Monday, September 12, 2016
Battle at Bristol
September 10, 2016
On September 10, 2016, Virginia Tech and Tennessee matched up in a football game in a modified stock car race track in Bristol, Virginia. 156,990 fans attended the game which was a new record for American football game attendance. Such a number of fans at a NASCAR event is nothing new. Charlotte, Talladega, Daytona, LeMans, Indianapolis, and Bristol have all hosted larger parties for auto racing. International soccer (football) and horse racing have venues that hold anywhere from 150,000 to near 300,000. Some estimate that over 300,000 have attended the Indianapolis 500 in the olden days, but since the venue allowed people to hang out in the infield, it’s hard to know for sure. Back in the early 1927, an estimated 123,000 saw Notre Dame crush USC 7-6 at Chicago’s Soldier Field. However, only 99,000 or so paid. The following year, an estimated 123,000 watched Notre Dame beat Army at the same venue. Again however, only 105,000 or so paid. In 2013, Notre Dame played Michigan at “The Big House” in front of 115,000 or so people officially making it the largest crowd to watch an American football game live until the Tennessee and Virginia Tech game in 2016.
Getting to the remote coliseum was quite the challenge that required a year of preparation for my family and me. My extended family and I pooled resources and bought blocks of tickets and charter bus passes. Tickets in hand, we loaded our Rally bus at Gateway Plaza in Christiansburg and embarked on a party roll to Bristol at 2:15 pm.
Traffic was light. In fact, we cruised to the state line in about two hours. Then we crawled inside our bus for another hour and a half as we inched toward the epicenter of the football world.
Our Rally bus arrived and parked in the tour bus parking area only about ½ mile from the gate at about 6:30. All around us were blaze orange Tennessee fans. Thousands upon thousands of them. A little maroon sprinkled in.
We grabbed a sandwich and a water and began our trek to the gate. Our late arrival meant that there wasn’t time for proper tailgating. We followed the stream of sojourners, eventually crossing the red bridge security perimeter. The crowd thickness intensified. Our stature as individuals morphed into the collective like maroon pimples on an orange body. At one point, we found ourselves in a crush of parking lot humanity as the crowd ahead was given a choice of splitting off, left or right, on a narrow path to ascend to the gates. We wanted to go right. This meant positioning our bodies in such a way that we could make a 180 degree turn onto the switchback.
As we considered our position, turmoil broke out immediately behind us as some jungle beaters pushed forward from behind to try to clear a path for a small bus to move through the throng of humanity. “Move out of the way! Clear the way! Got to get this bus through” Slowly, the sea parted, but only a little. I ended up stalled with the bus, my ear to its side-view mirror, uncomfortably, for longer than time existed. Fumes. Sweat. Smokers. Germs. Drunks. Secret flatulent gassers. Bodies pressed against anonymous bodies.
We moved slowly in unison, floating along some invisible treadmill. The point of decision came upon us suddenly. I had managed to stay beside my sister, who was dealing with a painful knee and moving slowly, but I lost contact with my wife and son. I made the turn onto the narrow switchback and a helpful Volunteer assisted my sister up over the curb onto the proper track. We ascended at a more steady pace up and beyond the insanity. Within a few minutes we were at our gate and passed through efficiently without any fuss.
As I’ve recently grown older, I've begun to run further and further away from alcohol. I’ve always known from the first time I got drunk at age 13, that alcohol was a dangerous genie for me. I felt under her spell for most of my life, in the end becoming trapped in her cage. While I wanted to escape from the bottle, I was firmly in the genie’s grip. Only complete embarrassment saved me from destruction and allowed me to free myself from her chains.
I’m not writing this to preach. Rather, I just want to point out how sad I find it to see so many ensnared by her spell. As we entered the Gate 2, a young man was just ahead of us who was having difficulty navigating in a forward direction. He asked my son where he was and stumbled forward to the metal detector. The attendants were patient with him. They made him empty his pockets and told him that he would either have to take his back-pack back to his vehicle OR throw it away. He chose to throw it away. I’m guessing that his wallet and mobile phone were in there. After he went through, the attendant had to chase him down to return his pocket contents.
Just prior to kick-off, a young man and his friend made their way down the stairs from the portal above us. The man in front was fighting gravity to remain erect. He was leaning heavily and sliding down the rail as he descended in a warped wobble. At one point a few rows below me, he stopped and his body began listing dangerously downhill. He clutched the rail harder in a vain attempt to stem the massive downward force. In slow motion he began launching himself down and into turn1. Just in time, his buddy grabbed him by the collar and arrested his demise. They both navigated the remaining steps and disappeared deep into their section. My thoughts went to the poor souls who drew the $131.60 short straw of sitting next to them.
As I’ve grown up and escaped my own shackles, I feel sorry for those who feel that getting sloshed at a football game is something for which to aspire.
The Last Great Coliseum
Bristol Motor Speedway is a massive structure tucked in a tidy valley just outside of Bristol, Tennessee. There’s no obvious reason for its being in that place. It’s rather an aberration; something unexpected in the landscape. Like a castle, it sits atop a small knoll with a moat of cars and pavement surrounding it. Across the street is Thunder Valley Drag Strip, which, true to its name, stretches through a small, narrow valley.
The speedway is surrounded by a massive metal stand structure, or rather, a collection of patchwork stands seemingly assembled like a child’s erector set creation. Inside, tiny human ants moved around the ½ mile oval and spectator ants milled about. I felt remarkably, comfortably small inside.
The field, situated in the track’s infield was green with lines on it. From our seats low in Turn 1 (Pearson), the field looked like some artistic perspective study. Far from us, the lines all merged into a blob. Closer to us, their separation was apparent.
Going into the game, we were aware of how our view would be compromised by distance and were counting on watching much of the game through the giant video screen named “Colossus”.
Without a doubt, Colossus is huge. It’s a four-sided video cube suspended above the fifty yard-line. That being said, one can really only see one side at a time. So in essence, it was simply a really big television.
As a television, however, Colossus was a failure for me. Considering the distance from the action for most fans, especially fans at the corners and apex of the turns, one might have thought that more consideration would have been given to the Colossus program production. Many of us needed Colossus to follow the game, but we were disappointed. The production couldn’t settle on a consistent camera view. Sometimes we’d have extreme close-ups of one player or another and miss the snap. Other times the camera would be at extreme distance like an old high school football video. Rarely, they would allow us a true television angle, set tight to the line of scrimmage showing the lines and all but the deepest backs on defense. It would have been best to stay with this one consistent view instead of toggling between the three. In the end, I gave up on Colossus and did my best managing the game view for myself based on limited visual input, crowd reactions, and the screaming field announcer.
WHAT? Without a doubt, BMS was the loudest place I’ve ever been. Apparently, the BMS game producers felt the need to entertain us with blaring mindless fan entertainment during stoppages. The volume levels, however, were set to an extreme sound level which must have been designed to pierce the cacophony of speedway cars. The bones inside of my ears still hurt. My wife had to escape to the concourse to get out of the direct line of sound.
I loved the National Anthem tribute. I was holding a blue card under a star to the right of the "A" in USA. The rendition of the anthem was not over-done, and I especially enjoyed singing with the crowd. The only quibble I had was that I wasn't able to place my hand over my heart because I was holding a sign. My son, the Marine, was with us and pointed out that he will not render a salute when he's not in uniform, despite the popularity of the practice at stadium venues.
In contrast to the opening, the halftime show was patriotic pandering at its worst, in my opinion. The VT MV's performed a solid, shortened show which was followed by a most over-produced "love- the-military" piece that bizarrely and tragically morphed into a Food City commercial. They were reaching for tears and true to form, I saw the lady Volunteer in front of me wiping tears after seeing the young uniformed soldier greet his wrinkled, uniformed soldier grandfather in front of the long front walk of their rustic country farm-mansion after a long deployment protecting our freedom. I just rolled my eyes. Romanticizing war. Shrouding the sacrifice in the flag of blind patriotic nationalism. The tear-jerking scene faded to the president of Food City who, inexplicably, began talking about Food City's support for our troops and low prices, which brought us to trotting out Lee Greenwood for, perhaps, the worst rendition of his hit song, “Proud to be an American”. Lee was the victim of a horrific sound situation. He was amplified to NASCAR race levels while the accompanying “Pride of The Southland Band”, which had previously been amplified in their first few numbers on the field, was turned off. Thus, Greenwood was all alone, seemingly, singing what to me has become a trite, empty, commercialized song; one that sticks in my craw for featuring the word "ain't" so prominently. I simply can't stand that song. Hearing it so poorly done was even more cringe-worthy. Give me "God Bless America" or "America the Beautiful" any day.
For the first fifteen minutes of the game, we were treated to a Virginia Tech team of our dreams. The good guys were flying around the field doing laps around hapless Volunteers.
Then there was the rest of the game.
I am a compassionate person by nature, and I believe in charity; helping others whenever possible. But the VT team to that concept to the extreme Saturday night. Our extreme charity bolstered and then handed Tennessee a victory. I have no crystal ball and don’t know how the game might have turned out if we were more protective of what was ours, but I sure would have liked to have watched that game instead of the three generous quarters in which we were treated.
“Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature's delight.” ~Marcus Aurelius
Odds and Ends
I always love observing people at events like this. My absolute favorite was a bit understated. I was minding my own business and just staring out at the expanse of humanity before kick-off when a young man dressed as Waldo (Where’s Waldo?) walked up the stairs beside me. It caught me off guard and I just couldn’t help but snicker. He never came back. I wonder where he went.
I’m generally not around smoking much these days. I’m not sure if that’s because I simply don’t associate with people who smoke or if fewer people are actually taking up the filthy habit. Regardless, I’ve never seen more people smoking in one place at one time. I couldn’t escape the stench. It wafted into the coliseum from the concourse and encased me. When I went to seek a bathroom, it followed me. When I went to get a breath or air or to escape the screaming PA system, it was my companion. It was like I was a chain-smoker. I used to smoke back when I was in college, but I’m so glad I escaped its chains.
The production team’s mindless time-out mini productions were hard to watch. In addition to their piercing volume, they were accompanied by piercing stupidity. The weirdest and most stupid was the “Blue Lizard Sunscreen Dance”. A cluster of people were gathered together to dance to some music with a giant, Barney-like blue lizard and one lucky participant would win…a bottle of sunscreen.
As is usual for all fan-bases, I encountered jerks. But by far most of the people I encountered were well-mannered and simply happy to be there. There were so many Tennessee fans all around. I was miffed that so many had gotten tickets in the Hokie sections. As a group though, Tennessee fans weren’t especially loud. Despite out-numbering Hokies at least 60-40, they didn’t seem to get overly engaged in their team’s success. It’s more like they were expecting to be entertained by their team. VT fans, however, have the ingrained notion that we personally affect the game.
I love Frank Beamer. During one of the first time-outs, they brought Frank onto the field and allowed for us to recognize him and show our love. It was the most pure emotional moment of the game for me. By the way, Frank looks great. He looks rested and golf-tanned. I’m very happy for him.
We were better at navigating our way to our bus thanks to our pregame experience and made the trek quickly. Our driver was bold and experienced. He knew the deal and positioned our coach for the first possible escape. We ended up in the wake of the team bus cavalcade which was flanked by a state trooper escort.
Soon we were sliding down the road without interruption; our driver dodging drunks on the road with aplomb.
My bus-mates settled down for the journey. My brother, sitting directly behind me, talked in a low tone the whole way while most quietly dozed. Random thoughts filled his head and he spoke out, “Are you going to get a cat?”
“Are you talking to me?” my niece responded.
“I’m just talking to anyone who wants to listen.”
The young bearded teen in front of me spent the trip coming down from his drunken close encounter with a cop in the concourse when he tried to steal the Bud-Light table near the end of the game.
Cop: “Are you stealing that table?”
Bearded Teen: “No sir, I was just putting it back.”
Then he ran.
The guy diagonally across from me spent his return trip checking TSL, crinkling beer cans, and honking his nose.
Everyone was coming down. Coming back to the status quo of life. Coming back from a most glorious and somewhat unsatisfying or maybe somewhat glorious and most satisfying experience. Within five minutes of our arrival in Christiansburg at 4:30 am, the cars and buses had returned the strip mall to the lonely night.