Behind The Scenes

Bristol Motor Speedway hosts GameDay and ABC Saturday Night Football

The NASCAR Battle of Bristol Trophy visited the set of College GameDay last week at Lambeau Field.  (Photo by Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images)
The NASCAR Battle of Bristol Trophy visited the set of College GameDay last week at Lambeau Field; this week, GameDay will be in Bristol, Tenn. for the historic game.
(Photo by Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images)

History will be made on Saturday as Virginia Tech and No. 17 Tennessee take to the “track” in the Pilot Flying J Battle at Bristol, from Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. The ABC Saturday Night Football game (8 p.m. ET) is expected to be played in front of a crowd of more than 150,000 people, the largest college football crowd in United States history. College GameDay Built by The Home Depot will also originate from the Speedway, airing from 9 a.m.-noon.

Several key commentators from ESPN’s long-time NASCAR coverage have made the transition over to the network’s industry-leading college football production. That includes Dr. Jerry Punch, reporter Marty Smith, ESPN.com reporter Ryan McGee and production manager Lindsey Lloyd, who will all be onsite this weekend.

Punch took Front Row for a stroll ride down memory victory lane heading into this weekend’s event.

Producer Bill Bonnell on producing football at a racetrack

“From a producer’s standpoint, Saturday’s game is still a football game and we’ll be prepared to cover football. But I really take my hat off to our terrific Saturday Night Football technical crew, led by senior operations specialist Jack Coffey and our director Jeff Evers. They’ve been working for months on what will be a huge technical and logistical challenge.

“Now you might not know it, but our announcers have auto racing roots – Rece [Davis] hosted RPM2night back in the day and after Kirk [Herbstreit] moved to Nashville, he’s turned into a NASCAR fan. So my unique challenge will be to prevent them from slipping into those typical NASCAR clichés like – “He’s running on empty,” “Dropping the hammer,” or “Driving like his hair is on fire.” I hope they remember that we’re still doing a football game. . . at the Bristol Motor Speedway!”

What is your favorite memory about Bristol Motor Speedway?
In my 30 years here, there are way too many to pick just one, but Bristol is all about emotion; maybe better yet, uncontrolled emotion. From the time the cars take the green flag, with 150,000 screaming fans flashing pictures, to the thunderous roar of race engines, it is pure sensory overload. I have experienced anger, sadness, surprise and exhilaration while working races in Bristol.

There is a reason this is known as the “Last Great Coliseum,” and on Saturday night football fans will understand why.

In relation to the game, the exhilaration for me was seeing the look on Chairman Bruton Smith’s face when it was officially announced that this college football game was actually going to be played. His dream, his vision from almost 20 years ago, had finally become a reality. Pure joy, and maybe a little “I told you so” relief.

How will covering a football game from the Speedway differ from covering a NASCAR race?
The noise. It will be loud with all those fans and the bands playing; but it won’t have the roar of race engines. Also, for the football game, all the action will be right in front of us; whereas, with a race we were constantly chasing drivers back into the garage areas or running to the infield hospital to get an interview or quote.

As sports fans, what other “out of the norm” venues would you like to see a college game played at?
Although we have had basketball games on an aircraft carrier, I am not sure a college football field would fit; but if it would, how cool would that be? Except, for the fact we would lose a lot of footballs after field goals and extra points.

If not there, how about building a nice field in the middle of a military base (similar to MLB’s game at Fort Bragg); and give those who serve as well as their families total access. What better way to give back to those who sacrifice so much for our freedom?

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