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Olympians have NASCAR fever as they go for gold
The lights are bright, emotions ride high and the finish line is within site. One group might await the four most popular words in motorsports on a race track in the American South while the other readies for the starting shot on a different type of track or in a pool in Great Britain, but the task at hand is the same.
Win it all.
The similarity between different sports can sometimes be tough to see for the everyday person, but not to the competitors within the arena.
Just ask United States Olympians Tyler Clary and Jesse Williams.
The pair of medal-chasers preparing in London this week are equipped with the drive they need to succeed on every level. Some of that fuel comes from their passion for NASCAR racing.
Both have been longtime fans, and love the thrill of the ride just as much as all the folks glued to their TVs each race weekend.
"I follow whenever I can," said Clary, a member of the U.S. Swimming team which begins its run for gold at the 2012 London Olympics on Saturday. "My life is pretty hectic right now, obviously, but I still try and watch and get updates when I can."
That sentiment is echoed by U.S. Track & Field team member Williams.
"I watch most of the races on Sundays as part of my relaxation," said Williams, who will compete in the high-jump events in the United Kingdom beginning on Aug. 5. "I try and keep up with almost all NASCAR news."
The Olympians each site catching race fever while growing up, as both lived near race tracks in their respective hometowns. Clary is from Riverside, Calif. -- once home to the famed Riverside International Raceway and a town just 15 miles from Auto Club Speedway, which has hosted NASCAR racing since 1997.
"I got into it because we used to have to do swimming fund-raisers at the track during races," Clary said. "I just picked it up from there and starting going as a fan."
Williams is from Raleigh, N.C., a bastion of NASCAR fanaticism in a state that includes two active tracks in Charlotte Motor Speedway and Rockingham Speedway.
"NASCAR is a way of life in North Carolina," Williams said. "So many of my friends were all NASCAR fans, [so] it made it a lot of fun to watch the races."
Williams has been bit by the racing bug for years, following his favorite sport all over the map.
"I have been to Texas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Fontana Auto Club Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Darlington [Raceway], just to name a few," Williams said. "I have been to Fontana for races eight times. I went to school at Southern Cal, and always made a point to watch the races [nearby] in college."
And, being from North Carolina, he has some familiar favorite race car drivers -- and one that might be a little surprising.
"I loved Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty," Williams said. "But my favorite driver for the last eight years is Brian Vickers. He is a North Carolina native, he's about my age and came onto the scene when I was really into NASCAR. I've followed him ever since."
Clary's draw to the sport, at this juncture, is, well, a bit more serious than having a favorite driver. He hopes to be someone's favorite driver someday soon.
"I want to take a serious shot at becoming a race car driver after I'm done with swimming," Clary said. "My grandma always tells this story about how we were driving down the freeway once when I was a baby in my car seat in the back, and somebody passed us in the fast lane. I started rocking and screaming like crazy, so she sped up. When we passed him, she said, I had the biggest smile."
But becoming a race car driver is more than just wishful thinking or a funny story from childhood -- Clary means business. He hopes to follow in the footsteps of his two favorite drivers with similar dreams of crossover success, Travis Pastrana and Danica Patrick.
"Right now, the grand plan is that I think I'm going to swim through the 2016 Olympics," Clary said. "But, during those four years, I am going to do everything I can to learn and drive and give myself a shot at it after swimming.
"I have already been talking to some folks at the Skip Barber Racing School, including [CEO] Michael Culver," Clary continued. "They are trying to get me into a program, then do some race weekends and a shootout -- all at some point after the  Olympics. I told him I am very interested in the near future. I'll do whatever it takes."
Both Olympians also agreed that the drive of being competitive in sports is similar, whether be it behind the wheel, in the water or jumping high bars.
"Athletes from all sports are competitive -- we all want to win," Williams said. "We are never satisfied unless we do, but part of that is also staying calm and showing off the skill that comes from all the work you put in when the time comes."
It's a sentiment that his Team USA partner also understands.
"It's all about that physicality, proving you can go into high-pressure situations out there and perform at your best," Clary said.
And it's the same at the Daytona 500 or in the 500 meters. In fact, that's a decision that an athletic dreamer may have to make one day -- Victory Lane or a gold medal?
"Although Daytona is sweet and there's nothing like it, I am a swimmer and Olympic gold is on my mind right now," Clary said.