Speedway Motorsports CEO Bruton Smith created a stir in the college football world in 1998 and 2005 when he envisioned a game between the University of Tennessee and Virginia Tech in the infield of Bristol Motor Speedway.
Smith even offered each school $20 million in 2005 to make the matchup more enticing.
Now, the grandiose marriage between football and NASCAR appears to be real.
Various national media outlets reported Wednesday evening that UT and Virginia Tech have agreed to play at the 160,000-seat short track cathedral in September 2016.
Moments before the news broke Wednesday, BMS officials alerted media of a Monday morning press conference at the track involving Speedway Motorsports and BMS executives along with a “to-be-announced” panel of guests. The release promised a “major announcement.”
Within minutes, the news flash exploded across the social media universe with fans of NASCAR, Virginia Tech and Tennessee expressing delight.
No official from Virginia Tech or Tennessee confirmed plans of a game. And Bristol Motor Speedway vice president of communication Kevin Triplett declined to elaborate.
“We cannot comment on rumors or innuendo. We hope to see you Monday,” Triplett said.
The previous record for a college football game was established this September when 115,109 fans attended the Notre Dame at Michigan contest in Ann Arbor . The proposed UT and Virginia Tech matchup, which could possibly shatter all records for a team sport in the United States , would not be the first football game played at BMS.
On Sept. 2, 1961, the Philadelphia Eagles earned a 17-10 win over the Washington Redskins in an NFL preseason contest on the grounds.
An estimated crowd of 8,500 – a disappointing number according to media reports from the time – witnessed that Saturday night matchup. Future Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen threw two TD passes for the Eagles, who were the defending NFL champions.
Bristol , Va. , native and Virginia High School graduate Alex Walls certainly has an interesting perspective on the Hokies -UT rivalry.
Walls was the kicker at UT from 1999-2002 and finished with 133 career extra points and 53 field goals. He also knows many from his hometown who are in the Hokies ’ fan contingent.
“I’ve got several friends that are big Virginia Tech supporters and alumni,” Walls said. “I know people would be excited.”
Walls once kicked at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa , Ala. , The Swamp in Gainesville , Fla. , and Sanford Stadium in Athens , Ga. He said the place dubbed as the World’s Fastest Half-Mile would be a unique place to take the field for any player.
“That’s history right there,” Walls said. “That would be unbelievable.”
Former Virginia Tech offensive lineman Luke Owens, a Grundy, Va., native, was among those pumped up when he saw posts about the story Wednesday on Facebook .
“I think it will be humongous,” Owens said. “I think no matter how many seats you put in, it will sell out due to the sheer number of Tech and Tennessee fans in the area. I don’t think it’s just a great thing for the area, but it’s a great thing for college football. You have a top-notch team from the [Atlantic Coast Conference] and a top-notch team from the [Southeastern Conference].
“I would like to see it become a yearly thing.”
Owens started for Tech in the Hokies ’ 46-29 loss to Florida State in the 2000 BCS National Championship Game. A crowd of 79,280 saw that game, but the fan count would be much larger if a game at BMS materialized.
“I think this game would be kind of like none other,” Owens said.
Longtime NASCAR crew chief Chris Carrier and Bristol , Tenn. , native is equally enthused. Carrier, who grew up less than two miles from BMS, has come to expect big things at his home track.
“I’ve been in this sport over three decades and I still get a chill up my spine every time I walk into the place,” said Carrier, who now works at the Turner Scott Motorsports Nationwide Series team. “In my mind, Bristol is the greatest race track on the face of the earth. Track officials have always been able to think out of the box, so I’m not surprised with this news.”
An avid football fan, Carrier said he’s fascinated by the ambitious concept and the complexity of staging it.
“I know how loyal Tennessee and Virginia Tech fans are, and I think this would be great for the city,” he said. “I’m anxious to hear all the details, such as what kind of playing surface will be used, but I think the potential for this would be pretty big. I hope that I can get a sideline ticket.”
Veteran NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Eric McClure of Chilhowie , Va. , also feels that BMS would serve as a fitting stage for an historic college football showdown.
“It's incredible to see two major universities and athletic programs pay proper respect and understanding of what the speedway means to our area and its presence nationally,” said McClure, via a direct message on Twitter.
“This football game is a huge boost not only for the local economy but for the sports fan like myself. People have been wanting to see it for several years. The setting will be unlike any other in major football. I certainly hope I am able to attend.”
The last meeting between Virginia Tech and Tennessee in football came in the 2009 Chick- fil -A Bowl in Atlanta, with Tech recording a 37-14 win. UT defeated the Hokies 45-23 in the in the 1994 Gator Bowl.
Tennessee and VT have not played a regular-season game since 1937.
In a Roanoke Times story Wednesday, VT defensive coordinator Bud Foster shared his experiences of attending events at BMS.
“I like it. Great track,” he said. “First race I ever went to, I got stuck in the infield. That’s before they had the tunnel. Loudest thing I ever heard in my life.”
“It’d be crazy. It’d be like playing at Lane Stadium, only double. That’d be great.”
First-year Tennessee head coach Butch Jones actually served as the grand marshal of Food City 500 at BMS in March. While enjoying the race as a fan, Jones said then it was unlikely he would ever return to the track to coach a football game. He cited scheduling challenges.
“The problem is, in the ever-changing landscape of college football, scheduling is a tricky process,” Jones said at the time.
Tech officials found an opening in their schedule when a home-and-home series involving the Hokies and Wisconsin was pushed back to 2019-2020. The Sept. 2016 schedule for UT currently included a Sept. 3 home game against Connecticut , followed by a trip to Nebraska on Sept. 10.
In addition to passionate fan bases and rich traditions, another attraction to this dream scenario between the Hokies and Vols game is location.
Virginia Tech and Tennessee are both located along the Interstate 81 corridor. The campuses are less than three and a half hours apart with Bristol roughly in the middle.
Staff writer Tim Hayes contributed to this report.
email@example.com | Twitter: @ Greg_BHCSports | (276) 645-2544