BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Dave and Dana Sparrow pulled their RV into the campground off Volunteer Parkway on Tuesday, raised their Virginia Tech flag and cracked open a few beers. They'd spent a week camping in Hillsville, Virginia, then made their way to Bristol with their dog, Ziggy, and a pair of tickets for the biggest game -- in terms of attendance, at least -- in college football history when their Hokies take on Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday (8 p.m. ET on ABC).
They're Virginia Tech lifers. The met there in 1971, and when they found out about the game, Dave paid the entry fee for eight of his friends in hopes of hitting the ticket lottery. One did, and now they're here.
But none of that is why they arrived five days early.
"I wanted to see the show," Dave Sparrow said.
That show has slowly coalesced around them. Down on Volunteer Parkway, a parade of vendors has set up shop. There's a mobile cocktail bar, a shop selling alligator heads and a food tent whose sign features a pink donkey's exposed posterior between the words "Big" and "Tacos."
Down the hill from the Sparrows, three campers from New Jersey are sipping beers. They're not rooting for Tennessee or Virginia Tech. They just wanted to see a football game played at a NASCAR track. Some NASCAR fans, Sparrow said, had simply left their campers here since the race three weeks ago and paid the extra storage fees. Most of them have Tennessee flags flying above their RVs and orange and white checkerboard awnings sprawling out over their campsite.
But the star of the show, at least at this campsite, is the garbage truck.
Donald Greene got the idea about eight years ago. The company he works for, Waste Connections, had retired a fleet of residential recycling trucks, and he thought it would be fun to retrofit the whole thing to serve as a tailgating vehicle. They sandblasted the interior, stripped down the exterior and painted it bright orange. Inside the rear, there's bench seating with a TV hanging on the back wall and air conditioning throughout. Outside there are kegs for beer, a steam table and grill for food and giant goal posts attached to the roof.
Price tag on the renovation?
"Unknown," Greene said.
In other words, it's best not to ask.
It's been a smart investment though. The company takes the truck to every Tennessee home game and hosts clients for tailgates. Fans passing by always want to stop and take a look, and Greene is happy to give tours. It's a show-stopper, which makes for good advertising for the company. Their locations in Oregon and Nebraska are building similar vehicles now, too.
In the circus that is the Battle at Bristol, Greene's Tennessee trash truck fits right in.
Holston River Brewing, a rustic building tucked between two churches, behind a mountain and adjacent to a campground, just a quarter-mile from the racetrack, has been here for two years. The building used to be a garage for monster trucks, but it was ramshackle and covered in dirt and grease when Sue Doherty bought it in 2013.
Doherty has always loved beer, and she liked the history of the building, so she decided to open the brewery here. Now all that remains of the garage are the oversized doors rolled up to create an open-air feel. There's a stage in the far corner -- karaoke on Wednesday was a hit, and multiple bands are playing through the weekend -- a pingpong table and shuffleboard in the back room. Given its humble beginnings, it's a rather upscale affair.
Building a customer base has been an ongoing project, though. Disputes over signage make the place tough to find from the highway, and in truth, NASCAR fans haven't quite caught on to the burgeoning craft beer experience.
"They tend to be more of a Bud Light and Mich Ultra crowd," said Deanna Cole, co-owner of the brewery.
For those folks, there's the "Ale Jr.": a light pilsner named after one of NASCAR's most popular drivers, which Cole says is a good gateway beer for the uninitiated. But for the college football fans here this week, there's no need for training wheels.
"This group is predominantly craft beer drinkers," Cole said of the incoming college football crowds.
That's actually what drew Christian Laourdakis here. He snagged tickets for the game and put his friend in charge of finding a campsite. The campground with the craft brewery was the logical choice.
"My uncle is coming from Michigan, and he loves microbrews, and we love microbrews," Laourdakis said. "So this is a great place to camp for the weekend and get some beers."
That's a boon for Doherty and Cole. The crowds for NASCAR events at the track have dwindled in recent years, but an influx of 150,000 or more college football fans is a needed injection of money into the coffers. Cole guesses this weekend's take at Holston River Brewing will exceed the two race weekends combined.
"It's not just good for us," she said, "It's good for all of Bristol."
Marla Edwards has been zipping her golf cart up and down the rolling hills surrounding the speedway for 16 years.
She gives a quizzical look when asked for her job title, as if it's never occurred to her that her role required definition. She started volunteering here 25 years ago and has been an employee overseeing the Medallion Motorcoach Community since 2000, and her job simply boils down to being a veteran of the experience.
"I've just been here long enough to answer a lot of things," she said.
Edwards was in a bluegrass band when she moved to Tennessee, and the lead singer hooked her up with her first job at the track and she never left. Away from the track, she farms 20 acres of cattle, and her hands are blistered and cut from putting up fence wire last week.
"This is a break to me," she said. "The joke we have is, we're ripping the speedway off because we'd all work here for free. We love our jobs."
Edwards is old-school. She calls NASCAR's top circuit the Winston Cup Series, even if that sponsorship has changed twice since 2003, and she prefers to hire older volunteers for race weekends because the kids spend too much time glued to their cellphones. She takes the job seriously, and it's easy to see why. As she zooms around the Medallion lot in her golf cart, there's not a guest she doesn't know by name.
There's Beverly Stewart, decked out in Tennessee colors, here to see her team play in person for just the third time in her life. She comes up from North Carolina for every race though, and she keeps Tootsie Rolls in her RV because she knows Edwards loves them.
Edwards stops to pat the heads of the dogs staying with Pam and Dave Norton and their friends. They're not college football fans, but they'd made a deal with friends to attend the game in exchange for the rest of the group coming to a NASCAR race. Because their friends have split allegiances, one dog will spend the weekend wearing a Virginia Tech bandanna, the other Tennessee.
She makes plans with Don Reynolds, who's been cooking for the Food City hospitality center on race days for 32 years. "He's the real deal," Edwards said, and before she pulls away in her golf cart she reminds him to check in with her when the ribs are ready Saturday.
The lot offers space for 200 RVs, but for Edwards, this is like family, and Saturday's game is a unique reunion.
Adam Rust has been here since 2005 in myriad roles with the speedway.
"I've had no other job," he said. "I've just kind of evolved here."
His job now is head of purchasing, which means if the track spends money on something, he's had a hand in acquiring it.
For Saturday's game, more than half-million beers were purchased -- a few hundred thousand bottles of water, too. There were custom stools for the locker rooms, mobile showers for the players, tents for VIPs and a few thousand other details that had to be just right.
And then there were the really tough items.
The infield seating was particularly problematic. The permanent seating capacity is 150,000, but Rust wasn't interested in simply beating the current college football attendance record. He wanted to demolish it, so the quest to install temporary accommodations began. They did sightline studies and crunched the numbers and the plans wavered from as many as 15,000 extra seats down to the current footprint of 5,000 seats. "We tweaked it until it couldn't be tweaked anymore," Rust said.
The field itself was a feat of engineering, too. For NASCAR races, the infield slopes inward to drain water. That needed to be filled with rocks and leveled off before the turf could go down for the field. At its midpoint, more than 3 feet of rocks were deposited. More than 450 dump trucks were required to deliver the full payload. When Tennessee sent out its engineering crew to finally inspect the field, it measured to within a millimeter of perfection for field quality. Even now, crews are out on the field with scissors, clipping any uneven fibers.
Above the field, however, is Rust's biggest accomplishment. It's called Colossus: a four-sided, 700-ton video board that is the rough equivalent of a 13,000 square foot, three-story house hoisted over the playing field by cables as thick as a linebacker's arms.
"It's the center of our universe," Rust said.
Given the size of the track, creating a video board capable of bringing fans in the worst seats close to the action was a priority, but it took nearly three full years for the project to come together.
Up in the tower along the front stretch, Adam Vahl is monitoring the Colossus technology. He's actually spent a bit of time inside Colossus itself, hoisted up in a basket 200 feet into a structure he said is "actually pretty homey." His company, GoVision, created Colossus, with about 75 percent of it being built on premises at the racetrack, but it's the upkeep in the control room that was the real chore. Wires run from one box to another, and lights blink frenetically along a wall of servers and processors. Somehow Vahl keeps track of it all.
"It's higher than HD, so we had hurdles on the technical side to get through," Vahl said. "It's 72 fibers, making sure everything is plugged in correctly. There's over 3 miles of cable inside there."
On game day, a GoVision employee will be up inside Colossus, in constant communication with Vahl to make adjustments or repairs as needed, and the eyes of more than 150,000 fans will be fixated on their work.
Fifteen miles away, at a biker bar called Tulips in Johnson City, Tennessee, Robert Hardin sits at the bar and wonders about the prospects for his beloved Tennessee Volunteers after a sloppy Week 1 performance, a 20-13 win over Appalachian State. He's not planning to attend the game. It's more comfortable to watch from his couch at home. But as the speedway has transformed from racetrack to football stadium, he's tracked the progress online, just to see what it all looks like.
Of all the massive accomplishments, this might be the most impressive. The die-hards and the race fans, the tailgaters and the bikers -- they're all excited just to see how this all turns out.
Marcus Smith and Jerry Caldwell have been here nearly their whole lives. Smith is the son of Bruton Smith, who started pushing this idea 20 years ago. Caldwell is the GM of the speedway, who's led the charge on what this game could become.
Back in the 1960s, the Eagles and Redskins played an exhibition game at the speedway, and the idea of putting on another football game here has existed in some form ever since.
In the mid-1990s, Smith pushed for the game, but the schools weren't interested. By the early 2000s, the roles had reversed, but the track couldn't accommodate the game at the time. But the dream never dissipated.
"The fans wouldn't let us forget it," Smith said. "They wouldn't let it die."
Now, the campgrounds are filled with RVs. The streets are lined with souvenir shops selling Hokies and Vols gear. Downtown Bristol has been a constant party. Colossus looms over a football field that, for two decades, seemed like a pipe dream.
"This is Super Bowl-esque," Smith said.
They're in the business of big events, Smith said, but this one was a little different. It took a little more time, a lot more engineering, a will to make it happen from the fans and the schools and the volunteers around the track and the contractors doing the work to get every little detail just right.
After so many years of waiting and planning and dreaming, it's a little surreal, Caldwell said, to finally see a finished product.
"For 20 years it's been talked about," he said. "And the stars just aligned."