By Chrös McDougall | Jan. 04, 2018, 1:23 p.m. (ET)

Athletes compete in the women's mass start at the ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships on Feb. 12, 2017 in Gangneung, South Korea.

 

Forget what you know about long track speedskating. When the mass start event makes its Olympic debut next month in PyeongChang, it’ll be unlike any other race on the 400-meter oval.

“The best way I could describe it would be NASCAR on ice,” said U.S. speedskater Joey Mantia. “There is bumping, there is drafting, there is strategy. ... It’s definitely more exciting to watch than standard long-track races.”

So what is mass start, then? It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Unlike the traditional time trial format, in which pairs of skaters race simultaneously against the clock, mass start begins with as many as 24 skaters who line up and start together. Then they race over 16 laps to the finish, but with an important twist.

Throughout a mass start race there are four intermediate sprints, including one at the end. The top three finishers in these sprints get points, as do the top three skaters at the finish line. As a result, the top three finishers take the podium spots, and the rest of the standings are determined based on the sprint points.

So over the course of a race — which might last around 7:30 for men, and a little more than 8 minutes for women — you’re going to see tactical skating, jockeying for position and all-out sprints, especially at the end.

In other words, it’s very different from the other long track races.

“You get to see the race unfold as it’s happening,” Mantia said.

“There’s not one skater that won’t stay and watch it,” added U.S. teammate KC Boutiette.

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The mass start races will be at the end of this week’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating, with the men’s and women’s races taking place on Sunday in Milwaukee. Results from this week will be combined with those from the two races at the fall world cup qualifier to determine the teams.

Mantia and Boutiette are among the contenders in the men’s event.

Boutiette was a pioneer in the wheels-to-ice movement in the 1990s and competed at four Olympic Winter Games through 2006. With the mass start being added to the Olympic program in 2015, Boutiette has worked his way back into shape. At age 47, he’d be the oldest Olympic speedskater since 1924, when 52-year-old Albert Tebbit competed for Great Britain.

Mantia, 31, also followed the inline speedskating to ice speedskating route in 2011, and while he’s competitive at multiple distances he calls the mass start “the ace up the sleeve.”

“It was something that I was comfortable doing,” he said. “When long track time trialing is not going well, I can still perform in the mass start.”

Indeed, Mantia won the world title in the event at the end of last season (Boutiette was 12th). Heather Bergsma, another former inline skater, finished third in the women’s race at last year’s worlds.

The concept of a mass start is hardly new. Among winter sports, biathlon, cross-country skiing and even short track speedskating use the same basic premise. Even long track has some Olympic precedent, with the 1932 Winter Games in Lake Placid featuring heats of six skaters in a format that was common in North America at the time.

More recently, mass start was added to the ISU World Cup circuit beginning in the 2011-12 season, and the International Olympic Committee announced in 2015 that the event would join the next Olympic program.

It was a welcome addition for many of the skaters, especially those like Bergsma, Boutiette and Mantia who had inline experience in these types of races. Mass start also helps capture some of the excitement of short track, which was added to the Olympic program in 1992 and features heats of up to six skaters racing on a 111.12-meter oval track.

There are some key differences between short track and mass start, though, with mass start having more skaters, longer distances and the intermediate sprints to mix things up.

Mass start is still new enough that athletes are wary of predicting how the Olympic races will play out. A few things are for certain, though. For example, you’re not likely to see a skater go from wire to wire.

“With the drafting, you don’t want to be in the lead too early, too long,” Mantia said. “If it’s two laps to go, sure, fine. But definitely not too early.”

There’s also the question of teamwork and whether countries will try to work together. In a November 2016 world cup race in Japan, Boutiette came out of the second sprint in the lead and decided to go for it. Mantia, who was with the pack, held back, delaying the inevitable chase and helping Boutiette finish second. The roles were reversed at the world championships, when Mantia won.

“I think we’re on the same page, kind of like gentleman’s agreement,” Mantia said. “If you get yourself in a good position, take the cake, or at least try to.”

Boutiette is more direct, saying at the Team USA Media Summit in September that Mantia is Team USA’s best shot for a gold medal, and if Boutiette finds himself in position to help Mantia make a run, he’ll do it.

“Joey’s our best guy,” Boutiette said. “As long as he is at 100 percent and the race plays about a certain way, I know if I skate with Joey he could probably get me on the podium, but I could get him on the top. I’m willing to do that as long as things play out. But we both have to make the team.”

They’ll find out this week.

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.