BRISTOL, Tenn. - The fans began arriving before sunrise.
By 7:30 p.m., Bristol Motor Speedway was a sea of orange and maroon.
While the lazy skeptics moaned over traffic, sightlines and long waits, the Pilot Flying J Battle at Bristol was a success by nearly all standards.
The sellout crowd of 156,990 witnessed an interesting tussle between regional rivals Virginia Tech and the University of Tennessee.
As for atmosphere, a fan could not ask for much more. For the first time in recent memory, the massive stadium actually rocked following touchdowns.
For the first act of Bristol theater, NASCAR icons Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were interviewed on the set of ESPN College GameDay. The lively show was capped when quirky analyst Lee Corso donned a huge UT helmet after picking the Vols to win.
The pre-game toss included Tennessee folk hero Peyton Manning along with the ultimate general in Speedway Motorsports Inc. boss and BMS owner Bruton Smith. It was Smith who conjured up the ambitious idea of a marriage between football and NASCAR 20 years ago.
Admittedly it was bit surreal watching a football game in this stock car racing haven, but fans had the option to take it all in from the world’s largest, center-hung television dubbed Colossus. Talk about wide-screen TV.
It was fitting that both teams rely on offenses that move at warp speed and are directed by dual-threat quarterbacks.
The short-attention span millennial generation has grown up with smart phones that provide instant news and splashy video games that offer simulated versions of reality.
The Battle at Bristol not only broke the record for a college sporting event of any type, it attracted one of the largest gatherings to ever witness a sports event in the world.
That’s big stuff for a small city. Just think of the economic impact for a region that has suffered due to the decline in the coal industry.
High school and college football have long provided a source of hope and inspiration to the resilient residents of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
The makeup of Saturday’s crowd appeared to have a 70-30 breakdown in favor of Tennessee. But both sides were rowdy from the kickoff until the final whistle.
To the delight of Tech fans, former Hokie head coach Frank Beamer was introduced on the field after the first quarter. And the man who helped turn Lane Stadium in Blacksburg into a mecca, quarterback Michael Vick, supported his former team from the sidelines.
Tradition-rich marching bands, fireworks and five-star athletes, the Battle at Bristol had it all. Most importantly, the fun factor was off the charts. For Tennessee fans, the sight of quarterback Joshua Dobbs carving up another defense with his legs and arm was delightful.
There will another college football game at BMS next Saturday between East Tennessee State University and Western Carolina.
Beyond that, the future is limitless. As always when Bruton Smith is involved, the sequel to the Battle at Bristol will be cinematic in scope.
And rest assured, other track general managers, promoters and venue operators will look to the follow the example of Bristol Motor Speedway and stage sports spectaculars.
For now, BMS holds the record for attendance. In future generations, that crowd of 156,990 will expand to untold numbers.