NASCAR & Auto Racing

She could be the next Danica. But for now, she’s stuck driving an old Mazda mini SUV.

Toward the end of an hour-long, late-fall chat over grande vanilla lattes at the Starbucks off Gilead Road in Huntersville, Amber Balcaen looks directly into her interviewer’s eyes, and just goes for it.

“What I’d like to ask you is: Do you know of two or three people that you think might be interesting in sponsoring me?” she says. “Any business owners, or wealthy people who enjoy racing?”

In spite of how it may read, face-to-face this doesn’t smack of desperation. It simply sounds like something the 26-year-old Balcaen (pronounced “BALL-kin”) probably asks everybody she meets because ... well, because that’s life for someone who possesses a strong desire to drive a car in a sanctioned NASCAR series but lacks the necessary (and extremely significant) funding to actually get behind the wheel.

She’s her own marketer, her own public relations manager, her own advertising executive, and her own social media team. And all of her solo efforts orbit around what seems like an easy sell for potential sponsors who want the driver they back to stand out: She’s a Canadian in a mostly Canadian-less sport, a woman in a profession dominated by men, and oh, by the way, she’s been winning races since she was 10 years old.

Yet for some reason, Balcaen has had a very tough time finding a ride lately. So instead of racing — or even just keeping up her skills in a test car — she spent most of her time hustling, sending her marketing deck to leads, trying to persuade everyone, someone, anyone to take a chance on her.

In fact, in 2018, she competed on a track just once (in a Super Late Model race, for Kyle Busch Motorsports), and she’s not even allowed to talk about it. That’s because her entry in that event was tied to her participation in a forthcoming reality-television show that she had leveraged to make deals with potential sponsors, paving the way for a breakout year and a lot more time in the driver’s seat.

There’s just one problem: “Racing Wives,” originally set to debut on CMT in early January, was recently removed from the network’s winter schedule and is currently in limbo — once again leaving Balcaen’s future uncertain, too.

‘You need to let her race’

Balcaen was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada on March 7, 1992 with gasoline coursing through her veins.

Her grandfather on her mom’s side, Lou Kennedy Sr., drove sprint and stock cars until he was the winningest race-car driver in Canadian history; in 2011, he was inducted into the Manitoba Motorsports Hall of Fame. Her uncle, Lou Kennedy Jr., was a sprint-car champion, too. And her father, Mike Balcaen, was (and still is, 26 years later) routinely driving circles around the competition in late models on dirt tracks throughout Canada and the U.S.

By day, he made a living with a small telecommunications company in Winnipeg. But by night and weekend, he was strictly in the racing business.

“I kept bugging him,” says Amber Balcaen, pictured with her father Mike at age 3 in 1995. “Everyone kind of assumed that my dad would have pushed me into racing, but it was actually the opposite. I begged him to let me race.” Courtesy of Amber Balcaen

“She was born in March, and our first racing trip was in April,” Mike Balcaen says of his and his wife Kim’s only child. “We bathed her in the sink in the motor home.”

So it was hardly a surprise when, at a young age, Amber started expressing interest in racing go-karts like her cousins. Instead, the shocker was that her father initially told her no.

Amber kept asking, and Mike kept saying no. The same answer Kim had gotten when she was a kid.

“My mom always really wanted to race, but since she was a female, her dad didn’t let her. The males got to race,” Amber Balcaen says. “And my mom said, ‘You can’t to do to Amber what my dad did to me. If she wants to race, you need to let her race.’”

When Amber was 10, Mike finally relented, but there were two conditions: She had to find her own sponsors, and anytime work had to be done on her car, she had to be involved in the doing of it.

“I really wanted to make sure that she wanted to do it,” Mike says. “The time factor, the commitment it takes — you miss out on a lot of other stuff with racing. And not saying that’s a bad thing, but just, if you want to do it and succeed, it means 100-percent effort.”

From the start, the effort was there. She raised money to race in some pretty obvious ways — by hitting up her dad’s friends and her dad’s sponsors for $100 here, $100 there — but she also got creative. At one point, she cobbled together all of the stickers she’d collected over the years at the Performance Industry Racing Trade Show in Indianapolis, rented a table at a swap meet, and made a decent pile of cash for her racing program by selling stickers all day.

The talent was there from the start, too.

From age 10 to age 15, Amber Balcaen was beating boys her age in go-karts on dirt. When she graduated to lightning sprints at 16, she began competing against — and defeating — grown men, many of whom were old enough to be her dad. She eventually would become the first female driver to win a dirt track racing championship in Manitoba.

At 21 (not long after she graduated with a two-year business degree from Red River College in Winnipeg), she moved up to a massively powerful 410 sprint car, got a handle on it quickly, kept winning, and was crowned 2014 Rookie of the Year in the Northern Outlaw Sprint Association — a touring dirt-track series in which she was the only woman.

That led to an invitation to try out at the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Combine at Langley Speedway in Hampton, Va., in October 2014, and while she wasn’t selected for the program, it got her hooked on the idea of moving to the U.S. and transitioning to stock-car racing.

But to do so, Balcaen would need to do a whole lot more than sell stickers to raise the roughly $100,000 she needed to follow her NASCAR dreams to Charlotte.

I’m the one with lipstick on’

During the conversation at Starbucks earlier this month, it’s actually Balcaen who is the first to bring up Danica Patrick’s name, after being asked about what it’s like to be a woman trying to attract sponsors in a male-dominated sport.

“I don’t think people necessarily believe that a woman can be as good as a man behind the wheel, which is untrue,” she says as she warms her hands with her latte. “But the (advantage) is we are the rarity. ... When Danica first got into NASCAR, they would talk about her just as much as they’d talk about the leader — whether she was in fifth or 20th — because she was different. ...

“When you line me up beside 20 other drivers, you’re gonna notice me ‘cause I’m the one with long hair and lipstick on. ... And as a sponsor, you need someone that stands out. Someone that’s different. Someone that’s gonna provide that exposure and value that you need, rather than just being another white guy from Texas.”

There’s pretty much no exception to this rule: If someone’s talking about a woman who is trying to climb her way to NASCAR’s highest level, someone’s going to draw a comparison to Patrick, who retired earlier this year and remains the only woman to sustain a career in the Cup Series.

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That kind of conversation tends to intensify around someone like Balcaen, who has similarly flowing brunette locks, a similarly athletic frame and a similar penchant for flashing tight-lipped smiles in Instagram selfies.

And just like she took grief from other kids for her boyish fashion statements back when she was wearing racing sweatshirts to high school, now in her 20s, she’s gotten used to being mocked for being too feminine away from the track.

“One thing that kind of aggravates me is people comment on my Instagram, ‘Oh, you take selfies and wear lipstick and dresses and heels,’” she says. “I’m like, ‘Well, yeah, because that’s me.’ Just because I race cars, which is a masculine sport, doesn’t mean that I can’t also be girly. ... That’s who I am. I’m girly.

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“I’ve always tried to walk a fine line of using my feminimity to my advantage, but also being respectful and classy,” Amber Balcaen says. “At the end of the day, I’m a race-car driver. I’m not a model.” Courtesy of Amber Balcaen

“But when I get to the racetrack and I have my fire suit on, I’m a different person. ... Because that’s my job. You know? You’re probably different at home with your family and kids than you are at your job. That’s how I describe it. And when I put that helmet on, I’m like every other driver. You can’t tell that I have long hair, you can’t tell that I have mascara and lipstick on, I’m just a driver.”

Unfortunately, though, for the time being, she’s a driver without a ride.

I want to help out a local’

The first (not just big, but) huge break of Balcaen’s career came in 2016, when even though she lacked sponsorship, she was signed to the Lee Pulliam Performance racing team; she made her first start in a NASCAR-sanctioned race that April.

She wound up racing 12 events in the Whelen All-American Series that season, earning 11 top-five finishes and seven top threes while becoming the first Canadian-born woman to win a NASCAR-sanctioned race (in August) and grabbing another Rookie of the Year title.

In August 2016, Amber Balcaen of Winnepeg, Manitoba — then 24 — became the first Canadian-born female racer to win a NASCAR-sanctioned race, at Motor Mile Speedway in Virginia. Courtesy of Amber Balcaen

“I caught the attention of a lot of people ... there was hype, and I was like, ‘Oh, my career’s gonna blow up, and it’s gonna be awesome,’” Balcaen says. “Toyota Racing Development reached out to me. I thought it was gonna be great. And then, almost had a sponsorship ... then it fell through. Then I had another sponsorship fall through, and that just keep happening, and pretty much since then ... I’ve struggled to get sponsors to move up.”

She could only scrape together enough cash to race four times in 2017 — once on the K&N Pro Series East (a regional NASCAR racing series) and three times back with Whelen.

For up-and-coming drivers, getting on with a race team is the optimal way to go, because the owners cover the cost of the driver and his or her races using the money from ongoing sponsorship deals that keep the whole team running.

Drivers trying to make it on their own, meanwhile, need to come up with about $750,000 in sponsorships to finance a full season in the K&N Series; to compete in the ARCA Racing Series, which is just a few tiers down from the prestigious Cup level, it can cost upwards of $1.4 million.

It’s also possible to just get funded for a one-off; for example, a car dealership in Daytona Beach could offer to sponsor a driver just for a race at Daytona International Speedway, since that’s where the visibility makes sense.

Or sometimes, like with Balcaen, it’s about a friend hooking up a friend.

“I sponsor Amber not for any benefit to my trucking company, because I do not run U.S., I’m strictly a Canadian carrier — I’m doing it to help Amber out,” says Jim Gregg, owner of Glen McLeod & Son Ltd. of Winnipeg. “My trucking company doesn’t benefit at all (from visibility in) North Carolina. Nobody down there has heard of me, and never will. So I don’t do it for the obvious, normal reasons. I do it ‘cause I want to help out a local person in Manitoba who is trying to cut their teeth in that male-dominated industry.”

The Glen McLeod name and an illustration of a long-haul truck, incidentally, is emblazoned across the front of her new black fire suit.

But Balcaen needs a lot more than what Gregg can afford to get her Christmas wish: the chance to run at ARCA’s preseason open test in January at Daytona and return for the series’ Lucas Oil 200 in February. She needs $90,000 to pull that off. And as of late fall, she had nearly half of that shored up in the fall, with the sponsor excited about her role on the CMT reality series “Racing Wives” and its at-that-point anticipated January premiere date.

The first season of the Charlotte-set show — which also stars NASCAR wives Samantha Busch (married to Kyle), Ashley Busch (married to Kurt) and Whitney Dillon (married to Austin) — was filmed earlier this year and focuses a fair amount of attention on Balcaen’s quest to make it in NASCAR.

(To preserve at least some of the show’s surprises, Balcaen is contractually prohibited from revealing any details about the one Super Late Model race she ran for Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2018.)

“I’m a female in a very male-dominated sport,” Amber Balcaen said at the press day for “Racing Wives” in November. “So for me, this show is a great platform to be able to help inspire other women.” Courtesy of Amber Balcaen

Samantha Busch, co-owner of Kyle Busch Motorsports, had high praise for Balcaen during a press junket for the show held in Charlotte earlier this fall.

“I’ve known Amber for a few years, and she really impressed me,” says Busch, who spends portions of the pilot mentoring Balcaen and trying to convince her husband to take a chance on her. “She really always pushed to learn more. ... 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. ... The show really highlights the struggles for her, wanting to be a female race car driver.”

But CMT recently decided to push the release to “Summer 2019,” a spokesperson for the show said, and the folks that had committed money to her ARCA debut subsequently pulled out.

Says Balcaen: “It just kind of pushed all my plans back about six months.”

When I say the struggle’s real...’

And so all she can do is keep at it.

There’s not much else she can do. As a Canadian citizen on a five-year athlete visa (which expires in 2022), she’s not eligible to hold a regular job. She earned some income from CMT, but otherwise has had to summon the entrepreneurial spirit of her sticker-selling days to keep money in her bank account.

She sells protein powder. She was a spokesperson for a tire company in Canada, although that deal ended in 2017. She’s done paid speaking engagements. And in the past, she’s lived with friends and cut deals to keep her rent really cheap — though she did recently move into a Huntersville apartment with her boyfriend, Jordan Reaves, a defensive lineman for the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders who fled south for the offseason.

When she’s not spending time with Reaves and/or her German shepherd-husky Mix, Hugo, she dedicates virtually all of the rest of her days to trying to find sponsorships.

“And ... it’s not just me that’s in this situation,” Balcaen says. “There’s so many drivers that just want to race and find sponsorship, but it’s so difficult. It’s just really, really difficult right now. The only difference is I just haven’t given up yet.”

But her hands are tied when it comes to keeping her racing skills sharp. While a basketball player could go shoot three-pointers at a gym and a baseball player could find a batting cage fairly easily, it’s impossible for someone in Balcaen’s financial situation to get time in a race car.

In fact, since the race with Kyle Busch Motorsports for the TV show, pretty much the only wheel she’s been behind is in her 2004 Mazda Tribute with Manitoba plates.

Outside of the Starbucks in Huntersville, Balcaen walks around the front of her car while waving her hand at it somewhat dismissively.

“It’s worth twenty-five-hundred dollars. When I say the struggle’s real, I’m not joking. ... Look, it’s all dinged-up. I mean, it gets me from A to B. Once I move up the ranks —”

She pauses just briefly, then turns and flashes that tight-lipped smile she’s perfected in those selfies before continuing:

“— then, maybe, I’ll be able to afford something a little nicer.”

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.
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