Anastasia: You can measure sports a hundred ways, but if you want to start with bums in seats, NASCAR is a beast. 60,000 people will show up at races and tens of millions tune in over the season. Baseball may be America’s pastime, but NASCAR speaks to the heartland like nothing else. So it’s great to see a woman, a Winnipegger, no less, in the thick of it. Amber Balcaen is not only the first Canadian woman to win a NASCAR sanctioned race, bombing around the track in her custom red and white car, She’s also proof positive that there’s no substitute for good old fashioned hustle.
It’s Player’s Own Voice. I’m Anastasia Bucsis.
This is such a stupid question, but when you’re turning left a lot, which obviously, I did as a speed skater, does that make your body compensate in weird ways?
Amber Balcaen: Yes, it actually does. It’s not a bad question at all. Funny story: when my husband and I started dating my dad and I were walking, and we both kind of walk with a lean like this, and he’s like ‘Why does your dad walk like that? Oh my God, you walk like that, too!’ And I was like, Yeah, I think it’s from racing all these years. We just, we’re so used to turning left that automatically our right side just goes up because we’re used to kind of being pinned down on our left side.
Anastasia: I probably walk that way too. Not that I ever went the speeds you did. Do you get injured on one side more than others or is it really just like compensation?
Amber Balcaen: No- I mean, when it comes to injuries the injury, usually it comes down to like neck or head injuries. That’s been my case. Most of the time it’s like concussions and things like that. Two years ago, I actually had a really bad crash and ended up in a hospital, had collapsed lungs, burns to my arms. You can still kind of see them healing up there. And that was definitely like a head trauma. It was very vicious flipping in the air landed in a fence, and it wasn’t that one side was worse than the other. It was like my whole body just felt like I had, I mean, flipped around in a car a bunch of times.
So yeah, the concussion and just like the whole my neck, my traps, my shoulders. That was probably the worst wreck I’ve had. But yeah, to answer your question- equal on both sides, one wasn’t worse than the other.
Anastasia: Oh my gosh. Are how are you feeling now? I mean, you look great. How? How’s the body doing? The body’s
Amber Balcaen: Doing great. It was two years ago, so it took me about two months to recover from that particular crash. And then I got back in the seat two months after that in that same type of car. Now that was when I was doing dirt track racing. Now that I’m in NASCAR, we’re in a full body stock car. The safety is incredible and I feel a lot safer in these cars, for sure. So the body feels great.
Anastasia: What were the nerves like going into the first time you got back in a car?
Amber Balcaen: I think it’s a little bit of OK, do I still have it? Am I going to be kind of reluctant to really push it all the way? And then once you get in, you’re like, OK, no, I got it. Give me a couple of laps, shake the rust off. Then it kind of comes back to you.
Anastasia: Give me some of the family tree. How did you get into it? When did you know?
Amber Balcaen: Yeah. So my grandfather was the one that started as my mom’s dad, and I wasn’t around yet to watch him race. He had already retired by the time I was born, but I went to the track with my mom and watched my uncle race, watch my cousin’ race, watch my dad race. And basically, I think what started me is I saw my cousins racing go karts and all my cousins are boys. I was the only girl in the family. I really want to do this like this looks so much fun. And my dad’s like, No, you don’t need to race at a young age. It costs a lot of money. We don’t need to do it. And then my mom was finally like, You know what? My dad didn’t let me race, and we’re not going to do that to our daughter, so you need to let her race.
So that’s when we started, and just the first time I raced, I was like, I love this so much and I was good at it. I got second, my first race, I won my second race, so it felt good too. I think as a girl growing up in your teenage years, it’s really difficult to find that confidence in yourself and build self-esteem. Even though I had amazing parents who always lifted me up, it still like an internal struggle that women have to build, right? And racing was something that always gave me a lot of confidence. I could go to the track and it felt like my safe place. No matter what happened at school or anything, for me, racing was always that escape.
Being in the car, you truly get to experience what it’s like to be in the moment when you’re in a race car because you’re thinking about nothing other than hitting your marks, trying to, you know, make that lap as fast as possible, either keep the guys behind you or pass the guys in front of you and you’re just truly so in the moment, it was that feeling that I just became so addicted to. And so from go karts, you know, I moved up to mini sprints and then 4-10 sprint cars and then I caught the eye of the NASCAR diversity programme. And that’s when they reached out to me and it was like: Hey, have you ever thought of NASCAR? And I was, Well, a little girl from Winnipeg? No, not at all. Obviously, I watch NASCAR on Sundays, but I never thought that that was something I could achieve. And I flew down to North Carolina, and the first time I was there, I was like, I need to live here, I need to make this happen.
So yeah, I dropped out of university and told my parents I was going to try to become a professional racecar driver. And it was scary, too, because even though my whole family had raced their whole lives, it was always local dirt track. And so to make it from a hobby to a career and to go from dirt track racing at local tracks to, you know, a full blown career in NASCAR industry, where this is now my job, it’s not just my hobby, and I had to learn a completely new industry because even though it’s both racing cars, NASCAR as an industry is in pavement and stock cars is so different than the open wheel dirt industry that I grew up in. So there is a lot of learning, a lot of learning curves, and a lot of just trial and error.
Anastasia: Oh, I mean, was there ever a Plan B for you or was there a moment when you’re like, I am all in for racing?
Amber Balcaen: No, there was no Plan B. I was like, I just I have to make this work. And I think almost not having, not being able to have another job…I sold my car and brought all my life savings to North Carolina. And my first year, I made $6000 in the entire year and I was…I have to make this work. This has to be for something. And every year. It just got harder and harder. And I was like, you have to make this worth it, Amber like. You have to make it worth it
Anastasia: When you were in university and you were kind of debating, you felt like the universe was telling you something?
Amber Balcaen: Yeah. So the actual day that I decided to try to make racing a career was: I had done my two year business admin at Red River College in Winnipeg, and everyone’s like, You need to go to Asper for four year if you want a good job. OK, so I’ll go there. And I was in a religion class because I was like, I feel like I don’t know a lot about religion. I need to learn more. And the first assignment was to go out in nature, ask nature questions and ask it to give you the answers to what you’re looking for.
And at that point, I was very like: What do I do with my life, which I think everyone can relate to at some point in their early 20s…What do I want to do with my life? It’s sometimes really difficult to figure that out. And scary. And I asked it and I knew I wanted to race, but it just seemed like such a far fetched dream that I don’t know if I have the courage to actually do it. And just asking nature, asking the universe, what should I do? It gave me all the signs. From all the birds flying to the east and from them going in circles and they’re all circling left and just I just had all the signs that I that I needed. And actually, that day, my dad had a heart attack! And my mom has multiple sclerosis, but my dad’s always been like super healthy and I’ve never seen him in the hospital. So it was such a jarring and scary moment that I remember the next day being like, Life is so short, I need to do what makes me happy. And so the next day, I went home and told my parents that I want to try to become a professional racecar driver.
Anastasia: OK, let me make sure I got this straight. So you are one of two women on the tour. Only Canadian woman.
Amber Balcaen: Only Canadian full time in the series.
Anastasia: Only Canadian full time. Excuse me. Unbelievable. When I think of NASCAR, when I think of racing, I think millions of dollars, right? Like you need to have lots of money. Was that your reality? I mean, how do you get into a sport that that just costs so much money?
Amber Balcaen: So I started out at ten years old and basically my dad said, “If you want to race, you know, it takes a lot of time, commitment and money. And I’m not willing to put my efforts into you because I’m racing on my own. So if you want to do it, you got to figure out a way to do this on your own.” So since I was ten years old, I’ve been finding my own sponsors working on my cars, and really, I had to learn how to become a businesswoman before a race car driver because it does cost so much money to race.
So even as a teenager, you know, I was raising thousands of dollars to race, and now I’m at the point where I’m having to raise millions of dollars to race, so definitely a lot tougher at this level to get here. But you learn a lot as you as you go along the way.
Anastasia: Mad respect, would you, do you think you’d be behind the wheel if you weren’t a businesswoman?
Amber Balcaen: No, absolutely not. Because you either have money in racing or you find money in racing. That’s the only two ways most people that I race against come from really wealthy families, where that wasn’t my case. I had to go and find a way to raise the sponsorship and raise this money and have people invest their marketing dollars into me in order to just get on the racetrack, never mind like practise and win and everything else that has to come after that.
But so for me, just getting to the track is an accomplishment because I’ve had to raise so much money to be able to get to the track where people that come from a lot of money, they’re able to practise a lot, they’re able to race a lot and it’s hard to get better at your craft and build your skills without competing. So that’s where, in my career that’s been my biggest challenge is the… there’s been years where I’ve only got to race a couple of times here because of the lack of funding. And it’s really hard as an athlete to build confidence when you’re not practising your skills and building on that. So that’s why I’ll do a lot of work on the mental side of things. Just a lot of work on my grit and mental toughness so that if I lack in one area, I can make it up in another.
Anastasia: As a Canadian, though, doing a sport that’s massive in the United States, what does that look like for your sponsorship? Because I can imagine that American sponsors probably tend towards American athletes, Canadians…. What does that look like?
Amber Balcaen: Being a Canadian in American sport actually has a lot of challenges. For one, when I was younger and raced in dirt,our season was just in the summer months, so we had four or five months of racing where people in the south, they had 12 months of racing a year. So again, that they were able to develop their skills and get better throughout the entire year, where we only had four or five months to do that. Then we would have, you know, a long off season, six to eight months and then back in the car again.
So that was one hurdle. Then moving up into NASCAR, you need to live in North Carolina to race NASCAR. How I explain it is, you know, if you want to be a country music artist, you move to Nashville, you want to be an actress, you’re in Hollywood. If you want to race NASCAR, you have to move to North Carolina. So then I there I am, a Canadian, figuring out how I’m going to get to the states legally and pursue my dream, so to raise money for the lawyers, to get my immigration visa and doing the process of that. And then once I got down here, I’m not able to work in any other field other than driving a race car. So I wasn’t able to have side jobs while I was pursuing this dream and not really making any money.
So it was tough. It was lonely. I was completely broke for the first four or five years because you don’t make any money when you’re just starting out, but then now you’re in the states and trying to find sponsors as a Canadian in an American sport. And that’s something I really struggled with too, because I would go just for Canadian sponsors and they would say, sorry, like we like you, but you race in the States, so that doesn’t give us any value. And then on the flip side, I would reach out to American sponsors and they’d be like, Well, why wouldn’t we just sponsor one of our own? And then so I tried to reach out to North American companies, but I wasn’t big enough at that point for them to take the chance on me. I still had to grow my name. So what I ended up doing was looking for Canadian companies that have a North American presence that were kind of, you know, more willing to take a chance on a local girl. And thankfully, last year, that’s when my sponsor, Icon Direct came on board, which is out of Winkler, Manitoba, which is an hour from Winnipeg.
And they said, Here’s this local girl trying to do big things and she’s, you know, has that underdog story and they really resonated with, you know, having to work hard and starting from the bottom and, you know, working your way up. And they really loved that and said, Let’s let’s partner. So I’m super grateful to have Icon direct on board, they’re an RV parts manufacturer and yeah, out of my hometown in Manitoba, and my other sponsor is a trucking company out of Winnipeg. So it’s really cool. Not only am I Canadian in an American sport, but I have all Canadian sponsors and then my co-owner of my race team is also Canadian. So we’re like a whole Canadian team in a very American dominated sport.
Anastasia: That’s so awesome. Congratulations, Manitoba Strong for sure.
So walk me through just a typical day, please.
Amber Balcaen: Yeah, so when I wake up, I have my mind set kind of morning routine. I read 10 pages of self-development. Usually it has to do with driver or athlete mindset or some type of mindset book that will help me get in the right frame of mind for competing. Then I do my first workout for an hour and a half with my driver trainer, and we have very driver specific workouts. We do a lot of sensory work, so it’s both physical and sensory. Then I … part of my morning routine. I also do visualisation manifestations, journaling, so I do a lot of like mindset work, a lot of mindset work. And then after the gym, come home, make a really good, healthy, balanced meal. Then I hop on my iRacing and what iRacing is. It’s kind of our simulator for racing. Since racing itself to practise is very expensive to just rent to track. And so iRacing is kind of our like trick or hack to get some seat time without actually being in the car. So go on that for a few hours and then I do my second workout of the day and then basically come home, make a good meal and then watch footage of the track that I’ll be going to next. So next, I’m going to Talladega so I’ve been watching in-car footage, I’ve been watching past races. And then I’ll actually go and study the tracks, just knowing how big the tracks are, what the racing surfaces like, what happens as the track, how the track changes throughout the race and just really know the track inside and out so that when it comes to race day, I kind of know what to expect. So basically, I do that every single day.
Anastasia: What’s the community like? What’s the NASCAR community like?
Amber Balcaen: As much as we really go throat to throat at the track and during the races, when someone needs something, the other person’s always willing to help them. And that’s why I consider it family, because family: you go at each other, but at the end of the day, you’re there for each other. And I think that’s a really great part about racing and the sport of NASCAR.
Anastasia: Being the only Canadian, though, does it ever get lonely?
Amber Balcaen: Oh, I don’t think so. I think I’ve just I’ve been such like an outcast my whole life that I’m just used to like I’ve always been, you know, the only girl or the only Canadian or .so I spend a lot of time on my own, but I don’t mind that because to me, when I have my own time, it means I get to better myself in some way, whether that be watching footage or working out or mindset or working on, you know, the business side of things which I totally forgot to tell you and what I do day to day, I forgot to add that I’m doing emails, interviews and sponsorship negotiations like all the business side of it as well.
So I’m constantly in talks with different companies and CEOs. And then I also have a lot of obligations with my current sponsors, whether that be appearances, trade shows, content creation days, commercials. So there’s a lot of stuff that I do for my sponsors outside the racetrack to make sure that it’s a mutually beneficial partnership.
Anastasia: Labels, you know, you said it best. ” I’ve been an outcast.” What does that look like in NASCAR? Is it an old boy’s club? Is it getting better? What does that look like?
Amber Balcaen: I would say yes and no. I think that there are definitely people in the sport who still have that kind of old boy’s club mindset. And then there’s people in the sport who don’t believe that to be true. When I look for teams to race for, that’s something that is towards the top of my list is, will they treat me the same as every other driver. Will they work as hard for me as the same as every other driver and the team that I am with this year? They fulfil all of that for me. You know, they treat me like I would be any other driver, whether male or female. And they work hard for me and they work to make me the best I can be, and they know how hard I work to do the same. So I think aligning with the right people is a huge part of that.
Anastasia: So what are you excited for in this season?
Amber Balcaen: I have so much to be excited for in this season, so I think the biggest thing for me was I always wanted to race at Daytona and now my next race coming up is Talladega, which is another super speedway. And now that I have that experience from Racing Daytona this year, I’m really excited to go into this next race at Talladega because I’m familiar with the super speedways, how the car is run and how it feels. So I feel like I have a lot more confidence going into this next race and we’ve had a month off, so I’ve had a lot of time to really prepare and feel good about going into this race.
Anastasia: TV is almost NASCAR’s enemy because you can’t tell or to my untrained eye, I’m like, How fast are you going? Like 300 kilometres an hour? How? How, how do those cars go so fast?
Amber Balcaen: Yeah. So that’s the one thing is TV does not do NASCAR racing justice. And I remember the first time I brought my husband to a NASCAR race, he’s like, Wow, this is so different than I expected. Like, the cars are going so fast. He got to see a whole pit work going and he was like, This is crazy. Like, This is so cool. So definitely a lot of people don’t understand how fast they’re actually going and how fast is the whole race and everything moves in general. And that’s what makes it fun, in my opinion.
Anastasia: So when you do a pit stop, what are you telling the mechanics? Is it so short that you’re like speaking in code or ?
Amber Balcaen: Throughout the race we have a spotter, so the spotter is giving me information in my ear throughout the entire race, like where the cars are around me. Then I have to communicate to the spotter, who also communicates it to the crew chief, the crew chief’s listening as well on what the car is doing. So the car is, you know, loose entering, tight exiting. It’s doing this in the centre. So I have to break down what the car’s doing in each section of the racetrack so that my crew can then make the proper adjustments to the car so that when I come in, they already know what adjustments they’re making because I’ve been giving them the information throughout the race.
So the crew chief is kind of the quarterback, I guess, of the team and like he makes all the calls, does everything that he needs to do to make sure that the cars the best it can be for me as the driver. But he can’t do that unless I’m giving him the proper information. So a big part of what we do as drivers is not just driving the car, but being able to feel what the car is doing and relay that information to the crews so that they can make the proper adjustments.
So like even today in my in my training, we were doing a lot of sensory work and I had to talk while saying other things and doing things kind of like a multitasking deal. And one of the things I’m working on, which sounds so silly, but it just kind of goes to show it’s all like the very minute details that make this work, but is lowering my voice, so that they can hear me better on the radio because girls have higher pitched voices and it’s a little bit harder to hear. So I have to learn how to kind of lower my voice and like, speak, clearly so that they can hear me better. So it’s just like every single detail after the race, after the race weekend, we sit down with our crew and we go over every detail of the race and where we need to improve, like down to the pitch of my voice.
Anastasia: That is so cool. So what did you learn in Daytona that you’re going to apply to Talladega?
Amber Balcaen: I think the three biggest things from Daytona is: managing speed, managing the distance between the car in front of you and the cars behind you. How superspeedway racing works is we’re in a draught, so we work with the air and we work with other cars within the air. So like managing the air between the cars plays a really big part of super speedway racing. And then the second thing would be my restarts, my shifting, making sure that I’m hitting my shifts on the proper rev limits. And then I think just being patient. I think I was pretty good at being patient in the first race, but being patient and then making sure that I’m aggressive at the end.
Anastasia: Being patient is like the hardest thing in the world, yes, regardless of what sport you’re in. I honestly, I’m going to play Talladega by Eric Church in your honour right now, and I will always think of you. I love that song, but I’ve never seen it in in person, and I got to be an honour to watch you race.
Amber Balcaen: I love that song too please do! I was like, I was, I’m driving down Talladega and I was listening to that song on repeat the entire way. And that last weekend I was watching Talladega Nights to prepare for this. Not really actually, but it was fun to kind of hype me up for it.
Anastasia: It has been such a pleasure to get to meet you and just hear your process, and you make a lot of Canadians proud to know that you’re just doing it and you’re breaking ceilings. And we’ve got to get in a car together. I don’t know. I’m a wimp. I don’t like adrenaline, so I don’t know.
Amber Balcaen: Oooh you might not like this,then.
Anastasia: I know I might be too lame for you. But I’ll watch. I’ll watch and I’ll wave the flag and cheer you on. Yeah.
Amber Balcaen: Thank you so much for having me on and thank you to all the Canadians who do watch and do support. And if you don’t know anything about NASCAR, I think that no matter what sport you’re in, if you have someone on the team or a player or a driver that you know and can watch, it makes it way more interesting. So even if you haven’t watched NASCAR now, you have someone to root for. So, yeah, check out my website and my schedule for all the races.
Anastasia: We will be rooting for you my friend.
Amber was at her home in Raleigh, North Carolina. Next stop, Talladega.
I recorded my end from Toronto. Player’s Own Voice podcast is a CBC Sports production. We’re available on CBC Listen and everywhere else you get your podcasts. Social media #Player’sOwnVoice. My handle is @Anastasure. Olivia Pascquarelli edits our audio. Adam Blinov wrote our theme music. David Giddens is our producer. Thanks for listening.