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Fans prepare for Battle at Bristol, football's biggest showdown

Bigger Game, Bigger Numbers

19 days to turn the speedway into a football stadium

1,500 workers to build and prepare the stadium over the course of two weeks

200 workers to clean the stadium after the last race

10,600 tons of rock and sand used to build the field’s base

100,200 square feet of installed turf space

180,000 pounds each of both silica and rubber infill in turf space

4,290 linear feet of turf seaming tape used to install the field

66 pounds of thread used to sew the field in place

21 Guest Services locations will be located throughout the venue

3 million ounces of water to serve in stands

2.5 million ounces of Pepsi product ordered to serve in stands

455,000 16-ounce beers ordered to serve in stands

19 law enforcement agencies and contractors will keep the crowd safe

240 buses will keep the crowd flowing

5,000 seats added to the infield

1,000 workers will be on-site on game day

Like many Tennessee Volunteers fans, Robert Arnold, 65, inherited his love of college football from his father. The two followed the Vols' escapades on the radio through the late 1950s, but it wasn't until October 1960 that the young Arnold got to see his heroes in action.

They did not disappoint. From his seat in Shields-Watkins Field, now Knoxville's Neyland Staduim, Arnold and his father watched in awe as the Vols dusted Alabama 20-7.

High off the big win and the energy from the crowd, Arnold left the stadium with stars in his eyes. Eager to see a game at the professional level, the boy looked up at his father and asked, "When are you gonna take me to a big game?"

The man looked down at his son and smiled.

"It doesn't get any bigger than Tennessee and Alabama," his father said.

Though Arnold hadn't understood then the rivalry between the two teams, his father's point went beyond the game. He was telling his son what many of us already know:

In Tennessee, nothing is bigger than college football. And with the Vols about to take on Virginia Tech's Hokies at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sept. 10 in a game expected to be the largest attended in the history of football, the sport is about to get a whole lot bigger — at least for one night.

The Battle

After almost 20 years of whispers, rumors and speculation, Bristol Motor Speedway is gearing up to host what could be the largest crowd to ever watch a football game. The highly anticipated Sept. 10 event, touted by the race track as "The Battle at Bristol," is expected to draw more than 150,000 fans, shattering the world record for largest attendance at any college or professional football game, which currently sits at 115,109*.

The Vols haven't faced off against the Hokies since the 2009 Chick-fil-A Bowl.

"I don't know that you'd be able to have this kind of intensity around a game at Bristol if it wasn't these two teams," says Chris Fuller, senior associate athletics director of external operations at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

Tennessee fans are no doubt itching for a rematch after Virginia Tech's 37-14 victory seven years ago, and Bristol Motor Speedway is the perfect venue for the brawl. Lying on the border between the two states, the race track is about 115 miles from Knoxville, Tenn., home of the Vols, and about 130 miles from Blacksburg, Va., Hokie territory.

"Every other car you pass [in Tennessee has] an orange 'T' sticker on it, and if you drive to the other side of Bristol every other car you pass has a Hokies sticker on it," says Jerry Caldwell, the speedway's general manager. "So it's only natural that you look to those two fan bases and those two organizations to make history together."

The idea to host the historic Tennessee-Virginia Tech matchup at the speedway originated around 1997 from the minds of Bruton Smith, the speedway's executive chairman, and Jeff Byrd, the NASCAR short track's late president.

Hoping to give Vols and Hokies fans a well-deserved showdown, Smith and Byrd tried to get the two universities on board with their plan, but, as Caldwell says, "the stars never aligned."

At least, not until 2012.

Everything changed when Smith's son, Marcus, now president of Bristol Motor Speedway's parent company, Speedway Motorsports, had a conversation with entertainment executives about unique events to draw in crowds. After hearing about extraordinary sports attractions — such as the Carrier Classic, a basketball game played on the deck of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, and The Big Chill at the Big House, an attendance-record-breaking ice hockey game played on a football field — Marcus Smith knew it was time to resurrect his father's idea.

So he called Caldwell at Bristol Motor Speedway, and the two began their research. They hired engineers, conducted studies, assessed costs, and once they realized the endeavor was possible, they reached out to UTK and Virginia Tech for the game that could make history.

Though Byrd, who passed away in 2010, will not be able to see his dream materialize, Caldwell believes the late president would have been proud of his successors' efforts. "He would be proud that we were able to showcase Bristol Motor Speedway to the rest of the world because this team that we have here at Bristol, they're so good at what they do."

The Stadium

Housing a record-breaking crowd is no easy feat, and the crew at Bristol Motor Speedway has already begun the arduous task of transforming the so-called "Last Great Colosseum," nicknamed for its resemblance to the Roman Colosseum, into football's greatest battlefield.

The 19-day process began on Aug. 20, right after NASCAR's well-attended Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race. As soon as the festivities died down and race fans left the stadium, an army of workers swarmed the infield with cranes and other heavy equipment.

After rolling a heavy-duty fabric barrier over the infield to prevent materials from sinking into the speedway's drains, the crews dumped 450 truckloads of rock and manufactured sand onto the infield to make up the field base. With the help of site-measurement technology, the crews then compacted the materials, ensuring that the entirety of the base rises more than three feet and is level in all places.

When all inspections were complete, workers spread 100,200 square feet of synthetic turf over the base materials, raising the field another 1.5 inches. Then they placed sidelines, hashes and yard measures.

While the field was being constructed, multiple seating companies installed more than 5,000 seats just outside the end zones, and existing structures were cleared out and converted into team and referee locker rooms.

In the last few days leading up to the big showdown, artists from UTK and Virginia Tech will paint end zones and team logos, prepare campsites around the stadium for the coming visitors and construct a massive stage for Bristol's Tailgate Party, the battle's pre-game concert featuring Kenny Chesney, among other country musicians.

Though the speedway's new four-sided video screen was installed in April, its construction was instigated by the upcoming Battle at Bristol, says Caldwell, making it just as noteworthy as the on-field installments.

Aptly named "The Colossus," the video screens are as large as a three-story building and boast 428 stadium speakers. Proudly suspended 150 feet in the air, The Colossus is the world's largest outdoor, center-hung video system of its kind, and it will no doubt make every seat at the battle the best seat in the house.

The Team

It's no secret that the Vols have been struggling to recapture the glory accrued during the early days of former Coach Phillip Fulmer nearly two decades ago. After winning the Southeastern Conference Championship in 1997 and claiming the national title in 1998, it seemed the team had nowhere to go but up. But the early 2000s proved the opposite to be true.

While the team caught occasional glimpses of its former valor with SEC East wins in 2001 and 2004, the following seasons were marked with disappointment: 2005 saw the beginning of Tennessee's 11-year losing streak against Florida, 2007 saw the beginning of the team's nine consecutive losses to Alabama and 2011 saw the beginning of the Vols' inability to defeat an SEC West team.

Despite the losses, Vols fans have not lost hope. They still drop everything to see their team play in away games — even bowl games that require extremely long drives or expensive flights, says Tennessee's athletics director.

"We owe a great deal to our fans," says Fuller. "They've been with us through some pretty lean years, and they've stayed with us in a way that I don't think any other fan base in America would."

Now, with Tennessee starting to inch its way back into top-10 spots on preseason rankings, and with the stellar leadership of coach Butch Jones, fans are getting excited for what could be the Vols' comeback season.

Last year, the team managed to end its losing streaks against Georgia and Missouri, finish off the season with six consecutive wins for the first time since 2003 and defeat Northwestern University to take home the Outback Bowl trophy.

In other words, the Vols are back, baby. But that was to be expected — at least to lifelong fans like Arnold.

Since Arnold started following the Vols with his father, he has watched his team ride highs and hit lows, many of which he documented in his book Through Orange Colored Glasses: Memories of a Big Orange Fan. Arnold watched as his team rose to prominence after two or three years under coach Doug Dickey in the 1960s, watched it claim the throne again two or three years into coach Johnny Majors' era, and he is sure the Vols will dominate once more now that Jones has reached the same period in his career.

"There's no doubt that whether we lose at Bristol or what, we are heading in the right direction," Arnold says. "We're back among the elite programs in the United States."

The Fans

While the Battle at Bristol will give fans a faceoff between two teams that haven't shared a field since 2009, it will also give them the large-scale event these diehards deserve. With the Vols' home, Neyland Stadium, able to hold only 102,455 — making it the fifth-largest college stadium in the country — some fans are already in awe just trying to picture the game.

"It's unbelievable," says Ray Fugate, a longtime fan who fell in love with the Vols during the 1985 Sugar Bowl. "I don't think it'll really sink in until we get there and see all of the people."

Though some fans have expressed concerns about the views from their seat in the vast Bristol Motor Speedway complex, all agree that the excitement of being in the largest football crowd to date, and being able to watch the game from the massive Colossus TV, would more than make up for less-than-spectacular visual access to the field.

The sentiment is especially true for former Vols quarterback Andy Kelly, who will be among the crowd of 150,000, listening to the roaring fans and remembering his days on the field from 1989-1991.

"That's a special feeling," Kelly says of hearing the crowd cheer at Tennessee games. "I still get goosebumps it still brings a lump in my throat."

Above all, what fans seem to be looking forward to the most is the camaraderie. Fugate, a season ticket holder, says he loves attending Tennessee matches because of the "orange atmosphere" — which he knows will be doubled at Bristol. Kelly says he'll especially be on the lookout for some of his former teammates and other Vols alumni, who he says have become like brothers to him.

"It's the best feeling in the world. [People will] strike up a conversation with you and introduce their kids to you and talk about their whole lives and open up just because of the color jersey you wear," says Fugate, who will attend the big game with his wife and his 10-year-old daughter, who is now learning all the positions on the field due to her parents' indoctrination.

"She doesn't quite get as upset as her dad, but she still seems like she has a vested interest in the game now," Fugate laughs.

Perhaps Sept. 10 will change that, when Fugate's daughter attends the big game and watches in wonder with stars in her eyes.

* The current record of 115,109 was set on Sept. 7, 2013 at Michigan Stadium when the Michigan Wolverines defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 41-30.

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