Driver Amber Balcaen hopes to land ride in NASCAR
There are three key things you should know about the new NASCAR-themed reality show “Racing Wives,” which premieres at 10 p.m. Friday night on CMT:
One, the five co-stars aren’t all married to NASCAR drivers. Samantha Busch and Ashley Busch are, and so is Whitney Ward Dillon. But Dillon’s BFF Mariel Lane is actually hitched to a NASCAR jackman (for driver Austin Dillon), and Amber Balcaen doesn’t even come close to fitting the category (she’s an aspiring driver).
Two, if it weren’t for Whitney Dillon’s adorable relationship with Lane, the show might have never happened.
“Basically, this talent agency reached out to me about (a wedding reality show) on Instagram through a direct message,” said Dillon of the initial exchange, which took place prior to her tying the knot with Austin Dillon in December 2017. “They were doing, like, NASCAR, the NFL, hockey, all these things ... just one wedding for each. So they asked me and Austin to do a Skype interview.
“He’s always so busy he could never do it. But I did a couple interviews, and they were like, ‘You know, we need someone else for you to talk to.’ I was like, ‘Well, my best friend’s right here listening, do you want her to just hop on?’ They were like, ‘Yeah!’ So Mariel hops on and they freaked out. They were like, ‘OK, enough with (the wedding show), we have got to get into this world of NASCAR.’ So one thing led to another, we got Sam and Ashley on board, then Sam got Amber on board and we were shooting a pilot. Next thing we knew, CMT bought the show and we were filming. So it happened pretty quick.”
And that leads to the third key thing you should know about “Racing Wives”: It didn’t happen very quickly, after all.
Dillon told us that origin story during a press day for the show in Charlotte last October, back when the series was set to debut on CMT on Jan. 3. But later in the fall, the Viacom-owned network postponed the rollout of “Racing Wives” without providing an explanation. It finally was re-announced last month.
So although the bulk of what you’ll see in Friday night’s hour-long premiere episode was shot last year, cast members also say there’s footage from as early as 2017 (when work on the pilot began, before Balcaen was added to the cast) and as recently as this summer (when some minor re-shoots were done to freshen things up).
For NASCAR fans who might be wondering how much you’ll see of the actual drivers in “Racing Wives,” the answer varies slightly — at least in the first episode, which is all we’ve seen so far.
Though Austin Dillon’s jackman Paul Swan figures prominently in one scene in the premiere, Dillon himself appears just briefly, during a short segment in which he tries to teach his wife how to shoot skeet while Swan and Lane look on.
“I’m gonna be honest: He didn’t want me to do the show,” Whitney Dillon said. “Because it’s scary, and it’s never been done before. And it all kind of started right here, with me and Mariel, which is even scarier for him, because we were kind of the ringleaders of it all. ... She and I, we’re just happy and we’re having fun and we make a lot of mistakes because of that, and he has been groomed since he was little to be this kind of perfect person.
(Austin Dillon is the son of former NASCAR driver Mike Dillon and the grandson of NASCAR team owner Richard Childress.)
“He knows what to say, he knows how to do things. And we don’t. We weren’t raised that way. So he was very hesitant.”
On the other hand, Ashley Busch’s husband Kurt Busch pops up in a couple of key scenes, while Samantha Busch’s husband Kyle Busch (Kurt’s brother) gets nearly enough screen time to warrant sixth billing in the show.
In fact, Samantha Busch said that one of the reasons she signed on for the show was because she and Kyle viewed it as a way to promote Kyle Busch Motorsports, the racing team they own together, as well as their Bundle of Joy Fund, which advocates for education and awareness and provides grants for in-need couples struggling with infertility.
“He was like, ‘This is a really good opportunity that I don’t think you should pass up,’ ” said Samantha Busch, seated next to Ashley.
“Obviously, the biggest thing that you worry about going into something like this is that you’re gonna be mis-portrayed, right? But I feel like they did a really good job — telling our stories, showing who we are, showing what’s important to us — and I think that’s what’s really gonna hook the fans in.”
“You do see ups and downs,” Ashley Busch added, “as you would with any family. We’re sister-in-laws still trying to navigate our relationship and get our boys closer together to do more family things ... and sometimes there’s moments that aren’t so great.”
“But,” Samantha said, “I mean, I think we’re very confident in who we are and what we believe in, so honestly, we weren’t terribly worried about it because we know who we are. We know that we’re not gonna be those girls flipping over tables and throwing wine. There’s a lot more substance to the show than that.”
Maybe so, although there are still certainly some moments that will make you roll your eyes for the same reason you might roll your eyes at a show like “The Real Housewives.”
In particular, note the ridiculous scene in which Whitney Dillon and Lane part ways as roommates after Dillon’s marriage; they hug, and Dillon tells her “I love you so much” and to “drive safe” ... then Lane drives about 100 yards to a smaller house that sits next door to the Dillons’ barn in Lexington, N.C., gets out, and shouts across the lawn, “I love you, too!”
Not fitting in
Dillon — a former “Monster Girl” (loosely the NASCAR equivalent of an NFL cheerleader; Lane is still one) — also repeatedly becomes the comic relief in Episode 1, as she struggles to correctly pronounce the words “celibate” and “philanthropy.”
But seriously ... perhaps the most intriguing figure in all of this is the one who least fits into the theme of the show: Amber Balcaen. The 27-year-old Canadian moved to Charlotte in 2016 to try to make a career out of racing cars, with mixed results.
“I’ve known Amber for a few years, and she really impressed me,” said Samantha Busch, who made the initial suggestion to include Balcaen after an unidentified original cast member left the project early on. “She was always very ambitious. And so when I sat down with Kyle and said, ‘I really want a female driver,’ she is the first one that came to my head.
“Unfortunately, in times that we’re in, you’ll see the journey of sponsorship and learning and how a lot of people think this sport’s very easy. You know, you just find some money, you get in a car and go.
“That’s not what it is, and the show really highlights the struggles for her, wanting to be a female race car driver — and for myself, being in the racing world, wanting to mentor somebody and have her succeed against a world full of guys.”
As far as whether Balcaen felt like she fit in during filming, she compared it to her situation in general.
“I feel like I’ve never really fit in, because when I’m with the guys at the track, I’m still a female, even though I’m a driver. And then when I’m with the ladies and the wives, I’m not a wife, I’m a driver. So I’m kind of in an awkward position,” said Balcaen, who isn’t married yet but has a serious boyfriend (Jordan Reaves, a defensive lineman for the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders).
In the first episode, she finds herself in a very specific awkward position, after Samantha Busch reprimands Balcaen for taking a shot of alcohol at a fundraising event Busch invited her to.
Will the faux pas wind up costing her?
“You’ll have to watch the show to see what all unfolds,” Balcaen says. “It’s not boring, that’s for sure.”
Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes