BRISTOL, Tenn. — It’s tough to comprehend how steep a racetrack can get unless you’ve tried to climb the one at Tennessee’s “Last Great Colosseum.”
Bristol Motor Speedway’s embankments used to be the sharpest of any NASCAR track, reportedly reaching 36 degrees. (Experts disagree about the exact amount; it’s a long-running racing debate we can discuss later.) After a resurfacing last decade, the banking officially ranges from 24 to 28 degrees.
It was at roughly this angle that a golf cart — carrying four people — attempted to climb up the track to the outside parking lot on Friday afternoon.
As it reached the top of the embankment, the cart began tipping backward. The two men in the rear tumbled out feet first, while the two women up front froze in horror as the suddenly top-heavy vehicle began dragging them to an ugly fate.
At that crucial moment, a security guard reached out and grabbed the front of the cart, pulling it back toward the ground.
On to the parking lot. Survive and advance.
There were other mishaps inside the Bristol Motor Speedway as it prepared for and hosted the largest football game of all-time. But we got plenty of great material outside its gates, too. Here’s what else you missed if you couldn’t make it out to the spectacle this weekend:
2. Tennessee’s state song was everywhere. One tailgating trio sat outside their RV in a pair of lawn chairs, listening to it on repeat. Asked what they’d been doing since arriving Wednesday, a young girl said, “Listening to Rocky Top.”
3. Another group of Tennessee tailgaters had several versions of the song hooked up to a karaoke machine. Upon request, they let ‘er rip (and they definitely forgot some lyrics).
4. In the official merchandise store, a man began an impromptu version of “Rocky Top.” No one joined in until the “WOO!,” at which point a dozen people couldn’t help themselves.
5. The following conversation also happened in the store:
- Curious person: “What’s a Hokie, anyway?”
- Several others: “Uhh…”
- Curious person: “A hoagie like a sandwich?”
6. Inspired, we began a quest for an answer. This brought us to a hilltop lot across Highway 11E that featured several Virginia Tech flags. We consulted an elderly man wearing an orange Tech shirt, who said, “It came from an old cheer (when Virginia Tech was commonly known as Virginia Polytechnic Institute): ‘Hokie, Hokie, Hokie High, we’re the boys from VPI.'”
7. At the next RV, a former Virginia Tech walk-on named Dustin, allegedly a special teams captain when VT won the Orange Bowl in 2009, introduced himself. What’s a Hokie, dude? “I am a Hokie,” he explained. “That’s what they tell you to say when you’re a freshman.”
(Virginia Tech’s bowl win came against Cincinnati that season. Then-Bearcats coach Brian Kelly left the gig for the Notre Dame job. His replacement at Cincinnati? Butch Jones.)
8. Another RV, another Hokie explanation: “It’s an ass-kickin’ chicken.”
9. Probably the most direct answer, from a man taking a walk by himself: “It was just part of a cheer that was made up.”
10. Another tailgater offered a historical perspective: “You had the dinosaurs. You had B.C., Before Christ. Let’s all keep it real. Back in the day, they had this bird come out, and it was a bag of bones walking around. The bird was an intelligent bird.”
Interviewer: “Was this still Before Christ or After Death?”
This surprised another member of the party.
Tailgater 2: “So the Hokie bird was Before Christ?”
(And so on…)
11. Finally, we found a mini-pool holding a handful of Hokies fans, with several others crowded around. “People on the outside can’t understand it,” one man said.
Person 2: “The difference between a Hokie and any other fan base is that you don’t have to go to Virginia Tech to become one. All you’ve gotta do is embrace the spirit.”
12. The group was kind and unquestionably generous — “get in the pool!” — but they also made no bones about their feelings toward the Vols: “We actually like our Tennessee brothers, but we’re just ready to kick that SEC ass this week.”
13. Moments later, the group’s lone Tennessee fan appeared. The Tech fans greeted him with a question of their own: “How do you feel about Lane Kiffin?” (He grimaced and held his tongue in front of the camera.)
14. Back across the highway, a corporate tailgating village ate up the valuable real estate in front of the iconic “BRISTOL” sign marking the outside of the speedway. This was where ESPN broadcasted “College Gameday,” and where water was going for $4 a bottle.
15. Among the attractions: a Ferris wheel.
16. Giant “beer” pong, too.
Giant "beer" pong: pic.twitter.com/nY6koov1qj
— Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff) September 9, 2016
17. Some of the tents in this area featured long rows of rocking chairs along the edges. People felt completely at home in these, as if they were on their own front porches.
18. The Earnhardt plaque.
— Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff) September 9, 2016
19. One member of the Class of 2005 Volunteers flew in from San Francisco for the game. He said he’s an east Tennessee native and lifelong fan, so we asked him what his favorite Peyton Manning moment was as a kid. “I like when he did the bootleg out to throw the touchdown against Georgia.”
20. Several people said they bought their tickets at least a year in advance, including one Tennessee couple that said they made the payment “as soon as we could put the deposit down.” Those Virginia Tech fans in the pool said they bought their RV the day the game was announced (Oct. 14, 2013).
21. A shirtless tailgater offered his theory as to why Tennessee struggled against Appalachian State in the opener: “I guess they missed their chocolate milk at f—in’ breakfast or something because they played like a bunch of little girls.”
22. An attention-seeking man got plenty of it thanks to this cutout head (he said he did not know whose child’s face this is):
Here's something: pic.twitter.com/TJdOsIVQEI
— Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff) September 10, 2016
23. Inside the speedway, the most unique concession stand was an Ole Smoky moonshine tent, which featured a “White Lightnin’ and Mountain Dew” cocktail. Those willing to shell out $12 cash could take home a mason jar with the “Battle at Bristol” logo on it.
24. The most popular stand was one serving frozen cocktails. People were so excited about this before Friday’s concert that the line extended back into the stadium.
25. This reporter went with an Arby’s sandwich, which looked like a color wheel and smelled like a wet sock.
26. Friday, the big event was a concert featuring Kenny Chesney and The Band Perry. Virginia-bred and Tennessee-based band Old Dominion — a four-piece country-rock outfit — mostly toed the line between Vols and Hokies in the crowd. But during the band’s final song, singer Matthew Ramsey finally chose a side, slapping on a Virginia Tech bucket hat and grinning like a madman.
27. Many of the parking lot attendants were baseball players from nearby Tusculum College who volunteered time to raise money for their program. The two who were watching the media lot on Friday killed time by playing an old-school game of “kick the can” when they grew tired of the more modern “water-bottle flip” contest.
28. Across the stream that runs parallel to Highway 11E, a man with a megaphone warned pedestrians of impending doom if they did not repent. This is a common sight at sporting events, but this guy did his research, name-dropping Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd as false idols before proclaiming: “Tennessee football pales in comparison to Jesus Christ.”
29. Down the street, a hand-written sign taped to an all-terrain vehicle insisted, “Jesus loves Tennessee.”
30. The National Rifle Association’s sponsorship of Bristol Motor Speedway was an indication that some people might be packing heat on the premises. One female Tennessee fan walking along the highway told her friends, “I brought my gun in case we lose, because somebody might die.”
31. Other Volunteers fans were ready for the worst, too. A Tennessee frat bro wearing a full suit gave his ultimatum while waiting in line at Bristol fast-food favorite Mr. Hot Dog: “If we lose, I’m f—in’ transferring.”
32. A man in an Ohio State shirt patted the suited fans on the shoulders and said, “Good luck on your interviews, boys. If you need a reference, let me know.” This joke angered the young men, who said several people had done this to them already.
33. In the same Mr. Hot Dog line, a Virginia Tech coed decided to dump her beer out on the ground, spraying this reporter’s shoes and legs. “Scuse me,” she said in a drunken daze.
“Hang in there,” I wanted to tell her. “Only 7 more hours until kickoff.”
34. Around the corner, three large Tennessee fans showed off their drinking prowess.
These dudes are taping finished beers together (aka "Wizard Staff"). Guy in the middle says his record is 27. pic.twitter.com/PzySCeprBk
— Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff) September 10, 2016
35. One of the corporate tailgating areas featured a pop-up Bud Light bar, with stools and flat-screen TVs.
36. With Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” ringing out across the grounds, a shirtless man approached the pop-up bar. Just as he was about to make a drink request, his wife yelled to him from across the lot. He looked back at her, expecting an altered order (or something worse).
“PROCEED TO PARTY!” she screamed, raising two beers in the air.
37. A gripe: There were no free water stations around the stadium. This seemed like a bad idea, given that more than 150,000 people were walking around in the sun all day.
38. Another gripe: There was nowhere to watch the other college football games. No bars, restaurants or tents that provided a place to catch up on Saturday’s action. Some of the corporate tents provided one game — and one game only — in the early afternoon: Pittsburgh-Penn State.
39. One guy in a Vols shirt was glued to the TV, vehemently cheering against Penn State at the Bud Light bar. This included a wicked cackle after a late fumble by the Nittany Lions, and loud applause when Pitt secured a late-game interception. Why? “James Franklin,” he said. “F— him.”
40. Thirty feet away, a mechanical bull drew plenty of attention once the Saturday crowd rolled in.
41. The most common jerseys were Peyton Manning’s No. 16 (for Tennessee) and Michael Vick’s No. 7 (for Virginia Tech). Both former stars were in attendance at Saturday’s game.
42. Among a sea of orange, one man stood out in a blue Tim Tebow jersey. He said he was getting plenty of dirty looks, especially from his wife, who was wearing a Vols shirt. Did he ever feel in danger among all the Tennessee fans? “I’ll feel worse when I’m in Knoxville in two weeks.”
43. The most common school gear outside of Tennessee and Virginia Tech was Kentucky, but the best outfit belonged to a man wearing a Louisville hat, Louisville shorts and a shirt that read, “DO NOT GIVE THIS MAN ALCOHOL.” Naturally, he held a beer in a Louisville red coozie.
44. Another fashion quirk: Back-pocket bourbon. A young business professional in an orange-checkered dress shirt not only had a tall boy of Michelob Ultra in his possession; he also had a decent-sized bottle of Maker’s Mark — complete with red wax seal — firmly wedged in his pants.
45. Tennessee was roughly 30 minutes tardy for the traditional Vol Walk, in which the players and coaches walk past hundreds of fans on their way into the stadium. Due to the wait, one middle-aged man was allowed inside the stadium to use the bathroom.
“Do you have to go potty, little boy?” a Bristol employee jokingly asked as she led him inside.
When the man emerged from the stadium, he brought good news: “The bathrooms are clean!” People cheered vigorously.
46. All day Friday and Saturday, we covered enough ground to know that RVs and tailgating spots were everywhere. No matter which direction you walked away from the speedway, you’d find a party.
This was only a fraction of the tailgating crowd:
47. Four hundred fifty truckloads of materials — turf, fiber, rubber, sand, etc. — helped turn the infield into a legitimate football field. Standing behind the end zone, one could see how all of those materials ballooned the playing surface 3 to 4 inches higher than its normal state. During a Friday walk around, the turf felt fine, and it seemed to pass the in-game test.
48. The national anthem was nothing short of perfect. Fans held up colored cards to spell “U-S-A” and create two gigantic American flags. Jennifer Nettles approached the song confidently while avoiding too many “look at me” moments. The crowd joined in behind her for a roaring conclusion. All of this was complemented by fireworks and a jumbo jet that pulled off the rare nighttime flyover.
49. The size of the crowd alone induced goosebumps, and the noise made the cavernous, slightly-awkward speedway seem like a natural fit for college football.
50. Moments before kickoff, Manning — an honorary captain — was led off the field. Unfortunately for him, he took a wrong turn into the VIP section, and wound up catching the eye of several women looking for selfies. The future Hall of Fame quarterback was torn; he was clearly trying to leave the area, but stopped several times when certain women persisted. He eventually got through the gauntlet, piled into a black Chevy and rode away around the track.
51. The pageantry was in full effect Saturday, from the anthem to the post-game confetti explosion to the parking-lot fireworks to the over-the-top trophy. It had the feel of a September bowl game, and was successful enough to warrant a sequel — either at Bristol or another NASCAR venue.
As Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs said in the wee hours: “It definitely lived up to the hype.”