By Scott Robertson
The long-anticipated weekend is finally almost here. What was for years only a dream becomes reality Saturday.
The Tennessee Volunteers.
The Virginia Tech Hokies.
Bristol Motor Speedway.
For years we sports fans heard, “It can’t be done.” Turns out it can be.
A lot of things have had to go right for this to work. We could fill this entire paper with that list.
But the thing I appreciate most about what’s about to happen up the road in Bristol has less to do with uniforms that are orange or maroon and more to do with uniforms that are blue, brown or white.
The effort that will go into keeping 150,000 fans safe and secure is Herculean. So before we cue up “Rocky Top” and “Enter Sandman” let us take a moment to doff our caps to the law enforcement officers, medical responders and other safety and security-tasked individuals involved in this undertaking. They will, over the next 100-plus hours, sleep very little, work a whole lot, and probably exercise more good judgment in that short span than, say, both major presidential candidates have exercised all year.
First, there’s the matter of traffic control. If you remember the salad days of NASCAR, you’ll remember that the track staff worked with law enforcement officers throughout the region to clear the 160,000 or so race fans from the speedway area in just three hours. They had it down to a science. So you may think they can just dust off the old plans and make everything work just as neatly today. As Lee Corso of ESPN College Game Day is guaranteed to say at the speedway Saturday, “Not so fast, my friend.”
Traffic patterns have changed since back in the day. Volume on Interstate 81 has spiked in the last few years as the trucking industry has found Interstate 95 needed an alternate route. Well, guess what road runs directly from Blacksburg and connects with Interstate 40 to get to Knoxville.
Honestly though, traffic is just the beginning. When one looks at the traditional Southern college football crowd, one must factor in a certain level of what NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine once called, “ethanol-based lubrication.” The dynamic of the football crowd is different from the dynamic of a NASCAR crowd, though. At a race, there are 40-plus teams. Every fan knows it’s unrealistic to expect his or her favorite driver to win. They hope. They root. But they know the odds are against them. When two teams meet head-up, however, around half the crowd is going to be feeling pretty let down at the end. Just add whiskey, and you’ve got a whole lot of “different dynamic” for law enforcement to deal with.
Just so, when one university or the other hosts a game, a good portion of the inebriated population will be walking back to the dorm when it ends. However, in Bristol, nobody will be walking home. Law enforcement officers and EMS teams will have to be ready to deal with that for more than 100 miles in either direction.
Finally, when one considers the fact that 150,000 people will be gathered for what will be the largest single college football game in history, and that the entire thing will be televised nationally, one must also consider the possibility of something along the lines of the Brussels and Paris attacks.
The good news is, Bristol is uniquely equipped to handle that threat. A decade ago I wrote an article for The Business Journal outlining how Dede Hash, vice president of administration for BMS, was working with the Department of Homeland Security along with local and regional law enforcement to harden every potential target on the speedway campus. That effort has only intensified in the meantime, with new technology and more manpower constantly being added to the security repertoire.
As I did the interviews for that article, I was given one of the best quotes about security I’ve ever heard. The late Jeff Byrd, who ran the speedway at the time, said he told fans worried about security, “My family will be in the stands. If you’re looking for reassurance, I don’t know what more I can tell you than that.”
So I would ask that if you and your family are planning to be in the stands this weekend, make a promise to yourself to be mindful of the uniformed men and women who are making it easy and safe for you to do so. Be courteous and responsible in your dealings with them.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime event. So they’ll have a job that’s once-in-a-lifetime hard. As you consider that fact, think back to the last night race and you’ll realize what you should appreciate most of all: this is the second time most of those folks will be doing that once-in-a-lifetime-hard job this month.
Hats off, y’all.