Eddie Gossage went to the Battle at Bristol as a fan, not as the president of Texas Motor Speedway. He wanted to blend into the record crowd and find out how people really felt about the oddity that was Tennessee and Virginia Tech playing a football game at one of his Speedway Motorsports sister tracks.
“I heard nothing but over-the-top praise and excitement,” he said. “It was electric. I didn’t hear a single complaint, nothing but just how spectacular it was. I talked to a bunch of fans – they had no idea who I was, so I just listened to them – and they all loved it.”
Right then and there, on Sept. 10, when Bristol Motor Speedway drew a crowd of 156,990, most ever to attend a football game, Gossage’s wheels started turning again. Back in 2002, his track in Fort Worth pitched this same idea to Texas and Oklahoma. The Sooners, he said, were interested. The Longhorns were not.
But a lot has changed in almost a decade and a half, including the decision-makers at Texas, and now Bristol has demonstrated that football at a race track can work. Both the Hokies and Volunteers received more than $4 million for participating and 5.8 million viewers tuned in on television, making it the most-watched college game of Week 2.
“It really gets me excited,” Gossage said, “and I would hope it causes the athletic directors at schools like Texas and Oklahoma to get a little excited as well and realize that they could do something truly special. To me, Bristol just gave proof positive that the concept is legitimate, has legs, and is something that more colleges should consider doing.
“It’s not something you would do often, but for these special games, whether it’s a national championship game or – in our case, in this market – Texas-Oklahoma, the Red River Rivalry, those kind of special events is what I think might best suit this concept.”
That got us thinking here at SEC Country. What other pairings of college football and NASCAR tracks would draw massive crowds and national interest?
To dream up a few, in addition to Gossage’s idea and the very real potential for a sequel at Bristol: Auburn-Alabama at Talladega Superspeedway, Florida-Georgia at Daytona International Speedway, Clemson-South Carolina at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Georgia-Georgia Tech at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Oh, and Gossage isn’t married to a Sooners-Longhorns matchup at his place, knowing their long history with the Cotton Bowl. He’s open to adding SEC flavor and helping renew the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry that died after 118 meetings in 2011. Perhaps a massive payday and the national hype that would surround those programs playing at a race track would be incentive enough to get back together.
“I think everybody that lives in Texas would love to see them play again. It’s a crime they don’t,” Gossage said. “That would be a perfect game for us, because that’s a special one. That was one you always looked forward to. Maybe to revive it, something like this would help.”
Something like the chance to make history. See, Gossage wants to go big or not at all, and he figures a record-shattering crowd of 200,000-plus is doable at Texas Motor Speedway.
While his and almost every other track in the country face bigger challenges than Bristol – which was already essentially a giant football stadium with a track inside and thus easier to configure for a game – the need to build temporary seating also provides an opportunity.
“The beauty,” Gossage said, “is you can make it whatever size you want. Remember, in Texas, you gotta do things big. Bigger than anybody else. I look at that crowd at Bristol, which was spectacular and a massive achievement, but I wouldn’t be interested in doing it unless we’re going to be bigger. So it’s how big do the schools want it? How much would they want to beat the record by?”
This is where Gossage launches into his spiel about having a TV screen that is 220 feet wide and 110 feet tall, nearly twice the size of Jerry Jones’ monstrosity. Contrary to popular belief that the Dallas Cowboys have the biggest TV in the world, “it’s not even the biggest TV in town,” Gossage gloats.
“See, kind of our calling card here is we’re creative guys,” he continues. “We like doing the unusual that nobody else expects.”
When he says we, he means billionaire Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, which owns Bristol and Texas as well as the Atlanta, Charlotte and Las Vegas Motor Speedways, among others. Gossage thinks all of those are set up in such a way that they could be converted for a football game. (Pac-12 title game in Vegas, anybody?)
The question is whether other tracks around the country are similarly able – and more importantly, willing – to attempt such a thing. Will we ever see an Iron Bowl at Talladega, which once had a capacity of 175,000 and could certainly challenge any attendance record with temporary seating?
“We have actually, at one point, had a group go to (Auburn and Alabama) and talk to them about that,” Talladega chairman Grant Lynch said. “But see, the difference between our place and Bristol is you can put Bristol inside Talladega probably six or eight times. You can put every SEC football stadium inside Talladega Superspeedway.”
With a front-stretch grandstand that is eight-tenths of a mile long, there would be a lot of bad seats, he said. That track would have to essentially build half a stadium’s worth of temporary seats and “that would get pretty darn expensive pretty quick.”
Also, when International Speedway Corporation – Talladega’s parent company, which also owns Daytona – put out feelers two or three years ago, the response from Auburn and Alabama “wasn’t real positive.”
The Tigers’ athletic director declined comment for this story and the Tide did not respond to a request. Likewise, the ADs at Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M elected not to make a statement on the subject.
Had his bosses asked him before pitching a speedway Iron Bowl, though, Lynch would’ve steered them away from it.
“I would’ve said, ‘Well, guys, I don’t think this works as well at our place as it does at a smaller, half-mile race track,’” he said. “It’s not just the stadium you have to build around the rest of the field. Then you have to get all the restrooms and everything on that side of the race track, and all of ours are on the other side, scattered along eight-tenths of a mile. So that would be pretty expensive. It’s doable at a facility as big as ours and Daytona, but it would be way more expensive than it was to do at Bristol. Way, way, way more expensive.”
He admits it is an “interesting concept, though,” and that such an event – 100 miles from both Auburn and Alabama’s campuses – could probably draw 100,000 fans from each side. That sounds like the biggest sporting event in the history of the state. The SEC even.
So why not give that a go?
“Bruton Smith’s company tends to be a little more willing to get outside the box and try different things,” Lynch said. “We’re a little bit more pragmatic on our side of the street.”
Even so, he said he’s seen a mock-up of sister track Daytona International Speedway configured for football. So somebody at the top must at least be thinking about it. Florida and Georgia already play their annual rivalry game at a neutral site in Jacksonville, so why not at a race track?
“We’re always open to conversations,” Daytona president Chip Wile said. “We just spent $400 million reinventing Daytona International, so continuing to look for additional content is always on our radar. It’s something we’re actively looking for. What Bristol did was really neat and really impressive.”
But Daytona hasn’t yet had “any real conversations” with schools or conferences about a football game, he said. “It’s just all theoretical at this point.” Because his track faces many of the same challenges as Talladega. It’s a much larger facility than Bristol, with a long grandstand that would require an enormous amount of temporary seating.
Unlike Talladega, though, that doesn’t seem to be a definite deal-breaker. Wile noted that with the recent renovations – a project called “Daytona Rising” – there are several brand new escalators, three times as many bathrooms and much larger concourses that would be conducive to hosting a football crowd.
“What you would expect when you go to the University of Georgia, to Sanford Stadium,” said Wile, a UGA alum. “There are a lot of logistical challenges to make that work, but we would love to continue to think through and imagine what something like that would look like.”
Better think fast, though, because out in Texas, Gossage’s imagination is running wild. If he can’t get Texas-Oklahoma or Texas-Texas A&M, there is a host of other high-level programs in his state from which to choose. No. 6 Houston, No. 13 Baylor and No. 21 Texas Christian are among them. No. 20 Arkansas isn’t far away and has been happy to play games in the Lone Star State lately.
“I hope it reminds (schools) that the race track with the biggest TV in the world is sitting there and chomping at the bit,” Gossage said, “ready to do it if they are.”