Head-to-head, there’s very few Sprint Cup drivers that can beat Jimmie Johnson.
But Tyler Clary can kick Johnson’s butt any time he wants to.
In a swimming pool, that is.
And in about seven years, Clary may be able to beat Johnson on a racetrack.
Clary won a gold medal in swimming (200-meter backstroke) at the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games. He’s going for gold again in the 2016 Games in Brazil.
But in-between, Clary is preparing for the next chapter of what will eventually be his post-swimming career as a race car driver.
Clary has become fast friends with Johnson. They work out at the same club in Charlotte, where Clary has helped Johnson with some of his swimming strokes as part of Johnson’s ongoing triathlon training.
In return, Johnson is helping Clary with advice not only about being in a race car but also in how to turn his NASCAR dream into reality.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved cars and horsepower and all that stuff,” Clary told MST. “When I was a little kid, my family was always going out to the desert. Being around sand buggies, quads and all that stuff, I just picked up a liking for the gasoline-in-your-veins kind of mindset.”
Clary intentionally moved from California to Charlotte after the London Games so he could not only begin training for Brazil, but also to be in the epicenter of NASCAR, where he could attend and compete in lower-level races, learning the sport from the ground up, as well as making contacts such as Johnson who could prove valuable as he goes from chasing Olympic gold to his racing dreams.
“The impetus of moving to Charlotte was to change up my training program, which I’m incredibly happy at how it’s going,” Clary said. “And, it would be a lot easier for me to make connections in Charlotte in the NASCAR world.
“It’s a move that helps people take you seriously. You’re not being looked at as some dude that’s just talking about wanting to get in the car someday. That was actually a strategic move to show people I’m not messing around, I want to make this happen on a very serious level.”
Nationwide Series driver and crew chief Benny Gordon has been especially instrumental in Clary’s development.
“He literally got ahold of me on Twitter and asked how I’d feel about doing a test for him and to see what I’ve got,” Clary said. “I went out there, checked it out, did the test and I was running within a quarter-second of what the guys were running that night – and that was on old tires.
“It was the first time I’d been in a real race car and the second time I’d ever driven anything with a manual transmission. I was happy with how I did and not many people would’ve taken the risk that Benny did, but I’m sure glad he did.”
While he continues to train up to 30 hours a week in the pool, Clary has also begun to get his racing career on track. He’s competed in several lower-level races this year to get a feel for what it’s like to be behind the wheel, including the Summer Shootout Series at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
It’s all a part of paying his dues.
“Heading into the fall, I want to have several more tests, and depending on how those tests go, maybe a race or two,” Clary said. “Then next year, I want to have several races over the course of the year. I want to be very comfortable in Pro Cup or K&N-level cars.
“Depending on how the start of the year goes, I’ll get into several more races near the end of ’15 and then pass on the early part of ’16 because of the Olympics, obviously.
“After the Olympics are over, I want to be in a K&N car as much as humanly possible. And then, depending on it goes, and whether I’ll need a lot of work and coaching first, or maybe I’ll be blowing the doors off everything that I drive. But we don’t know that quite yet.”
But even though he’s taking a slow, methodical approach, don’t let that mislead you that Clary doesn’t have goals.
“My goal is to have a full-time Camping World Truck Series team by 2017,” he said. “The more and more I talk to people, the general rule of thumb is you don’t want to spend more than two years in any one series without moving forward.
“Generally, the plan is to be in the Trucks in 2017, in Nationwide in 2019 and I want to be in a Cup car in 2021.”
One might think that thinking about racing so much might take away from Clary’s focus on training for Brazil. It’s quite the contrary, the Southern California native said.
“Everybody kind of handles the stresses of being a pro athlete in a different way,” he said. “I’m always at my best when I have something on the side that I can really devote a lot of my mental energy to.
“It’s really tough to be training in the water anywhere from 20 to 30 hours a week and not have anything to think about other than your main sport when you’re in the middle of a training cycle.
“I actually find it to be really healthy for me to be thinking about all these things and focusing on these other things outside of swimming. And then when I get on deck, I notice I’m much more focused, I have a lot more motivation and I’m much more excited to be there than I was before racing had become a real possibility.”
Although some might think racing could be the farthest thing from swimming when trying to draw any type of comparisons, Clary said there’s surprisingly a lot of similarities.
“Swimming especially, you’re taught ever since you’re a little kid, I’m always looking for ways to make me marginally better than my competitor,” he said. “And when you think of the job of being a professional race car driver, that’s pretty characteristic of what you have to do.
“You’re always looking for what the car feels like, what your stroke feels like, and you’re always analyzing what you’re doing in comparison to everyone else and trying to find a way to give yourself a little edge.
“That part, I think I have down. The fitness is there, the mindset is there and the overall mental framework of what you have to be doing both in the pool and in a race car is absolutely very similar.”
In addition to Gordon, Johnson has also become a valuable connection in Clary’s path to NASCAR racing.
“He’s given me a whole lot of really good insight as far as what to expect to see as if he was there watching the test,” Clary said.
Clary has spent several Sprint Cup race weekends with Johnson, just hanging out, observing and learning. At the same time, as Johnson gets more and more into triathlon training, Clary has been helpful in return.
“After watching him swim a little bit, I told him that he’s going to have to let me help him out with his stroke a little bit,” Clary said with a laugh, adding, “because it’s painful to watch. We kind of laughed over that.”
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