A few weeks ago, I got a call from the folks at Pilot Flying J. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m constantly driving up and down the eastern seaboard visiting family as far north as Pennsylvania and as far south as Atlanta, I might not be completely familiar with the largest operator of travel centers and travel plazas (I’ve probably used a few hundred of their restrooms) in North America. As we got into conversation, I’ll admit, the invitation surprised me.
I’ve had some pretty cool experiences since I started the blog six years ago (many of which you’ll read about in the coming weeks), but this one would be for the ages.
Pilot Flying J is headquartered in Knoxville, TN, a scruffy little city (and host of the 1982 World’s Fair) with the Tennessee River running right through it. As many faithful college football fans are aware, it provides a home for the flagship campus of the University of Tennessee and it’s Volunteers. As we got to talking, they asked me if I knew where Bristol was. I told them that I was vaguely familiar with Bristol Motor Speedway – though I’m not a maniac fan of NASCAR, I’ve certainly watched my fair share of races on a weekend afternoon with my old man.
They asked if I’d be interested in hopping on a plane (or perhaps a soda can with wings) and coming over for the weekend to be witness to not only a NASCAR weekend with the Pilot Flying J race team, but also meet with the top dogs at BMS to help understand and raise awareness about a little event they were putting together on September 10th, called the #BattleatBristol – a ‘little event’ that intends on breaking the Guinness World Record for attendance at a football game by bringing in 150,000+ fans to watch the Tennessee Volunteers take on the Virginia Tech Hokies.
The reason behind Pilot Flying J’s involvement with this monumental event is beautiful. Its’ founder, Jim Haslam played for the Vols and was a member of the 1951 national championship team.
All of this together, was enough for me.
So… I boarded our soda can.
After we got rid of one unlucky passenger because we were too heavy to fly, we took off on what I imagine a WWII bombing run felt like. It was loud and bumpy, people yelling instructions, but without the anti-aircraft fire. We landed safely in Bristol where I gave the pilot a lighthearted laugh from the cockpit by kissing the tarmac.
I arrived two days before the Food City 500, so we could have some time to learn a little bit more about BMS while watching the Nascar Xfinity Series 125 from the infield.
After the Saturday race, we headed up to a ‘man cave’ suite. It was complete with tables made from used Goodyear racing tires, dartboards, beer taps and a full-on racing simulator which I gave a shot (BUT REFUSE TO POST VIDEO) and found myself in the wall in under a minute.
Our purpose in going up to the suite was to meet Des Moines, Iowan native and driver of the Pilot Flying J #46 car, Michael Annett, along with his crew.
As Michael and his team retired for the afternoon to prepare for the next days’ race, we kicked back and talked with Jerry Caldwell. He’s the executive vice-president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway. After seeing the enormity of the track and facility, we were curious about how he intended to have a NASCAR night race (which I hear is BUCKET LIST) on August 20th and only have 20 days to convert it for #BattleAtBristol game day.
Jerry kinda shook his head with a half-laugh and said, “We’ll need to get to work immediately.”
As soon as the race ends and they remove the haulers from the infield, approximately 400 workers will begin bulk cleaning and then detailing the speedway. After that, 10-12 crews will begin pressure washing and another set of crews will clean every suite in seven days – a process which normally takes 4-6 weeks.
As the sun began to set, I snapped a picture of the fastest half-mile track in the world…
For the #BattleAtBristol – the football field will be completed in only 8 days. It will require approximately 400 truckloads totaling 8,500 tons of rock to raise the game field 3 feet off the existing concrete in the speedway.
As we looked out onto the track – it seemed like a MASSIVE undertaking, the effort alone worthy of breaking the Guinness World Record…
The following day had a buzz in the air. I’ve never experienced a NASCAR ‘RACE DAY’.
Watching a race on television is a thousand times different than being there in person. Especially when you’ve got guys driving you around on golf carts, VIP access to the driver’s meeting, suite access and hot passes for the infield. Plus, you shared conversation with the driver the day before and you’re friendly with the guy who oversees the pit crew.
As we pulled up to Bristol Motor Speedway, chopper after chopper were landing on a helipad right next to the parking lot. Evidently this is how VIP’s, team owners, celebrities and drivers’ families arrive to avoid the traffic. Between golf carts racing around, the wind from chopper blades and police and security presence – as well as the fan base partying in the lot – it was a jaw-dropping experience.
After attending the driver’s meeting and watching them introduce military heroes, as well as Peyton Manning and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (served as honorary race officials) and receive a blessing from the chaplain, we took off for the gate and entered the speedway under those same tunnels we walked the day before, entering into something that felt bigger than anything I’d experienced thus far.
There were hundreds of people moving around on the infield. Most of them were pit crew members, rolling tires and gas cans. However, there were also moms and dads, brothers and sisters and cousins and friends of the racing teams. It felt like a giant family, which gave me an entirely new perspective on the NASCAR culture. Everyone acted as if they knew each other, they looked out for each other and made everyone else around them feel comfortable – including the family at Pilot Flying J.
As the cars lined up for introductions, we met up with Team Annett, snapped some photos – but no one really talked – there was a huge focus on the race that was about to happen.
As pick-up trucks with honorees swirled around the track and made their way underneath the track or to the infield, everyone hustled to get back to the pit in anticipation of the race starting.
As we gathered in the pit, the cars made their way to the starting line and we all pulled our caps to our chests to honor America with the National Anthem, accompanied by a fly-over, not only by a few jets, but Challenger the Eagle. Challenger is a non-releasable Bald Eagle (born in 1989) cared for by the non-profit American Eagle Foundation HQ’d at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, TN. Challenger was named in honor of the fallen space shuttle crew, whom I have a deep connection with.
One of the coolest experiences in my life was being able to sit on ‘pit wall’ and shoot the opening lap of the #FoodCity500 in Bristol – the world’s fastest half-mile.
As well as stand with the PFJ crew and experience a NASCAR pit stop in all it’s glory.
All in all, I had one of the best times of my life in Bristol, Tennessee with Team Pilot Flying J.
If you guys aren’t familiar with Pilot Flying J, check them out here. They have more than 650 retail locations, 52 Goodyear commercial tire and service centers (Wingfoot) and 44 Boss Shops all of which accept MyRewards loyalty cards, Pilot Flying J’s loyalty rewards program. They provide drivers with access to more than 70,000 parking spaces for trucks, 4,800 showers and more than 4,400 diesel lanes at the pump.
And if you happen to be free on September 10th, look into buying some tickets to the #BattleAtBristol – the Tennessee Vols VS. the Virginia Tech Hokies and be a part of history in the making at Bristol Motor Speedway. It’s a quaint little mountain town with A LOT to offer.
UPDATE: Here’s a quick video I pulled together of the weekend – ENJOY!
EDITOR’S NOTE: This was a sponsored post, however, my thoughts and opinions on the experience remain my own. WHAT. AN. AMAZING. TIME.