By Patrick Reynolds
Daytona Beach, FL- It is not every day that one gets to visit with an Olympic athlete. It is even rarer that one talks with an Olympic swimmer who set a record time in the event that clinched his Gold Medal for the U.S.A. and Overtook Ryan Lochte to do so.
In walking the grid for the BMW Endurance Challenge at Daytona, I spoke with Tyler Clary- 2012 Olympic 200-meter backstroke record holder, Gold Medalist, and in 2017- IMSA Continental Tire Series driver.
Dual-sport athletes are thought of in of stick-and-ball sports groupings. Baseball and football as well as hockey and lacrosse have parallels. How many think of auto racing and swimming?
“Being an athlete is an all-encompassing thing,” said Clary. “You learn how to develop your own process to become better at whatever it is you are doing and generally speaking that works here (racing cars). If anything, I think that swimming has prepared me for racing more than hurt me.”
A pit crew on a motorsports team can provide valuable information like a swimming coach.
“One of the things about swimming is we don’t get as much quantified feedback as we do here. Here I can look at brake pressure. I can look at shift points. I can tell if I am working the tires as hard as another driver. You don’t really get that type of stuff in swimming. It’s all very feel-based and subjective to a certain degree,” Clary said.
“We do get tempo metrics and splits (in swimming), that type of stuff, it’s not quite to the level I get here (auto racing) and because I’ve been an athlete that has had to focus and get better without having that sort of feedback. Now that I am here it is much easier to see where the differences lie between myself and another driver,” said Clary.
“I’ve always been kind of a car nut. I’ve been around racing ever since I was a kid but never got to check it out,” Clary said.
A NASCAR weekend at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA gave the Olympian his first taste of major league motorsports.
“My first racing experience was brought on by swimming,” Clary said. “My first time being at a racetrack was actually because my swim team needed funds to operate and we got to run a merchandising booth (in Fontana) for the weekend and keep a cut of those profits so my team could function.”
He is no raw rookie to the construction and mechanical side of motorsports. In spite of spending so much time in a pool, there was a time when the swimmer had dirt under his fingernails.
“I actually worked with an off-road team as a mechanic, fabricator, welder,” Clary said. “So I understand it a little bit but I pick things up quickly and I learn as fast as possible. For me, I’ve a got a really steep learning curve and it is a challenge that I embrace. I have to be able to learn fast.”
His NASCAR christening introduced him to motorsports but eventually led him into the direction of American sports car racing.
“If I had to pick, this (IMSA) is where I would pick to be,” Clary said. “I like that it’s street cars. I like that you can see someone driving (a street car similar to his race car) down your block a week afterwards.
“There is a lot more opportunity here for someone like me. You have multiple drivers in every single car and for me, I had to pick a strategy that gave me the highest probability of success when the goal is to be a professional factory race car driver,” said Clary.
Clary started the BMW Endurance Challenge in 10th for his Street Tuner class. His BMW 328i dropped back to 12th at the race’s start, but raced his way up to fifth. He headed pit side for the driver exchange and shortly after the car rejoined the race an engine belt broke and the team lost four laps while repairs were made. Clary along with co-drivers James Clay and Tyler Cooke were 14th when the checkered flag waved.
Clary’s driving skill is still developing and he has some lofty goals.
“I want to run all of the classic races (Daytona 24, Sebring, Le Mans). I’d eventually like to get into WeatherTech (IMSA’s premiere series). It is a little bit above… I would say this (CTSC) is a little bit above my experience level right now,” Clary said good-naturedly. “I’d love to eventually get into that series. A super-lofty goal would be to race in the World Endurance Championship, but one step at a time.”
Clary is focused on learning and dreaming big while keeping his feet planted- traits that are useful when chasing Ryan Lochte for an Olympic swimming medal or Spencer Pumpelly around a chicane for a sports car racing trophy.
“Even if I ended up topping out in WeatherTech, that’s not a bad place to be. In fact that’s a wonderful place to be.”
Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Speedway Report Mondays 7:30 pm ET/ 4:30 pm PT on http://speedwayreport.wpengine.com/ . Follow on Twitter @SpeedwayPat.