The 2016 college football season is going to feature a genuine spectacle. On Sept. 10, Tennessee and Virginia Tech are going to face off on a field installed in the infield of the Bristol Motor Speedway.
Assuming all 150,000 fans show up, the Volunteers and Hokies will play before the largest crowd ever to see a college football game, shattering the record (115,109) set in 2013 when Notre Dame visited Michigan.
Both UT and Virginia Tech will reap a financial bonanza from the game, with published reports putting each school’s bounty between $4 million and $4.5 million.
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“I would like to do it,” Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said Thursday. “For a lot of reasons, I’m not sure it would be practical. But, looking at how well Bristol is doing, trust me, I’m thinking a lot about what we could do to make it practical.”
Before we venture into the obstacles that would have to be overcome to play college football at Kentucky Speedway, let’s have some fun and speculate on what matchups could conceivably work in Sparta.
To me, there are two ideal possibilities involving teams from the Kentucky Speedway region.
If the Kentucky-Louisville game could somehow go back to the season opener, as was intended when the rivalry rekindled in 1994, imagine it in a venue where each school could sell 35,000 seats with Kentucky Speedway then able to sell another 35,000 or so more?
That could be an unbelievable atmosphere in a unique venue that would help attract national attention to the Governor’s Cup rivalry.
As a season finale, I don’t think playing at the Speedway would work. However, if the money was big enough, you perhaps could persuade UK and U of L — and the SEC and ACC — to play the game as the opener at Kentucky Speedway at least once.
“That’s the thing about what’s happening at Bristol,” Simendinger said. “They’ve grown the pie large enough where everybody — both schools and the racetrack — are going to do very, very well.”
There’s another game of regional appeal that, if you could figure out how to add enough temporary seating, might allow Kentucky Speedway to break the attendance record Tennessee and Virginia Tech are about to set at Bristol.
“I would love that,” says Simendinger, a Notre Dame alumnus.
So if you are going to even dream of attracting those schools to play a one-time event off campus, you are going to have to be able to promise HUGE money.
“In all parts of sports, it’s tough to sell tickets these days,” Simendinger said. “So these one-off, specialty events, I think they have a lot of appeal. I think you are going to see more of them.”
In the real world, there are reasons why it will be difficult to do at Kentucky Speedway what they are doing at Bristol.
At Bristol, you have a half-mile track. The 150,000 seats built around that track form a genuine bowl. The football field will therefore be relatively close to the stands.
Kentucky Speedway is a mile-and-a-half track. All 106,000 of its grandstand seats are on the west side of the facility.
Simendinger figures you could put a football field within the parameters of Kentucky Speedway’s quarter-mile, midget-car track.
“But there’d still be two problems,” he said. “You couldn’t use a lot of our grandstands, the seats on the ends would just be too far away. And even for the seats that could be used, in comparison to Bristol, the field would not be nearly as close to the stands.”
There is a major sports possibility other than college football that intrigues Simendinger. The National Hockey League’s Winter Classic is an annual regular-season game played on an outdoor rink in a famous sports venue.
“I think that would be pretty cool,” Simendinger said.
So, too, would be 100,000-plus for a college football game at Kentucky Speedway.
“We’d love to do it,” Simendinger said. “We have what I see as some fixed obstacles (to doing it). I’m hoping some people who are smarter than I am will come along and help us figure out how we could overcome those and make it work.”