Friday 5: NASCAR’s Olympian looks ahead to sailing competition

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Tyler Paige, appearing on Zoom from a nondescript room in Japan while wearing a JR Motorsports T-shirt, reaches off screen to grab the credential that notes he’s an Olympic athlete and proudly shows it on the screen.

He tries to explain what it means to be an Olympian but stops.

“I’m rambling a bit,” he says.

He tries again.

“You think what that word means to be an Olympian,” he tells NBC Sports. “You can’t help but think back to people who have raced before you and have stood in that spotlight. It’s just an echelon of commitment and dedication so many before you have put into their sport. It’s also the global recognition of the event. What the Olympics means to me as both …”

He then stops.

“To be honest, I’m struggling to put it into words is the shortest answer,” he says. “It’s just such an honor.”

The 25-year-old engineer from New York City, who was working at JR Motorsports last year before taking a leave, will represent American Samoa in sailing. Once the Tokyo Olympics end, he looks to return to JR Motorsports and continue his career in NASCAR.

Paige’s path to NASCAR and the Olympics is one that started by chance.

While a junior studying mechanical engineering at Tufts University, he and his father attended the CES electronics show in Las Vegas. At one booth, Hisense, a sponsor of Joe Gibbs Racing, had a racing simulator. The company held a contest for those who raced on the simulator. The prize was to attend the Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May 2017. Paige won the trip, which included sitting on the pit box for Denny Hamlin’s team in that race.

It was not the cars that wowed Paige that day but the crew chief and engineers working in front of him on the pit box.

“At this point I was already really interested in NASCAR,” Paige said. “I got the opportunity to see (the crew chief and engineers) in action. …  I realized that’s what I wanted to do.”

Tyler Paige, who will compete in Olympic sailing, in American Samoa (Photo: Tyler Paige)

He began to attend races and talk to crew members about what they did and how he could get into the sport. He was told that if he was serious, he needed to go to the Charlotte, North Carolina area where the teams are located.

Paige did. He says his sailing background also helped get an opportunity in the NASCAR because of the similarities between the sports.

His introduction to sailing came when he was 9 years old and took part in a sailing class in Connecticut.

“I got the bug as soon as I jumped into the boat,” he said. “I loved being on the water.”

That became a passion. While he attended high school in Brooklyn, he would spend weekends sailing.

“Saturday and Sundays would be 8 1/2- to 9-hour days on the water sometimes, and you would have an hour debrief after you got off the water,” he said. “It was very full on being out there. It was just draining. You got to love it to put that time into. There’s no place I would rather be.”

He moved up the ranks in sailing. Paige reached 20th in the world in 2015 in the men’s 420 category — what he terms the Xfinity Series of sailing when compared to the 470 category that he competes in at the Olympics.

Sailing took him throughout the world and when the chance came to help rebuild the sailing program in American Samoa, Paige quickly volunteered.

“There are some really talented kids coming up in the pipeline right now,” Paige said. “We’ve gotten them the opportunity to race in the Pacific Games. I really want to see them race in the Youth Worlds, which is the Olympic Games for kids (age 19 and under). I want to see them race in the world championships. I really want to get these kids in the pipeline that they can someday be at … an Olympics of their own and race with the American Samoa flag on this world stage.”

That connection and the chance to represent American Samoa in the Olympics led Paige, who represented the U.S. at the 2018 Junior 470 world championship, to seek and receive approval from U.S. Sailing in September 2019 to switch his nationality to American Samoa. The International Olympic Committee Executive Board approved the change this past May.

Paige was in position to join JR Motorsports in January 2020 but that was shortly before a qualifying race. The opportunity with the race team was put on hold so Paige could attempt to make the Olympics.

When the pandemic struck, Paige went back to work at the New York company where he had been a robotics engineer. He helped design parts for the ventilators the company built. Paige reached out to JR Motorsports last summer. With sailing still on hold, he began working for the Xfinity team in September. He stayed through February before refocusing on the sailing season.

While at JRM, he did a variety of jobs that went beyond engineering duties.

“They wanted me to do some things that were more mechanically based,”he said. “Maybe an engineer wouldn’t normally do that, but this way I could learn the cars better.”

That included helping tear down a car after a race, working on setups and preparing the vehicle for the next race.

He looks forward to doing that again but his focus is on sailing. The first of 10 Olympic heats is July 28.

Paige knows what kind of a challenge he faces.

“As far as what we’re trying to do here, we’re trying to … show that we’re here to race and finish as high up in the rankings as we can,” he said. “I don’t know what that is going to be right now. We’re definitely the underdogs going into this.

“I’m just so excited to be out on the water and see what I’m capable of. and we’re just going to push ourselves to the limit. … We’ll cross the finish line someplace and see where it is.”

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While the speeds are much slower, Paige notes sailing and auto racing share some common traits.

“The way the boats race each other and the way the cars race each other is actually not that different,” he said. “The name of the game is dirty air. You see it on the racetrack, you see it on the water.”

He compares the start of a sailing event to what NASCAR group qualifying was like when the field would wait on pit road, jockeying for position, before making a late run in the session.

In sailing, teams get a five-minute countdown to the start of the event.

“In those five minutes we’re doing whatever we want,” he said. “We’re jockeying with each other. We’re trying to set ourselves up so right before the start line we can accelerate our boat and be just below the start line ready to cross it when the clock hits zero all the way full speed.

“Once we start our races, dirty air is the name of the game. Every inch you lose to the boats around you in the first 100 meters of the race is 100 feet at the end of the race. That’s the way they say it.

“As boats start to creep up ahead, you start casting dirty air on the boats around you and we start creating turbulence. If you screw up the start, you’re going to be in a whole world of hurt the rest of the race just trying to get through that dirty air and climb up through the field.”

Paige is one of two people on the boat. He drives the boat by hanging off the edge of it.

“The boat, it has a bunch of power that is trying to tip it over,” he said. “Any force you can put to keep it from doing that, to keep it upright, becomes speed. The way we do it, I’m in toe straps where I’m driving the boat from. As the wind picks up and we’re starting to get more and more power, I’m getting further and further out there just trying to press against the sails, just to get the boat to go faster.”

Sounds just like a racer, anything to go faster.

2. One thing leads to another

Steve Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Racing, says he would talk to Brad Keselowski about two or three times a year, discussing the state of the sport.

It was through those conversations Newmark found that he and Keselowski viewed things similarly with the Next Gen car and what teams will need to do. As they talked, Newmark noted the team’s need for a succession plan to car owner Jack Roush, and Keselowski expressed his vision of team ownership.

Those talks led to the move that was announced this past week that Keselowski will join the team in 2022 as a driver, part owner and key figure in the organization’s competition department.

Car owner Jack Roush and Brad Keselowski at the announcement that Keselowski will drive for Roush Fenway Racing in 2022 and be a part-owner in the team. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I think what really came to light is we had a shared vision of what it would take in the Next Gen world to succeed,” Newmark said. “I do think if I look at it, the stars were somewhat aligned, the timing was right. (Keselowski) was looking a lot at his post-racing career. We were looking at a succession plan for Jack and then you have Next Gen happening at the same time.

“We’ve already talked about upgrading facilities, expanding in certain areas of engineering that we think are going to be critical for Next Gen. He had the exact same views of it. It was more of an affirmation of what we think needs to be done and for us to share that our existing owners are committed to investing in those areas going forward.”

Some would raise questions about Keselowski, 37, going to a team that hasn’t won a Cup race since 2017.

“There’s always going to be those concerns, but with the Next Gen car, I want to expedite this process as fast as possible,” Keselowski said. “And I think it gives us an opportunity to do just that.

“I know it’s probably going to be more complicated than just bringing in a new car. We’ll have to do a lot of other work as well, but if there ever was an opportunity. This is it. To expedite that process. Certainly there will be some teething pains, and I fully recognize that, but I’m committed to working with people to get through that as fast as possible in getting us to where we need to be.

“The competition side has always interested me. As a driver, I control certain parts of the performance of the car but not all. When you potentially are contending for championships, you want to make sure you have the maximum impact possible. Part of living up to the maximum potential that I have. I don’t feel like I’ve lived up to that. I feel I have a lot more to offer than being just a race car driver. And short of having won championships in the last few years, I haven’t achieved that.”

3. Adding teams?

One of the questions from this week’s announcement that Brad Keselowski will join Roush Fenway Racing as a driver/owner in 2022, is will the organization return to the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series?

Roush has five Xfinity Series titles and one Truck title. The organization last competed in Xfinity in 2018. The team’s last Truck race was in 2009.

“If you went and talked to Jack (Roush) right now, he would tell you that we should be in Xfinity and Trucks,” said Steve Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Racing. “That is just his approach to all this.

“Brad and I have had some discussions as we continue to get our feet under us with this new organization. We’ll explore that going forward.

“We want to be a development organization. We’ve got two strong series beneath us to do that. It is not on the table right now. Getting back to our first first priority is making sure these two (Cup) teams are in the playoffs and competitive every week.”

4. The value of stage points

With four races left in the regular season, stage points are playing a key role in how the standings look.

Denny Hamlin remains the points leader despite not winning a race this season. He has a 13-point lead on Kyle Larson. One of the keys is that Hamlin’s 250 stage points are only three behind Larson’s series-high total. By staying even with Larson, Hamlin has been able to maintain his spot atop the season standings.

The series leader at the end of the regular season gets 15 playoff points. The driver second in the standings gets 10. Those five extra playoff points could be critical.

Also, William Byron, who is in third in the standings, ranks third in stage points scored (193). Those stage points have helped him stay ahead of Kyle Busch and Joey Logano in the standings.

Byron leads Busch by nine points in the standings. A key difference is that Byron has outscored Busch by 26 stage points this season.

Byron leads Logano by 16 points in the standings. The difference is stage points. Byron has outscored Logano by 43 stage points.

Tyler Reddick leads Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon for the final playoff spot by five points. Reddick has scored 24 more stage points than Dillon this season (95-71).

NASCAR Cup Series NASCAR All-Star Race
Stage points have helped keep William Byron (24) ahead of Kyle Busch (18) in the season standings. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Here is a look, via Racing Insights, of the stage points scored by drivers this season:

253 — Kyle Larson

250 — Denny Hamlin

193 — William Byron

174 — Chase Elliott

167 — Kyle Busch

158 — Ryan Blaney

150 — Martin Truex Jr.

150 — Joey Logano

135 — Brad Keselowski

116 — Alex Bowman

110 — Kurt Busch

105 — Kevin Harvick

95 — Tyler Reddick

71 — Austin Dillon

67 — Christopher Bell

50 — Bubba Wallace

43 — Chris Buescher

34 — Aric Almirola

33 — Daniel Suarez

31 — Michael McDowell

31 — Matt DiBenedetto

25 — Ross Chastain

25 — Ryan Preece

25 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

17 — Ryan Newman

14 — Chase Briscoe

10 — Corey LaJoie

4 — Erik Jones

4 — Cole Custer

5. Looking ahead

Chase Elliott is entered in the BC39 midget race at the dirt track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the speedway announced Thursday.

The event is Aug. 18-19 and follows the Aug. 15 Cup race at IMS.

This is another midget car race Elliott is running to gain experience in these cars and hone his racing skills. It also puts on him track to again enter the Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma next year. That event is scheduled for Jan. 10-15.

The list of NASCAR drivers competing there has grown in recent years. Kyle Larson has won the event the past two years. Christopher Bell won it the previous three years.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished seventh in last year’s year. Other Cup drivers who competed at Chili Bowl last year were Chase Briscoe, Ryan Newman, Garrett Smithley and Elliott. Xfinity drivers Justin Allgaier, Brett Moffitt and J.J. Yeley also competed. Matt DiBenedetto recently expressed interest in doing so after driving a midget.

“I just wanted to see how I adapted to it, how quick could I adapt to it and maybe think about running the Chili Bowl,” DiBenedetto said earlier this month. “I’m not sure. First step was just to kind of see how I ran and obviously NASCAR takes first priority, so I’ll see where things lead me for next year and all that stuff. It has to play out, but it was awesome. I took to it way faster than expected.”

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