The email arrived in my inbox about six weeks ago with the intriguing subject line: “Chaos at the Colosseum.”
The message was from Bristol Motor Speedway, a venue I’ve been fascinated by for years (enough to be on their email list at least) but had never had the chance to visit. So right away I was curious. And then I saw two words that made me click the link: Dude Perfect.
If you’re not an 11-year-old boy or the parent of an 11-year-old boy you may not be familiar with Dude Perfect. They are five guys from Texas who for years have been YouTube sensations, posting videos of themselves performing sports tricks, any number of sports-related stunts and other scripted skits. They have 50 million subscribers and their videos have been viewed 13 billion times. (Let that sink in for a moment.) My 11-year-old son, Jonas, thinks these guys are the best. He won’t purposefully sit down to watch a baseball game like I would have at his age, but he’ll watch hours of Dude Perfect doing their thing, usually in convenient 5- or 10-minute videos snippets.
So, when I read more about Chaos at the Colosseum, my radar went up. Whatever this event was, it promised performances from the DP guys, the potential to interact with them at a VIP meet-and-greet, supercross stunts, monster trucks, drifting cars and — somehow — a demolition derby. All in Bristol, Tennessee, at one of NASCAR’s legendary tracks. And over Father’s Day weekend no less.
Perhaps more importantly, it also promised a return to events and the opportunity to travel, something I had yet to do in earnest since the pandemic began.
“What do you think of this?” I asked my wife, showing her the email on the down-low, gauging her thoughts on a potential trip for me and my son.
“Oh,” she said, “you should totally do this.”
That’s how Jonas and I found ourselves last weekend in Tennessee for what turned out to be a fantastic sports adventure, and one that may well define what the next generation of fans will want to see and experience when they travel.
We waited until the night before the trip to tell Jonas where I was taking him and what we’d be doing. You can imagine his reaction. I tried thinking back to what the equivalent dream experience would have been when I was 11 had I been offered something like that. Maybe a trip to the MLB All-Star Game or the Super Bowl? For Jonas, seeing and meeting the guys from Dude Perfect was that big a deal.
Like other kids his age, Jonas of course has an interest in more traditional sports. Since he’s a bit of a birder, he’s become a rabid fan of the Philadelphia Eagles even though we live in Denver and he probably couldn’t point Philadelphia out on a map. When I told him our Dude Perfect trip would involve a layover in Dallas, he insisted on wearing his Eagles jersey, his Eagles cap, his Eagles backpack and green socks on the flight. I told him not to talk to anyone at the airport.
But the conversation on the way there more or less focused on the YouTube stars since I went ahead and splurged for the VIP meet-and-greet. (That one was my wife’s idea: “You can’t go all the way there and not meet them,” she said, reasonably.) What would Jonas ask when he met them? What would they say to us? How long would we have with them? What would the show be like?
After an airline experience that was smoother than whatever I had expected (masks on for everyone, adequate announcements about what type of behavior was expected, even a sanitizing wipe handed to us for our seats), we eventually landed in Kingsport, Tennessee, the closest major city to Bristol.
I had rented an economy car since we didn’t think we’d be going too far. It was supposed to be a Chevy Spark or equivalent, whatever a Chevy Spark is. But when we got to the counter, we were offered only a high-end Jeep Wrangler or a Dodge Charger for the same price, one of those unexpected joys of traveling that sometimes happens and a feeling I had completely forgotten about these past 18 months or so. I left the choice to Jonas; He chose the Jeep. When went out to see the car, it was a lovely vehicle. But that deep red Dodge Charger — a Daytona no less — with the word “HEMI” across the front and only 1,300 miles on the odometer was almost literally speaking to us. “We should get the Charger,” Jonas said quietly, a blank look on his face.
I was already two steps ahead of him back to the terminal.
A thrust of our HEMI engine later and we were off to explore Kingsport a bit, including the fantastic Braeden’s Barbecue that had been recommended to me by Frank Lett from Visit Kingsport. It did not disappoint. Our night was spent at the Marriott MeadowView Conference Resort, which itself has been the host of events including a recent stop on the World Long Drive Tour.
The next morning, we had some time to kill before the evening show. And we had an amazing set of wheels with which to explore. For breakfast we headed to Knoxville, which is also no stranger to sports events. In fact, that same weekend it was hosting the USA Cycling Pro Road Championships.
After a decadent breakfast at Olibea’s with my cousin who recently moved to the city, we caught up with Chad Culver and Parker Medley at Visit Knoxville and ran into Tara McCarthy at USA Cycling, who was preparing for that night’s criterium. The staging was set for an incredible race, one that was returning after the 2020 event, like so many others, was canceled because of the pandemic.
Knoxville was ready to shine that night and we would have loved to have stayed. But we had a track to visit.
That afternoon we pulled up to Bristol. Frank had warned me that the track will seem to come out of nowhere. And sure enough, it does. Rising from the ground to a tremendous height, the speedway makes a statement just by its presence.
We got in a few hours before the event for our VIP meet-and-greet, which required accessing the infield at Bristol through a tunnel under the track. Emerging from that tunnel to see “The Last Great Colosseum” in its entirety, from the middle of it all, was not unlike my first experience as a kid at Yankee Stadium emerging from the tunnel at my first sports event. It was overwhelming and impressive.
Opened in 1961, Bristol is only a half-mile around, which is impossibly small by NASCAR standards. And its complete seating around each turn allows for up to 160,000 people to be there, serving as the inspiration for the track’s moniker. It’s center-hung “Colossus” scoreboard is also the largest of its kind in the world. I’ve been to other big venues, of course. The Rose Bowl comes to mind. This felt like half the size of the Rose Bowl because of the small track and yet somehow twice the size with all those seats. It’s hard to comprehend.
But we didn’t have time to gawk. We had celebrities to meet.
Before long, we were inside one of the infield buildings for the chance to meet the guys from Dude Perfect. As we got closer, I could tell Jonas was nervous. It’s not every day you get to meet famous people, especially ones you are so familiar with from your television screen (or your phone screen, I suppose). Jonas didn’t just know them all. He knew their handlers, who sometimes appear in the videos as well. When someone named Sparky was the last to talk to us before we got our moment with the stars, Jonas knew him, too.
When it was our turn, the guys were great. They project the vibe of five longtime friends having fun competing in their videos and they seemed that way in real life. One of the guys looked at Jonas’ Eagles hat and gave him grief about the team since they are all Cowboys fans. Jonas asked his questions about some upcoming videos they plan to release and got some great inside dirt. They were all impressed we had traveled from Denver to see them and told us we were (at least to that point) the people who had come the farthest to see them. They laughed with us and seemed as interested as they could be in us considering they had about 300 other people still to meet. They posed for some photos and we collected a swag bag, which included a toy Bristol-themed car that Jonas proceeded to race down that infield tunnel on our way out.
And before we knew it, we were moving on to wait for the evening’s show.
They didn’t recommend that you bring ear protection to Chaos at the Colosseum. But it wasn’t a bad idea. Yes, there were loud monster trucks and those drifting cars don’t exactly slide around the pavement quietly. But the pregame entertainment, such as it was, was designed for the younger set. That included a DJ who was doing his part to excite the crowd but did so more or less by yelling sounds that were hard to make out through the venue’s speaker system.
Some of that noise bombardment made sense. Most of my own Dude Perfect experience with Jonas has been to ask him to turn the volume down since the guys tend to get excited during their tricks, leading to many abrupt bursts of yelling coming from the living room television. (I bonded with one dad at the event who, when asked by their camera crew what he loved about Dude Perfect, sarcastically said “all the yelling” and that he would appreciate more of it.)
But the noise was part of the chaos and the event wouldn’t have been the same without it. During the evening, supercross professionals did stunts off a ramp, including a complete back flip. The drifting cars and trucks were fun to watch as they whipped up smoke in their wake across the paved infield. Monster trucks went over ramps that were made from school buses. And the DP guys indeed engaged in a demolition derby, the ending of which will be part of an upcoming video, meaning Jonas and I can now say we’ve appeared in a Dude Perfect video that will be viewed 50 million times.
And the guys even did a sports stunt of their own, “kicking” field goals using an ATV with tires mounted on the front that they drove into a waiting exercise ball that sat atop a cardboard box tee. The goal was to get the ball through the same goal posts used when Bristol hosted Virginia Tech and Tennessee in 2016 in what remains the largest-attended college football game in history with 156,990 fans.
When it was over, we felt entertained. Jonas had met his heroes. And I had several hours to bask in one of the coolest sports venues I’ve ever been at in the world.
Our final day in the area included the travel part of our sports-related travel experience. We had a shockingly authentic New York bagel breakfast at the amazing Bagel Exchange in downtown Kingsport. We walked around one of the largest antique stores we’ve ever been to and later regretted not buying a board game called Space Shuttle 101, which made the astonishing claim on its box that anyone 7 and older could “command actual missions to outer space.”
We toured the beautiful Bays Mountain Park and its collection of raptors, which of course was of interest to Jonas. (There was also a parking lot car show featuring different Jeeps, which for half a second had us regretting not renting that nice Jeep at the airport — but only for half a second.)
From there, we drove to downtown Bristol, which is known for being split down the middle along State Street between Virginia and Tennessee. For lunch, we stopped at an institution on the Virginia side called the Burger Bar. While the burgers did not disappoint, I unexpectedly had the single best onion ring I’ve had in my life. Not that I’ve had a lot of onion rings in my life. But I do recall quite a few bad ones. The Burger Bar, I am here to say, makes the best one in the world — perfect crumb, slight amount spice, a thick and flavorful onion.
We walked around downtown a bit, hopping across the street every now and then after saying, “Should we visit Tennessee now?” or “Should we visit Virginia now?” For Jonas, it was his first time in either state and the proximity allowed him to work on his sudden and extremely 11-year-old goal of performing a somersault in all 50 states. Two down, 48 to go.
We took a very slow ride back to the airport as we weren’t quite ready to give up our Daytona. Well, a slow ride accentuated by the occasional extreme acceleration so we could hear that HEMI in all its capital-letter glory.
After some good-bye hugs to the car, we got ready for our return flights. At the evening stopover back in Dallas, most of our terminal’s restaurants were closed for some reason, leaving our only viable options as McDonald’s or Subway, each of which had lines that looked too long for us to make our connection. So, we improvised yet again at a convenience-type store, crafting a dinner that included some waters, a bag of beef jerky for the main meal, a bag of potato chips for a side dish and some fruit-flavored gummy bears for dessert. It may not have been Mom-approved, but these are the things that happen on a trip with your Dad. We sat down at a high boy outside a closed wine bar to eat our gourmet meal in style. We laughed the whole time.
Jonas, however, had one last surprise left: Our connecting flight back to Denver was the only one on the trip that had screens on the seat backs. It was as if Jonas had just received a $1,000 gift for flying. “They have screens!” he said as we worked our way down the aisle. When he discovered that the screen on his window seat wasn’t working, I offered to trade him so he could use mine in the middle, a move that may have meant more to him than taking him on the entire trip itself.
Perhaps the excitement over the screens was not surprising considering the nature of our travel adventure to see the latest internet sensations. Sports-related travel is, by all measures, returning. We are seeing it on a weekly basis, not just at the major professional events that fill our TVs again after a year of chaos at many colosseums. We are seeing it at the youth level as well, with hotels filled with traveling teams in all sports and people returning to sports events. And in Kingsport, Tennessee, last week, one of those rooms was filled with a father and son on a journey to Bristol.
Do the guys from Dude Perfect qualify as sports-related travel? For Jonas, and many in his generation, they absolutely do. When professional sports celebrities come on with Dude Perfect to perform some tricks, Jonas generally doesn’t know who they are. He just knows they’re on with Dude Perfect. The fact that five guys have made a lucrative career for themselves on YouTube should come as no surprise. Their act is made for today. It’s funny. It’s easily digested in quick clips. And they do at least compete in stuff among themselves in a way that makes it fairly compelling to watch.
Whatever you think of their sports bonafides, Dude Perfect of all things was our gateway back to a time that for many months I feared wouldn’t return — or at least not return in the same way. The act of traveling to an event was a relief, a joy and contained all the surprises that make trips like that so memorable. We’ll be talking about that Charger, about our beef jerky at the wine bar and about our bagels and lox in downtown Kingsport for years to come. We may even talk about those things more than meeting Dude Perfect once Jonas inevitably moves on to the next thing.
But the only thing that made those memories possible was the ability to travel again in ways we all knew before. And for that I was most grateful.
Jason Gewirtz is editor and publisher of SportsTravel Magazine. His son, Jonas, is a Dude Perfect fan and one of the most ardent Philadelphia Eagles fans you will ever meet.