Amber Balcaen feels she is ready to make the jump from Late Models to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East in 2017, racing for Martin-McClure Racing full-time.
The move to the K&N Series is a big leap for Balcaen. The 24-year-old from the province of Manitoba in Canada has only been racing on asphalt for a little over a year. In spite of her inexperience, Balcaen is confident and looks forward to a challenge.
“I mean, I definitely lack experience,” Balcaen said. “This is only my second year on pavement. I am more confident knowing I have good people with me and knowledgeable people and they can help me the best they can.”
Balcaen was a championship driver in dirt racing up in Manitoba before making the transition to asphalt in 2015. Her asphalt career started at Myrtle Beach Speedway in a Southeast Limited Late Model Series preliminary, racing for Troy Carnes and CM Driver Development. In 2016, Balcaen made the decision to run full-time on asphalt, driving in the Limited Sportsman division at Motor Mile Speedway for Late Model Stock Car great Lee Pulliam – the same driver who coached Julia Landauer in 2015 before she moved to K&N.
Working with and learning from Pulliam, a three-time NASCAR Whelen All-American Series National Champion, Balcaen quickly gained an understanding of asphalt racing and how the cars drive. Balcaen had success with Pulliam, scoring one win in August 2016 as well as seven podium finishes and 12 top-five finishes in 13 races.
“He taught us everything, he’s a really good coach and a great driver as well,” Balcaen remarked, talking about her relationship with Pulliam. “Another successful driver be able to coach me and teach me the ropes of pavement racing was beneficial. He was really good with constructive criticism. I like being told when I do things wrong. I already know when I do something wrong, but he would let me know. He was very honest with me and never sugarcoated things and that’s what made us successful.”
Having coached Landauer and Balcaen, as well as Dalton Sargeant and Kaz Grala, Pulliam has an eye for talent and a natural ability to help racers mature and develop into contenders, not just in Late Models, but in ARCA and NASCAR as well.
“Our development deal is really good,” Pulliam said in victory lane after a win at Myrtle Beach Speedway in South Carolina. “You know, we moved Julia Landauer up a couple years ago and Amber Balcaen, she’s going to run some this year in the K&N Series. So, we’ve had a lot of success. Dalton Sargeant, Kaz Grala, a lot of people have come through here. It’s just really fun when you can work with great drivers like that and help them move up the ranks. It says a lot about my guys and the program I have here so hopefully we can continue that on.”
Moving from a Late Model at Motor Mile Speedway to a full-size K&N car is a big jump, but one Balcaen feels she can make. After all, Landauer did the same thing after winning a championship at Motor Mile racing for Pulliam.
“I feel like I am ready,” Balcaen explained. “I’m going to try to race for Lee in some Late Model races in our offseason because I don’t think I’m 100 percent there yet but I want to put myself in circumstances that I’m not 100 percent ready for, but I want to make them work. I proved it last year racing with Lee and, with zero pavement experience, got seven top-three finishes and a win.
“So, I’m used to putting myself in circumstances I might not be ready for but I like the challenge and I’m a pretty adaptable driver and with the right people, I’m going to be laser focused this year. It’s definitely going to be a big learning curve but I’m ready for the challenge.”
Balcaen made NASCAR history with her lone victory at Motor Mile Speedway on August 27, 2016. When she picked up the win, she became the first Canadian woman to win a NASCAR-sanctioned race in the United States. The triumph was a breakthrough win for Balcaen, but it was also a win that was somewhat overdue because she was already knocking on the door.
“The week before, I had half a lap lead over second place and I thought for sure that was my night and my time and I had other spotters congratulating my spotter before the checkered flag flew,” Balcaen recalled. “I thought that was for sure going to by my first win and then a restart came out and I got shuffled and finished in second and it was such a disheartening race. To not win after having a half lap lead is just really, felt like I got punched in the face.”
When she finally did score her first win, it was relief more than anything.
“I went back the next week and knew it was redemption time and was able to secure the win,” Balcaen continued. “It was a feeling of relief more than anything. I needed to win to prove to everyone that I made the right choice switching to pavement and deserved to be here. The following race, I almost won but lost by six inches.”
Because of her success in Canada and her marketability in the United States, Balcaen has amassed a large social media following, with over 7,000 followers on Twitter and close to 12,000 likes on her Facebook page. Like many racers in the modern age, Balcaen has become very active on social media and engages with her fans on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
“Initially, the reason I was so active on social media is being from Canada it’s hard to be noticed, everyone is looking for the next big thing is either looking in North Carolina or California,” Balcaen explained. “For me, it was a way to reach out to the rest of North America like, hey I’m here and I’m winning races, look at me. Once I grew a pretty big fan base, I realized it’s a really great tool to keep connected to my fans.
“I feel like have some the best fans in the world and they want to know what’s going on. They like to see my races and finishes but they like to see what I do during the week, whether it’s getting my seat fitted or working out. They like that stuff. It also lets people in on who I am as a racer and how hard I’ve had to work. I don’t come from any financial backing and I’ve had to work really hard to get to this point.”
While Balcaen stands out as one of the few women in the sport, she has not seen gender as an obstacle. In fact, she feels being a woman is something she can use to her advantage. However, she does not want to be seen as just a pretty face, but also as a serious competitor who has as much desire to win races as the rest of her competition.
“Being a female has its advantages and disadvantage I’m still paying the same price to be in the racecar and I’m trying to win races,” Balcaen commented. “The biggest obstacle is the financial aspect. I’ve had to deal with it since racing Mini Sprints. I’ve had to fund my own stuff. Being a female, I’ve gotten pretty accustomed to it. I pay the same price to race and want to win just as bad or more as my male competitors. I’m going to try to use it to my advantage as much as possible.”
Like Landauer last season, Balcaen is hoping for a successful season and to represent the growing female contingent in NASCAR racing for years to come.
Balcaen’s first K&N Series race will be in the season opener for the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East at New Smyrna Speedway on Sunday night, February 19th.
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