When the Last Great Coliseum Becomes the Speedway in Lights

Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
December 9, 2014
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Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
December 9th, 2014
Share story

Bristol Motor Speedway is known as the Last Great Coliseum. During the two annual races each year the sound of revving motors echoes off the mountains for miles. But during December the only sound visitors hear is soft Christmas music in the cold night air. It’s the annual Speedway in Lights charity event, and nobody is in a hurry to complete a lap.

I arrived a little later than I wanted and found myself in a line of hundreds of cars, trucks, vans, and buses, each slowly inching forward. But that was just fine with me. Lights were shining, blinking, and twirling every direction I looked. I switched my radio to a station playing Christmas music and relaxed behind the wheel as the line inches forward a few feet per minute.

During this annual event the space at Bristol Dragway is converted into a ticket booth and entrance lane for the lights. During the two annual races you would find hundreds of campers and RV’s in these spaces that have now been converted into lanes for the traffic. It’s slow going, but I feel like this could be a great family tradition, a time when everyone could actually just enjoy time with each other during a special season. The first lights I came across on the dragway were dinosaurs because why not?. I felt like maybe, just maybe, if Steven Spielberg were to have created his own Christmas light display in his front yard, this might have been what it looked like.
Light displays alongside the path cars travel leading up to the racetrack at Speedway in Lights at Bristol Motor Speedway, an annual event that dresses up Bristol Dragway and the World's Fastest Half-Mile on the racetrack, in Bristol, TN on Thursday, December 19, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette For seven weeks, the raceway and dragway are dressed up with light tunnels, displays, and Christmas music along a four-mile trek. Visitors can stay in the warmth of their cars as they drive through the event, ending with the infield at the raceway. All money collected from the event makes this the single largest fundraiser for the Bristol Chapter of Speedway Children's Charities.

The lane curves, bends, and twists around the parking areas outside the raceway.

The line moved slowly, but from the vantage point on a hill near the dragway you could see most of the lights. Being a photographer as well as a writer (and traveler, and occasionally I get to be just a regular human being) I stopped here to shoot a few photos to capture the scene. It was difficult to get a photo with light trails because the cars were moving so slowly and frequently stopped for long periods of time. It took a few tries, but I finally got what I needed so I could jump back in line and continue the trek.
The Ripley's Aquarium of Gatlinburg display in a long tunnel at Speedway in Lights at Bristol Motor Speedway, an annual event that dresses up Bristol Dragway and the World's Fastest Half-Mile on the racetrack, in Bristol, TN on Thursday, December 19, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette For seven weeks, the raceway and dragway are dressed up with light tunnels, displays, and Christmas music along a four-mile trek. Visitors can stay in the warmth of their cars as they drive through the event, ending with the infield at the raceway. All money collected from the event makes this the single largest fundraiser for the Bristol Chapter of Speedway Children's Charities.

The Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies display lights up a tunnel underneath the raceway seating.

The lane curves and bends and snakes around several parking lots that usually hold hundreds of cars, vendors, and facilities for races. There were tunnels of lights, giant castles, and a volcano with a flame on top because of course. But the best part, or at least the second best part, was the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies display underneath the raceway stadium seating. Normally this corridor is full of thousands of people milling around, seeking their seats, or grabbing some food. But during this event the hallway is decorated with beautiful blue lights for cars to drive beneath, with several scenes depicting various sea animals.

It takes awhile longer before you finally reach the most exciting part of the trek: the lane takes visitors out onto Turn 3 on the raceway itself. The first time I visited I was surprised to find myself out on the raceway. I didn’t think “normal” cars were ever allowed out here, especially driving ourselves. A few cars revved their engines and shot forward every once in awhile, but the proper etiquette for the Speedway in Lights is to stay in line and suppress the need for speed. A few cars still shot around others for a few seconds of speed, much to the delight of the adult driving as much as the kids in the back I would imagine.

Drivers can complete a full lap around the raceway and exit, but they can also pull into pit lane and park in the center section of the raceway to enjoy some festivities. Several vendors are set up here selling gifts and memorabilia, but you can also find a hot chocolate and just enjoy the atmosphere. I took a walk around the infield because this was the first time I had ever visited Bristol Motor Speedway. I stood in the middle wondering, imagining, what it would be like to have fifty cars running in a continuous loop chasing each other in a fish bowl. I know it’s loud, but standing in the cold night air with soft Christmas music and low hum of chatter from conversations it was difficult to properly imagine the level of noise from a proper race night.
The infield provided entertainment, photos with Santa, and food during the Speedway in Lights at Bristol Motor Speedway, an annual event that dresses up Bristol Dragway and the World's Fastest Half-Mile on the racetrack, in Bristol, TN on Thursday, December 19, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette For seven weeks, the raceway and dragway are dressed up with light tunnels, displays, and Christmas music along a four-mile trek. Visitors can stay in the warmth of their cars as they drive through the event, ending with the infield at the raceway. All money collected from the event makes this the single largest fundraiser for the Bristol Chapter of Speedway Children's Charities.

The raceway that is normally filled with thousands of NASCAR fans is eerily empty during this event, but still quite beautiful to admire.

The lights, music, hot chocolate, and driving on the raceway all made it worth the price of admission, especially when you consider this is for charity. The Speedway in Lights is the single largest fundraising event all year for the Speedway Children’s Charity. The crews spend nearly six weeks, starting in early October, to put up more than 2 million bulbs and 200 displays. It’s an annual event started in 1996, and certainly an event I will visit each year so I can enjoy this thrill and excitement one more time while supporting a good charity.

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2 Comments

  1. Sharon Goins Barnette December 11, 2014 at 6:55 PM - Reply

    The lights and slant of the raceway remind me of a ride at the Family Kingdom Amusement Park that goes round and round. Looking at this photo makes me dizzy just like the ride did.

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