War Memorial: The best tailgating in Arkansas
The key is to be prepared.
LITTLE ROCK What follows is a list of items needed for tailgating at War Memorial Stadium for an Arkansas Razorbacks football game:
— A 10-foot-by-10-foot tent. It can be white. It helps if it's Razorback Red. And it's even better if it sports a Razorback or four on its roof.
— Folding armchairs. Yes, they come in Razorback Red, too. And some have a Razorback across the back.
— A table. A card table, a folding table, a folding picnic table, a hitch-mounted tailgate table — but not one of the kitchen table variety.
— A cooler. Inside the cooler should be food.
— Another cooler. Inside the cooler should be non-alcoholic beverages.
— One more cooler. Inside the third, but most important cooler, should be alcohol.
— A grill.
— A flat-screen TV. For watching games and such.
— A generator. To power said TV.
— A game of cornhole.
The above list is certainly not complete. But it contains the essentials. Additional items might include blenders (for the drinkers of frozen concoctions), flagpoles (for flying the Razorback nation flag), propane-powered warmers (for keeping warm), a football (for reliving glory days), a radio or karaoke machine (for a postgame dance party) and various other objects for creating the ultimate tailgating experience.
The great mass of Razorback humanity who will converge upon War Memorial Golf Course and the parking lots surrounding War Memorial Stadium in the blue and orange light of dawn Saturday will be armed with the above items and more. By 8 a.m., two hours after the reserved tailgating section opens and an hour after scholarship and general parking opens, the acreage in the heart of Little Rock will be awash in a sea of red and white. (There will also be a smattering of purple-and-gold-clad LSU Tigers fans, but they should be viewed with suspicion, except for their food, which will have crawled in an ocean or river at some time but still be delicious.)
The fairways will be covered in near-endless lines of vehicles, tents and tailgating essentials. Hordes of fans will walk the course sans golf clubs but armed with Solo cups, visiting friends, family members and fellow fans along the way. Smoke will rise from the course and with the smoke the smell of grilled food. Bean bags will be tossed into tiny holes, and footballs will soar through the morning air. There will be music and the sound of a thousand TVs with their talking heads discussing the day's football action. If War Memorial Stadium holds exactly 53,727 fans, the area around the stadium before the game will be home to roughly the same number and maybe a few thousand more. In a word or three: football tailgating heaven. That is what pops up twice a year in Midtown Little Rock when the Arkansas Razorbacks visit.
While Fayetteville has struggled to create a unifying tailgating domain for Razorback games, Little Rock has become home to the best tailgating in Arkansas. And a tailgating mecca that closely rivals many other Southeastern Conference schools. It's a little more laid-back than The Grove at Ole Miss. Not quite as rowdy as another Saturday night in Baton Rouge. Not as spread out as tailgating at the University of Georgia in Athens.
It's all by design and a closely followed plan, but there's also a bit of happenstance at play. It just so happens that War Memorial Stadium sits across Fair Park Boulevard from War Memorial Golf Course. And it just so happens that golf course can hold roughly 4,800 vehicles, according to Jerry Cohen, the assistant stadium manager.
"I think the deal is, is we have all this space close to the stadium," he says. "Our general parking is right there next to the stadium. We have all that acreage and all that grass."
"All that grass." Forgive him. Cohen sometimes forgets it's a city park as well instead of a large parking lot. But it's understandable. It's ultimately Cohen’s job to ensure "all that grass" is efficiently utilized, and people enjoy their tailgating experience.
Sitting in a conference room inside the north side of War Memorial Stadium 10 days before Saturday's Battle for the Boot, Cohen points to an aerial shot of the acres around War Memorial Stadium from the 2006 Arkansas-LSU game. That was the year War Memorial Stadium took over responsibility for the parking around the stadium after the city of Little Rock had run it for years prior. The stadium had handled a late October game against Louisiana-Monroe, but Cohen recounts he was a little apprehensive about parking for the Battle for the Boot. But what the photo reveals is parallel lines of near-perfectly parked cars stretching across the fairways. The parking situation is so well-handled that Cohen jokes he doesn't even cross the double-yellow line of Fair Park Boulevard on gamedays.
"The parking is a challenge because we are in the inner city in Midtown," Cohen says. "It's pretty wild. The stadium commission, their whole thing is to create the best game atmosphere we can without sacrificing parking for the game. It's a fine line. The biggest challenge for us is staying on top of parking.
"The Little Rock Police Department does a great job with parking control."
The 4,800 vehicles represent general parking, where fans pay $20 to park. It doesn't include an additional 400 spots for reserved tailgating at the corner of Fair Park Boulevard and Markham Street where fans pay $120 a season. Or the scholarship parking in the lots around the stadium. Or the corporate tailgating along Markham Street. Not to mention the RV parking or parking for tailgaters with extra-large grills. Pretty wild indeed.
Dealing with the rising number of college football fans who arrive in RVs, the stadium has gone to great lengths. For Saturday's game, that includes allowing RV parking in the new Midtown Target parking lot and other places around the stadium.
"We have people calling all day long wanting to know about RV parking," Cohen says. "That takes up a lot of space. A lot of these RVs bring along cars as well as car tows, so RV parking is a challenge.
"We also attract a lot of fans with large grills. We have to accommodate them so we dedicated an area around the pavilion to the people with large grills. We try to think of every angle."
Every angle includes a specially designated area for fraternities to tailgate. It's all about creating an atmosphere that pleases a large swath of people. And for the most part, it works. Or, as Cohen says, "We have a few problems, but they are small and handled quickly."
Assisting stadium employees are about 100 law enforcement officers from the Little Rock Police Department or Pulaski County Sheriff's Office along with the Arkansas State Police, who handle traffic duty on Interstate 630. On top of that, there are about 60 parking-lot attendants in the general parking area and another 40 or 50 parking-lot attendants in the scholarship parking area.
"It is really pretty neat," Cohen says. "It's an amazing effort made by a lot of people."
And what goes unseen — as fans sleep off their hangovers or head to church the next morning — is how War Memorial Golf Course is returned to its former condition.
"Early Sunday morning we start towing the vehicles still left on the golf course," Cohen says. "But usually by 11 [a.m.] or noon the following day, the golf course is ready to go."
The atmosphere created is untouched in Arkansas. Andy Edwards knows. He tailgates in Fayetteville and Little Rock for Razorback games. He knows how to compare and contrast.
"There is a difference for sure," he says. "In Little Rock, it seems as though it's a little more about the tailgating, and in Fayetteville, it is just about the game really. Now, in Fayetteville, people tailgate, but in Little Rock it is more like a rock concert, where everybody is out on the golf course together just having a good time. People kind of bounce around from tailgate to tailgate to see friends and such.
"In Fayetteville, you kind of have to get where you can because of limited space, and if you don't have a parking pass you're not near the stadium. There's not as much bouncing around and seeing friends because it is so spread out. And you're going to get your cardio in with the hills and all. If you are lazy, you are not going to make that trip around the stadium. It is just a different experience. To me, it's not as fun, but I enjoy tailgating [in Fayetteville]. I enjoy it. I enjoy tailgating period. It's definitely a more lively crowd down in Little Rock and a better atmosphere."
Tailgating is nothing new, although it’s hard to recall fans doing more than parking and walking to the stadium before, say, the late 1980s. Over the past decade, the tailgate part of tailgating has become optional as people have left their vehicles and entered the tent era at War Memorial Stadium. Cohen has watched the transformation. He points to the turn of the century.
"I think around 2000 the tailgating really took off," he says. "2000 or 2001. And it continues to grow. It's phenomenal. We get calls all day about tailgating.”
It got out of hand for a while there. Stories about fans burning couches on the golf course in some bizarre pre- or post-game ritual are legendary — and, indeed, may be pure legend. One fan remembers traipsing through the crowd on an Arkansas-LSU game day, back when the game was the Friday after Thanksgiving, and coming across some good ol’ boys who were drinking whiskey and watching, um, adult films on a projector screen. It wasn’t yet 8 a.m.; hours before kickoff.
These days, tailgating seems like one big watch party — and football is always the feature presentation.
"The number of people who bring out a TV so they can watch ESPN Gameday and the other games on a big-screen TV is amazing,” says Cohen.
Edwards and his gang of about 20 tailgaters will be one of those armed with a TV come Saturday. He's been a tailgater at War Memorial for about six years, hanging with a group of friends and family members, but also people met through tailgating. And along with a core group of about five tailgaters in the party, he is one of the people responsible for arriving early, setting up and breaking down at the end of the day. With reserved tailgating opening at 6 a.m., the group will be in their spot by 6:30 and operating a fully functioning tailgate by 7 a.m.
"We're pretty efficient in being set up now," Edwards says. "It's taken some time over the years to get things right. There are these Coleman heaters that you can hook up to propane tanks so we take them out there. It's pretty funny. I've seen guys out there, and they'll come out there and not be prepared and they are freezing, and we're over there, 'Man, we got to take these coats off.' In a boastful way, I'll throw that out there. It's taken a few years to get prepared for it. But we've got our system, and we'll be set up and rolling within an hour at least."
So get a system. Compare the list at the top. Check off or add items as needed, but Cohen has one more tailgating essential: an alarm clock at home.
"The biggest thing I tell people is don't come late," he says. "Come early and enjoy the atmosphere."