CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Swimmer Tyler Clary wants to raise the American flag at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, then race for the checkered flag.
He has the drive to do both.
The 2012 Olympic champion in the 200-meter backstroke demonstrated his commitment to becoming a professional race-car driver with his recent move to Charlotte, the capital of NASCAR country.
“Every time I would talk to somebody about racing, the general reaction that I would get is ‘Oh, it’s just some swimmer that wants to play around in a race car on a weekend,’” Clary said. “Moving down here was one of those things that would show people, ‘He really is serious.’ A lot more people other than me are starting to chomp at the bit to get things going now.”
On Saturday, Clary skipped the Arena Grand Prix at Charlotte swim meet to watch the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and network with people in the industry. During early qualifying, Clary joined his mentor, NASCAR’s six-time Sprint Cup series champion driver Jimmie Johnson, in the pits.
“People were coming down the entrance to pit road at 150-155 mph sideways — it was incredible,” Clary said.
On Sunday, he returned to action going quite a bit slower and backwards. Clary was second in the 200 backstroke behind Arkady Vyatchanin of Russia, who clocked 1 minute 55.33 seconds to Clary’s 1:58.03. However, Clary was completing a tough double. Only 17 minutes earlier, he had placed fifth in the 200 IM with a time of 2:03.78.
Clary also has been rehabbing a back injury suffered in January, and admitted it was sore following the preliminaries from standing during the NASCAR race.
“It was definitely a factor moving down to Charlotte that it is the heart of NASCAR,” Clary said, “but swimming is what pays the bills right now so that has to take the front seat.”
Yet down the road it could also get him into the driver’s seat.
“NASCAR has been trying to show not only their fans but the general viewer that drivers are in fact athletes,” Clary said, “and for me to come in and do that after having won a gold medal, there’s no argument that drivers are athletes.”
Before it can become Clary’s job to make left turns, he has to keep making flip turns.
Luckily for Clary, Charlotte is not only NASCAR headquarters and home to its Hall of Fame, but also the base for one of the best swim club programs in the country.
Clary joined the SwimMAC Carolina Elite team, working out alongside such swimmers as 11-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte and two-time gold medalist Cullen Jones. While Clary has been introduced to a new training approach under coach David Marsh, he’ll return to Michigan for blocks of the harder “threshold,” training with coach Mike Bottom.
Marsh said he has heard from friends in the NASCAR world that the best way for Clary to develop his NASCAR career is “to swim faster.”
“That’s where your reputation is, that’s where your branding is,” Marsh said. “Use swimming as your vehicle in, as a conversation starter or as a sponsor connector.”
The coach said that Clary is way ahead of most swimmers in promoting himself through his website, “tylerclaryracing,” which has a double meaning applying to both of his pursuits.
“He likes to race; he’s the first guy in the water in practice,” Marsh said. “Who can blame anybody for being more passionate about getting behind the wheel in a car and going 150 miles per hour vs. going 3 miles an hour and following a black line in practice? At the same time, I don’t see any lost passion for swimming. He won’t like that he didn’t win the 400 IM (Friday night), and it’ll still inspire him and that’s fine.”
He’s also inspired when he sees Johnson working out at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center. The driver competes in triathlons while also staying in shape for NASCAR.
Clary, 25, is encouraged that Johnson was a stock car racing rookie at age 26, “so it’s not too far off of where I am right now,” he said. “And if he can do it, why can’t I?”
Johnson was Clary’s idol before he moved to Charlotte and began sharing a pool with him.
“He was definitely more excited about meeting Jimmie than he was about anything else,” Marsh said. “It’s funny because the other guys don’t even know who Jimmie is.”
His reaction on seeing Johnson in the flesh for the first time was “shock,” Clary said. The next time, he sat at the end of the lane and waited for Johnson to stop.
“I was like, ‘Man, let me help you. It’s painful to watch you swim right now,’” Clary said. “You have to understand that he’s in a driving position all day for so long and he’s not nearly as flexible in the shoulders as swimmers are.
“We’re kind of trading swimming lessons for driver advice.”
Clary’s experience behind the wheel includes laps in stock cars, open wheel cars and sports cars. After he won the gold medal in London, a phone interview on “WindTunnel” with Dave Despain led to an invitation via Twitter to test his first stock car. He drove his own car, a Subaru WRX STI, on the track at Michigan International Speedway last winter during a charity event and got to 146 mph.
“Every time I get into something, I show a pretty good bit of speed,” Clary said. “I just need some more lap time and more coaching and I’ve been a coachable athlete all of my life, so there’s absolutely no reason I can’t be coached to go do what those guys are doing.”
Penske Racing has slotted him for a pit crew spot as a rear tire carrier, but Clary said, “I’ve talked them into letting me come in and run their practice car once a week.” However, he said he would take “any kind of way into that world, because it’s a pretty tight-knit world.”
Clary hopes to be behind the wheel of a race car regularly later this year and in 2015. He doesn’t expect to race much in the run-up to the Olympic Games, but after Rio he wants to “be in a car as much as humanly possible between then and the end of the year.” His aim is to have a full-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series seat by 2017, which is the first step toward stock cars. His long-term goal is to own a team.
Clary’s introduction to auto racing came when his swim club in Fontana, California, raised money by running a merchandising booth at the speedway next door.
“I love the culture of NASCAR, the confrontational nature of it, the politics, all of it,” Clary said.
From the grounds of the aquatic center, he can see “NASCAR” in big letters on the nearby headquarters building. “It’s a constant reminder,” Clary said, “of where I’m headed.”
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.