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Olympian Tyler Clary takes step toward NASCAR dream
CONCORD, N.C. - It only took Tyler Clary one time behind the wheel to learn one of NASCAR's most cherished expressions: "That's racing."
Clary, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist, traded in a swimsuit for a firesuit Tuesday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway and drove a Legends car - his first competitive stock car race. He finished 15th after a car flipped in front of him and he was pushed into the mess from behind, knocking his No. 20 car.
But the race - a 25-lap event in Semi-Pro Division of the track's weekly "Summer Shootout" - was just the first step on a long road to what Clary hopes will be a ride in the Sprint Cup Series.
"It was a great experience," Clary told USA TODAY Sports after running as high as eighth after starting 16th. "I thought it was a lot of fun and I'll hopefully do better next week."
To say the 25-year-old is a late starter behind the wheel is putting it nicely, but he's been a little busy with other things.
Namely, the Olympics. Clary won the 200-meter backstroke at the London Games in 2012 and is currently training in Charlotte for the 2016 Rio Games.
But part of the reason he moved to Charlotte was to pursue a career in NASCAR. He grew up watching races from afar - his favorite driver was Jeff Gordon - but never got behind the wheel.
After getting the taste of speed at racing schools, off-road vehicles and the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race prior to the Long Beach Grand Prix, Clary decided to get more serious about what he hopes will be his post-swimming life.
The four races for Farbo Motorsports in the Summer Shootout are a start. He even inked a sponsor deal with Fusion Jerky, which is supportive of his driving plans ("There's really not a product that matches up a whole lot better with the NASCAR crowd than beef jerky," he said).
"I'm here because I'm serious about it and I want this to be my next career," Clary said prior to the race. "I'm not joking around about it. It's not a publicity stunt. I mean everything about what I'm doing."
Clary befriended six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson after their paths crossed while both were training at the same Charlotte pool. Johnson has helped give Clary advice on his driving; Clary has given Johnson tips for his freestyle stroke.
Though he's currently training full-time for Rio, Clary said starting to drive now will give him a head start for life after the Olympics. His long-term plan - if he progresses at an acceptable rate - is to start with a Camping World Truck Series ride in 2017, move to the Nationwide Series in 2019 and become a Cup driver in 2021.
Legends cars are hardly glamorous - he's competing mostly against teenagers - but Clary said he's committed to learning the basics before even jumping into a series like K&N Pro (one step below NASCAR's national series).
"I don't want to put off the aura that I want to come in and get into a nice race car and screw around on the weekend," he said. "I want to get the skills necessary and earn the respect on the way up to be deserving of that ride."
On Tuesday night, with only 21 laps of practice under his belt, Clary qualified 16th out of 19th but was pleased with the starting spot given his stated goal.
"I just want to log laps," he said. "If I get into a position to maybe pass a couple people, sure I will. I'm not going to make any ridiculous statements like I'm going to go out there and try to win the race, because I'm not."
He got more comfortable as the race progressed -- until it ended prematurely -- but this was just a baby step toward a larger goal. As Clary knows through his day job, there are no shortcuts when it comes to winning a race.
Story Credit: Jeff Gluck, USA TODAY Sports