Big Orange Caravan wraps up at Bristol Motor Speedway

Big Orange Caravan wraps up at Bristol Motor Speedway

May 18th, 2016 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Celia Westmoreland has her photo made with Tennessee football coach Butch Jones during the Chattanooga caravan stop on May 5.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

BRISTOL, Tenn. — The football game at the NASCAR track that always seemed so far away is no longer that far away.

Tennessee's contest with Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway — known as the "Pilot Flying-J Battle at Bristol" for sponsorship reasons — was announced in October 2013, but now it's less than four months away.

On Sept. 10 the Volunteers and Hokies finally will play the game that's been talked about for two decades.

The Big Orange Caravan wrapped up at the track Tuesday night.

"It's really remarkable," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "You go up and sit in the stands and you look out and you see this football field. It becomes so small when you look at the surroundings around it with the track and in the stands.

"It's something that has been in the makings for a number of years, and (BMS general manager) Jerry Caldwell and (Tennessee athletic director) Dave Hart have done a tremendous job of really setting the vision with all the work that goes on behind the scenes.

"You look at the scoreboard over the field — it's going to be a unique experience for our fans, obviously for our players and being part of something that's the biggest ever. It's something very, very special. This is why you come to the University of Tennessee, to be able to experience events like this."

Tennessee men's basketball coach Rick Barnes was able to get a bit of the real Bristol experience before Tuesday's stop as he took a Chevrolet Camaro pace car around the track for a few laps, topping out at 85 mph.

Even with the yard lines, hash marks and end zones painted on the infield pavements, it's sometimes hard to envision a football game taking place at a race track, and that underscores how much work will be done by representatives from Tennessee, Virginia Tech and the speedway before September.

Complicating matters is that Bristol's annual August night races leave 20 days for speedway personnel to turn the venue into a suitable host for a college football game.

Any concerns Jones might have about the locations of his team's locker rooms, the coaching booth for his assistants and other game-day changes in routine have been deferred to those working behind the scenes to ready Bristol for the game. Much of those responsibilities have fallen to Hart, associate athletic directors Mike Vollmar, Mike Ward and Jon Gilbert and football operations director Chris Spognardi.

Spognardi said he's been to Bristol 10 times in the past two-plus years and had a return trip to the track scheduled today.

"I think 'Spags,' as we all know him, his car is on autopilot coming here," Jones joked of Spognardi, his longtime righthand man, "because of the numerous times that he's been here just making sure that everything is set and ready to go."

Two of the infield buildings will be transformed into locker rooms.

The field will be constructed with truckloads of rock, dirt and artificial turf to create a level playing field raised four feet above the pavement in the infield.

Soundproof glass had to be installed in the luxury boxes that will double as the coaches' booth.

Sight lines for fans — the hope is attendance exceeds 150,000 — will be improved by the enormous high-definition "Colossus TV" screens suspended like a center-hung scoreboard above the infield.

"Right now my thoughts are on Appalachian State and getting this football team ready for the summer," Jones said. "I really kind of let them do the nuances with this game. It'll be different for the coaches being in the press box. It'll be different from a sight-line perspective.

"When we get to the summer months, we'll do some things to make sure that we practice for it, but right now our focus is on App State."

In 2015 the Mountaineers went 11-2, losing only to national runner-up Clemson and Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State, while Virginia Tech hired Justin Fuente from Memphis to replace legendary coach Frank Beamer.

"We're going to have to start fast and we have to be a mature and veteran football team," Jones said, "which we should now (with) that luxury to have the older players kind of mentor the younger players about what's at stake.

"Everything is about have you learned your lessons, and what do you take from last year with all the heightened expectations last year. How do we grow? How are we a better football team and better football program from last year's experiences?"

The Vols, of course, have no way of preparing for the experience awaiting them here the second Saturday in September.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.


Loading...