The Hokies were the underdog, the sight lines were going to be poor and Bristol is quite a hike from Richmond. However, I wasn’t going to miss a chance to be at the Battle of Bristol. Over 150,000 people, a night game on ESPN and the promises of a multiple-day tailgate? Sign me up ten times. So I went, I saw and I conquered the Battle at Bristol.
I took Friday off my day job so I could get a head start on the weekend and avoid late traffic to Bristol. This process started Thursday night with a trip to Blacksburg. I graduated from Virginia Tech just two years ago, so some friends remain in town with a free place to stay. It’s convenient and it allowed me to break up the trip to Bristol, at least.
It also gave me a gauge how invested Blacksburg as a whole was in this game. Turns out, very invested.
It helped that the folks who plan Business Horizons, the big fall career fair where Pamplin College of Business students try to get jobs and internships from big four accounting firms and such, shrewdly decided to schedule that for late in the week. Many companies staff their booths with recent Virginia Tech graduates. This created an influx of recent grads mixed with current undergrads on Thursday night preparing to head to Bristol. When Sharkey’s is four-deep at the bar after happy hour ends, that’s a pretty good sign that just about everyone in Blacksburg is locked and loaded.
Arriving in Blacksburg on Thursday night meant Friday didn’t have to be a crack-of-dawn wake-up to start the drive to Bristol. We took our time getting out of Blacksburg because camping means you have to buy supplies. We purchased 16 hot dogs and 16 bratwursts from the local Kroger, along with four cases of beer (cheers), two bags of ice and some other necessities. We were ready.
We pulled into Bristol around 4:30 p.m. and traffic was still pretty light. Cars were adorned with car flags and the classic “On my way to see the Hokies play” car magnet, but traffic was flowing. We pulled into our campsite - aptly named Bristol Campground and owned by Bill and Ruth Gaines (shout out to Bill and Ruth) - and, despite a lengthy line of cars being directed by a golf cart to their appropriate campsites, the process was completely painless. If the mission was to get to Bristol without hitting significant traffic, we crushed it.
Friday night brought the first round of brats on the grill along with a night of music. Many in our group ventured out to the Kenny Chesney concert via the free shuttles offered by the campground, while others remained behind to wait for stragglers, meet the neighbors and otherwise enjoy the campground. Yours truly remained behind to settle in and wait for stragglers, but all indications were that the Kenny Chesney concert was a great tune up for the weekend.
Luckily for us remaining behind at the campground, we got treated to a concert ourselves, as a small cover band took to a mini-stage about a 20-second walk from our site. The crowd at the stage wasn’t huge, probably not more than 50 people, but the battle between songs for vocal supremacy indicated just how jacked both fan bases were for this one.
Despite Tech fans persistent requests for “Enter Sandman,” the Tennessee-heavy band opted instead for a heavy dose of Dixieland Delight, Wagon Wheel (which they prefaced each time they played it with the classic ‘we hate playing this song’) and Rocky Top (three times). Tech fans were vocal with the “Lets Go! Hokies!” chant, while Tennessee responded vigorously with an “It’s great, to be, a Tennessee Vol!” chant.
Anyways, Friday was a pretty swell night, and aside from some classic back-and-forth at the small concert venue, both fan bases were happy to see other and just ready for Saturday.
We were camping, so when the sun came up, the day began. That meant a 7:00 a.m. kickoff for an 8:22 p.m. actual kickoff. We were all prepared for a long day. Bristol Campground provided a trailer of free, hot showers (again, shout out to Bill and Ruth), which allowed us to shake out the cobwebs from the night before. Tailgating then began in earnest with the second round of brats and dogs at 8:30 a.m. When it’s the only food you buy at Kroger, it serves adequately as every meal. Around the campground though, people were firing up the grills for bacon, sausages, eggs and whatever other delicacies they preferred.
We stayed at our campground until early in the afternoon, when we headed to Bristol Motor Speedway to continue pregame activities. The free shuttle we rode was split pretty evenly and got us the .9 miles to the speedway in no time at all.
Bristol Motor Speedway mandated tickets be worn with lanyards around the property, so pretty much as soon as you stepped onto Bristol property you passed through a security gate and were into the official game-sponsored activities. A brief chat upon entering this apparatus with former Blacksburg radio host Kyle Bailey, who was in town to attend the game, confirmed that, indeed, the place was massive and the field was far away.
Pretty much all around the perimeter of the stadium, they had things going on, whether it be shuttles shuffling people around, a concert stage, pop-up bars ready to serve $7 beers or signs that directed people where to go.
Unfortunately, our group neglected to take advantage of just the directional signs, and in looking for the fan fest area, went left. The fan fest area was to the right. We got to see the entirety of Bristol Motor Speedway’s perimeter before finally reaching the fan fest area, which had a big stage for the main concerts (Jon Pardi, Sam Hunt) and various bars, games, food vendors, etc.
I’ve never been to the Red River Shootout, which takes places during the Texas state fair, but I imagine it is a similar atmosphere around the stadium. There was even a Ferris Wheel.
We listened to both sets by Jon Pardi (a classic country singer) and Sam Hunt (a 2016-era “country” singer). After Hunt’s set concluded, we lounged around at one of the bars they set up right outside the stadium before heading in fairly early. I heard the horror stories of hours upon hours of waiting to get into the game, but we didn’t experience that when we entered the gates.
Saturday Night - GameTime
After entering the gates, our groups separated to pursue our respective seats, because when you’re in a stadium with 160,000 seats, that’s quite a daunting challenge. This time, we followed the signs correctly and arrived in our seats way up in the Pearson Terrace with over an hour to go before kickoff.
To give you an idea of how high up we were in the Pearson Terrace, if you look at that super cool image of the American flag being held up in the stands during the National Anthem, we were too high to have a sign to hold up. Where the top of the flag cuts off along one of the sidelines is where we were, oblivious to the people holding signs a few rows below us.
As the game drew closer, the stadium began to fill and you could feel the intensity rising. There was tons of excitement pulsing throughout the stadium as fans got to their seats and settled in.
This was also the ideal team to get beers and food. We managed to tackle this concession line quite easily before kickoff, but it was simply a lost cause after that point.
At one point during the week, I walked out to grab a beer and a hot dog, only to see the lines snaking for miles through the concourse. The lines were simply too long; I could not justify missing 10 minutes of this game for an $8 bud light and a hot dog.
All-in-all, Bristol Motor Speedway nailed it. Images of Peyton Manning and Michael Vick got serious attention from the crowds, while Jennifer Nettles’ national anthem was brilliant and Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA equally as cool.
My one gripe was the entrances. Both teams have pretty well-known entrances (Tennessee’s “Running Through the T” and Tech’s “Enter Sandman”) and neither team got their time to shine. I imagine they had quite the list of things to get through prior to kickoff and not a ton of time, but I was hopeful both would be able to squeeze them in.
Anyways, you know how the game went.
Afterward, we walked back to our campground without a hitch and probably with only one comment from a Volunteer fan. Most everyone was pretty exhausted by the time they returned to our site and everyone hit the hay fairly early.
Sunday’s drive from Bristol started at 9:00 a.m. It ended in Richmond at 5:00 p.m. Thank you, interstate-81. I have nothing more to say about that.