Inside The Pearly Gates Of Bristol, Where A Wild Football Experiment Became Heaven On Earth

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Larry Ramsey is a homebrewer. He takes it seriously, and is constantly tinkering, trying new ingredients and approaches. If you’re lucky enough to get an invite into his Airstream on Saturdays in the fall, he might share some of his knowledge (and beer) with you.

Some things work surprisingly well, like the gluten free offering he introduced a few years ago so that his buddy with celiac disease could still drink a draft beer before games. Others are just plain good. But nothing comes close to topping what Ramsey has done with his Clubhouse Stout.

Let’s rewind a bit. Ramsey and a few friends started the Clubhouse Tailgate back in 1998 before Virginia Tech home games. What started as a group of three or four steadily grew the way these things do. Folks turned up, or passed by, or were invited. And then they never left. They just kept right on coming. The tailgate added a few vehicles, and more than a few people.

Every Saturday – since that first Saturday almost two decades ago – they all pick a moment before the game to take Communion.

This isn’t Communion in the religious sense, although it’s not exactly sacrilege either. To honor the tailgate, friendship, and the Hokies, a designated representative says a few words. Then the group collectively does a shot of Wild Turkey 101. For the Ohio State game over Labor Day weekend a year ago, that meant more than 150 shots of Wild Turkey 101 at the same time.

Oh yeah, back to the Clubhouse Stout. This is Larry’s pride and joy. He brews it like a typical stout except for one thing. He adds a whole bottle of Wild Turkey 101 to it. It’s essentially every bourbon barrel stout you’ve ever had giving you an RKO out of nowhere at the end. He recommends not having more than one before a game, although some folks learned the hard way.

At one point Larry is asked what the alcohol content is in one pint of the stout.

“I don’t know,” Ramsey chuckles. “But I’m afraid to find out.”

The Clubhouse isn’t just a tailgate. It’s a community. And this community has never seen anything like the Battle at Bristol before.

The Last Great Colosseum

“I want heaven to look like whatever is in there,” one sunglasses-donned, relatively intoxicated Tennessee undergrad says to her friend an hour before kickoff as they sorority speedwalk their way toward the towering structure that not-so-humbly calls itself The Last Great Colosseum. “If heaven doesn’t look like that, I’m declining my invite to heaven.”

The idea of a football game at a dang racetrack started a long, long time ago. But Bristol and owner Bruton Smith were serious about it as early as 1996. It fizzled out – logistics were hard to come by – and never got off the launchpad. Officials shelved the dream temporarily, never quite giving up on it.

Eventually it was reborn, picking up steam the way rumors often do. Except unlike Metallica playing “Enter Sandman” live before a Virginia Tech game at Lane Stadium, this one actually was true.

“Once word got out, the fans decided this needed to happen,” ESPN’s Marty Smith, who pulls double duty with both NASCAR and college football coverage, says. “It makes too much sense. Of course it was put on the backburner for many years, but after the success of the Carrier Classic in college basketball and the Winter Classic in hockey, it piqued the interest of Bruton’s son Marcus, who is president of [Speedway Motorsports, Inc.] now. He said, ‘we need to rekindle this thing,’ and they got the schools on board.”

In 2013, the announcement was made. This would be the biggest college football game ever.

To buy tickets, you needed to do one of two things: win a raffle, or go to the track when they were released to the public. That day was cold, rainy, and windy. Thousands upon thousands of people still showed up, lining up under the grandstands and weaving through the underbelly for as long as six hours.

Volunteers and Hokies mingled and coexisted, and it made sense why this sort of event had to be played here, at this racetrack, with these two teams. It wasn’t an opening kickoff game built in a lab like some sort of invented song of the summer. It was rare. It was strange. And it was just crazy enough to work.

When you got to the end, a polite track representative would exclaim, “It’s your turn!” and release you for a mad dash to the box office. It felt like Disney World. You got a bumper sticker that said “I’ve got tickets to the Battle at Bristol.” You got a lanyard with a faux ticket on it. You could take pictures with stock cars.

The game was still almost a full year away.

This Will Never Be Replicated

We’re told the announced attendance is 156,990, more people than the population of Macon, Ga. That’s more than one and a half Neyland Stadiums, where Tennessee plays its home games. Somehow it feels like there’s even more people than that. They’re loud. They’re excited. They’re aware this is – if not a one-time thing – something they may never be a part of again.

The national anthem is a spectacle all by itself. A card stunt to end all card stunts lends way to a bomber flyover, and the suites sway and shake as the crowd below jumps, stomps, and screams. There’s enough fireworks in this place to put July 4 to shame. Halftime sees perennial MERICA favorite Lee Greenwood performing “God Bless the USA.” Everyone stands the entire time and almost everyone sings.

This is when (if you weren’t before) you’re made acutely aware that you’re watching a football game in a NASCAR track. It has somehow managed to combine everything that is great and absurd about NASCAR with everything that is great and absurd about college football with two fanbases that appreciate it earnestly and in a not-at-all ironic way.

In NASCAR you can’t hear the fans because the cars dominate the noise. Strip the cars away, keep the passion, and add in the feeling that you’re witnessing history, and those fans – who managed to make a football field look tiny – take center stage. They’re not just loud; they’re downright possessed.

Virginia Tech jumps out to an early 14-0 lead, but that’s not to last. The energy was unsustainable, and Tennessee is too talented.

“We got ourselves up too high,” Hokies fullback Sam Rogers says.

It all comes crashing down as Tennessee closes the game on a 45-10 scoring run, and Virginia Tech turns it over five times along the way. The players will remember the loss, the fans too, but that’ll be a hazy reminder in a day (or, in the case of the Clubhouse Tailgate, a week) of memories.

Coaches, players, and fans all use a similar phrase to “something we’ll tell our grandkids about” when discussing the game. Champion hats are given out to the Vols, and they’re presented with a trophy that weighs more than 80 pounds. Confetti cannons are shot off. There’s a photo opportunity. Commemorative posters are available.

“This will never be replicated,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones says. “It’ll never be duplicated.”

It’s Week 2 of the 2016 college football season.

You Can Feel The Electricity

“This is what the race used to be,” Bristol native Katie, who attends the game with her husband, says. “It’s sad, but it’s dwindled in recent years. It’s great for Bristol. You can feel the electricity.”

Nobody is really sure if this will be done again. There is another football game at Bristol on Sept. 17, when East Tennessee State will pay Western Carolina, but it won’t be the same. If anything, that one will be even stranger, but less of an event.

Colossus, the enormous video board people anthropomorphize like it’s The Brave Little Toaster, will be packed up and used in other places like the Final Four. He likely wouldn’t exist in the first place if it wasn’t for this game. He’s a technological marvel, and he never fell onto the field. This is a good thing.

Bristol will become a racetrack again for the Food City 500 race in April. Virginia Tech will go back to being a rebuilding team under Justin Fuente. Tennessee will return to high expectations and hopes of an SEC title. And college football, being college football, will likely try to replicate and duplicate this in the coming years because that’s what college football does. Not to mention if something works for college football even a little bit, the NFL will try to copy it too. Would anyone be surprised if Roger Goodell tries to do a Panthers-Titans game there at some point?

But whether we see the Army-Navy game played on an aircraft carrier someday, or Ohio State and Michigan playing a game in space, it won’t be like this. This is a once in a lifetime thing, in the perfect location between two schools that are extremely passionate about football, in a venue that worked, put together by a group that spared no expense and worked for years to make it happen.

And the result was pretty damn impressive.

“This was a confluence of variables that created a wonderful moment,” Smith says. “It was the perfect place and teams. It would be really hard to recreate the original. But there are a lot of smart people in this world who think really big. They might come up with something that none of us are thinking about right now.”