates on Virginia Tech football, follow the Hokies on Twitter and on Instagram @vthokiefootball Instagram

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