It’s that merry time of year again, and Russ and I decided to make a date to go to the Speedway in Lights after dinner at the Mad Greek (which doesn’t sound like a very happy place, but is quite delicious and has killer calzones).

For those of you unfamiliar with Bristol, we boast a couple of pretty important titles. We’re “The Birthplace of Country Music,” a reference to “the Bristol Sessions” (Google, if you need to), and also, home of “The World’s Fastest Half-Mile,” at the Bristol Motor Speedway. The Speedway transforms each year for the holidays, becoming a wonderland of sights and sounds of the season, complete with about 2 MILLION LIGHTS! Various agencies and organizations across the region sponsor the event that runs roughly from mid-November through early January and features Santa’s Village on the in-field of the NASCAR Track, the smell of kettle corn filling the air during your drive around the half-mile oval and all but luring you to the holiday goodies awaiting in the center of the field. Due to Covid, there were no rides or live Santa this year. Bummer, but we all get the need for safety.

The Speedway in Lights is an annual attraction, bringing in fans and admirers from several states. While we waited, we saw license plates from Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, and California. (We presume that that car was already here visiting and took in the sights as part of the visit!) Admission is by the car/truckload, and it’s not uncommon for groups to come on buses – in case you’re wondering, the cost for a busload of people is a mere $125. Speedway in Lights is open seven nights a week, all kinds of weather, from 6-10 p.m. If you’re in line at 10 p.m., you get through. Anyone traveling in the vicinity of Volunteer Parkway en route to the Bluff City area at this time of year is more than familiar with the traffic back-ups. Russ and I chose a Saturday night in mid-December, a night that, when we got in line was pretty clear out and about 60 degrees warm at 7 p.m. 

I had forgotten just how many hours the wait could be honestly – both of us had – and Rupert, my trusty SUV, had less than 50 miles of gas left in him. It was only about 5 or 6 miles in line, but it took us nearly five hours from the time we exited Volunteer Parkway to the time we finished the lap inside the Speedway and left the front entrance, back onto Volunteer Parkway. I held my breath up every hill we climbed all night! 

The first sign you see giving you any indication of how long your wait will be warns you that you’re 1.5 hours from the ticket booth. That is your last chance to exit the line that you have probably already been waiting in at least an hour (if you were like us, about 2 hours, or a bit longer). Then you eventually reach a sign that gives you the hope that you’re only one hour from the ticket booth. There are porta-potties and restroom buildings along the way; they do get used to the max! Watching people come out and try to find their vehicles in the four lanes of traffic can be hysterical – unless, of course, you’re one of the people who has gotten confused and fallen out of line with your driver. (Russ just stopped when he saw me coming, bless his heart! It’s not like anyone behind us was really going anywhere!)

Once you’ve paid admission – on a Friday or Saturday, for a car of 1-8 people, it’s $25 (see the official website for further pricing), you go from four lanes of traffic to two and enter a 4-mile journey that begins down the drag strip behind the actual Speedway, where you encounter the 12 Days of Christmas in lights. Then you go from two lanes to one and go up the hill through Dinosaur Village and watch the dragster cars zoom by you in lights to finish this section of lights. My favorite parts always include the fisherman fishing by the Loch Ness Monster (my Scottish ancestry adores Nessie), and when you drive through part of the actual grandstands of the track, sponsored by Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokey’s, bedecked in aquatic hues and transformed by colorful water creatures in lights. After you make your way out of the grandstands, you drive down and around part of the speedway and into the actual Speedway facilities onto the high-banks of the track. That’s right! You actually get to drive – at a slow, safe speed, on the same pavement where NASCAR’s brightest and best fight it out in Bristol twice each year! And those four-degree banks are truly something to experience! By that point in our journey, it was raining a bit and the rain just slid completely sideways across the windshield. I had removed my seatbelt a little earlier in my jaunt for the restrooms and fighting gravity to continue sitting upright in my seat was a real struggle, even for that short period of time. We inhaled the delicious smells of kettle corn and funnel cake, but decided to pass on Santa’s Village this year, so we wound our way out of the Speedway, and out the front entrance towards home. And made it home on fumes of gasoline, to tell the tale. 

For future reference, and for those who are impatient and more interested in just jumping in than having a great story about almost running out of gas or panting to porta-potties, on certain nights, Speedway in Lights does offer what’s called “Jingle Bell Lane,” Tickets are limited and by reservation only. A car of 1-8 people costs $50; a van of 9-23 people costs $60. It’s apparently not available for buses, but let’s face reality: if you’re with a bus load of people, you’re there for the story-making and memories, anyway, not just the lights! 

The best thing about the Speedway in Lights? Proceeds go to the Speedway Children’s Charities. I won’t pretend to know everything that is covered under that umbrella. I do know firsthand that Sullivan County Imagination Library usually benefits from it because that is a group that I have worked with in the past. And you all know how I love Dolly and the work done by Imagination Library. But I do know that, without Speedway Children’s Charities, a whole lot of great things that happen in our region just wouldn’t get done. There are signs throughout the lights display with statistics about what visitors to the attraction help accomplish through their generosity of being there. So, on behalf of everyone in this area, if you’ve been or are planning to come this year, I appreciate you. And if you haven’t thought about it, maybe this piece will inspire you to make plans. Just fill up your gas tank before you exit the interstate. Thanks, BMS, for another Merry Christmas Memory!