Amber Balcaen: The Underdog of NASCAR
NASCAR and women are not synonymous; not yet anyway. But there’s a woman, Amber Balcaen, who hails from Winnipeg, Manitoba who’s working her absolute hardest to change that. She is the only Canadian to compete in the 2014 and 2016 NASCAR Drive for Diversity Combine and the 2015 Bill McAnally Racing Drivers Expo. In 2016, she became the first Canadian woman to win a NASCAR sanctioned race in the USA and earned Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Whelen All American Series for Lee Pulliam Performance. Now signed to Martin-McClure Racing as their NASCAR K&N Pro Series East driver, this full-time racer and part-time student is poised to take NASCAR by storm. We got the chance to chat with Balcaen about her journey to racing, women in NASCAR and lots more. Find out what she has to say, you won’t be disappointed…
You’re a third generation racer, how did you know that racing was for you?
I think it was when I realized that I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I kind of describe racing as a drug. I literally cannot live without it. I love it so much. I grew up in a racing family so I was at the track at a very young age. I begged my Dad to let me race and finally at 10 years old he allowed me to race go karts. Now I’m 24 [25 on the 7th] and as the years have gone on my passion and love for racing has only grown. I’m so fortunate to be in the position to now turn it from a hobby into a career which is a very difficult thing to do. Despite the difficulty I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. It’s what makes me happy.
Describe the process of going from go karts to a NASCAR professional?
My background is dirt racing; I raced on it my entire life up until last year. So the transition from dirt to pavement took a lot of work. The unfortunate thing about this sport is that it’s very expensive, so in addition to making the transition from dirt to pavement, navigating the financial aspect has been hard as well. You really can’t race professionally without sponsors, so I spend the vast majority of my time looking for sponsors so that I can actually be on the race track. The rest of the time I’m sleeping and racing. So it’s a grueling schedule. I don’t come from a wealthy family and I haven’t had any financial backing from family so I have to work extremely hard to make sure that I can find the right partnerships that will allow me to be on the racetrack.
Speaking of financing, you have a business degree, right? How has that impacted your ability to secure the sponsorship?
I do, yes. I have an Associate’s degree in business and have enrolled at the University of Northern Ohio where there’s a High Performance Motorsports Program. They’ve awarded me a two year scholarship so that I can finish my Bachelor’s degree in Sports Marketing. So I’m a full-time racer and part-time student.
Getting my Associate’s and working on my Bachelor’s has really helped me understand the business and marketing side of the sport. For instance, being knowledgeable about things like Return on Investment allows me to understand how I should best approach potential sponsors. I’m a rather outgoing person so networking and meeting people is something I’m good at and enjoy. The educational piece helps me create the long-lasting relationships I’ll need to race.
What’s it like for you to be a female racer in such a male-dominated industry?
We’re definitely put under a microscope and there are pros and cons to that. One of the pros is that we’re more marketable. Me specifically, I’m very personable, relatable but also different because I’m a Canadian and I’m a female so that adds to my marketability. On the cons side, the guys drive you harder and people are more critical about where you finish. They’re critical about the way I dress, the way I speak and the people I hang out with in ways that they aren’t critical of male drivers.
How do you deal with being under the microscope like that?
It’s definitely given me a tougher skin. This sport has very much helped me develop my emotional intelligence and taught me a lot about who I am. It’s made me stronger because I’ve had to deal with things that the average person might not deal with. This last year I’ve noticed that more eyes have been on me, so I’m more careful with how I portray myself and the decisions I make.
You mentioned that life is getting sponsorship, driving and sleeping, can you tell us more about your training/practice regimen?
Since I’m not as naturally strong as a lot of my male competitors, I spend a lot of time in the gym so that I’m not physically lacking. I really focus on my strength and endurance. I need to make sure I’m alert and present at the end of every race. It’s rewarding to put in the time at the gym and see your body react positively.
Another part of it is actually watching races and taking notes. Since I come from dirt racing I still have a lot to learn in NASCAR. So it’s really important this year that I watch a lot of racing and listen to the commentators to pick up on strategies. Nothing beats seat time but I definitely learn from watching.
The final piece is my nutrition. I really try to eat right. As a personal choice I don’t eat beef or pork, but I take time to plan my meals. Some of my favorite, healthy things to make are foods that use protein powder. One of my awesome sponsors is 1st Phorm. I use their Phormula-1 protein powder to make waffles and muffins. I especially love making the muffins because they’re easy to take on the go with me.
I’ll have to check them out. Switching gears a bit, you’ve been racing for 14 years now. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over that time?
It’s only gotten better for women. The level of talent has increased because more women are doing it. The more women we have in the sport the more talent we’re going to see and the more respect we’re going to get. For me, respect has come with results. The more I win, the better I do, the more respect I get from my competitors. It’s tough and there will always be men who don’t think women shouldn’t be in the sport but I believe that I deserve to be here. I pay the same price to be in the cars and to race as they do. And at the end of the day, when I put my helmet on you can’t tell if I’m wearing lipstick or if I’m another dude.
Do you feel a duty to make sure more girls get involved in the sport?
Absolutely. My goal in general is to inspire and motivate girls and women to be the best people they can be and to follow their dreams whether they want to be a race car driver like me, a singer or a doctor . I want to inspire them to let them know that anything is possible when you work hard. I’m an underdog. I don’t come from money. I come from dirt racing. I’m Canadian. I’m a woman. There’s a lot that doesn’t add up to me being a typical NASCAR driver. So for me to be able to overcome the different levels of adversity is hopefully an inspiration to others. One of my main reasons for wanting success in this sport is to be able to reach as many people as possible with my message of success in spite of challenges. That’s my biggest responsibility.
There’s no doubt in my mind that you are in fact inspiring girls and women everyday. I’m not sure how you find time to be a professional driver, a student, a marketer and an inspiration, but you’re absolutely nailing it. At GladiatHers.com we can’t wait to watch your career continue to blossom. Thanks for spending time with us and for working as hard as you do.
Be sure to keep up with Amber Balcaen on Twitter and Instagram, and if you’re interested in learning more about her or working with her as a sponsor or partner, check out her website at AmberBalcaenRacing.com.