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Amber Balcaen Ready to Make the Jump to K&N Series in 2017

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.

E-MAIL ANDY AT  andymarquis@gmail.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

 

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Julia Landauer Bringing Survival Skills to NASCAR

Former Survivor castoff @julialandauer has taken her survival skills to the world of stock car racing.

Last year, the 24-year-old from New York City persevered in the ultra-competitive Limited Sportsman division at Motor Mile Speedway and became a championship driver. Now, Landauer is hoping to survive, and thrive, in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West tour, where she will compete for Bill McAnally Racing.

Landauer actually credits what she learned on the popular CBS Television reality show for making her a better, more persistent driver.

“With Survivor, I wanted to shoot it because I’m a competitive person and the challenge was really cool. My racing was a little slow at the time because I was in college. I got the opportunity to do it and knew I had to do it,” Landauer said. “I knew it challenged people mentally and physically and I wanted to push myself farther than I ever have before. It was incredibly difficult.

“I had never been so physically uncomfortable and had to deal with so many characters I didn’t like. It put me in an uncomfortable position the entire time I was on the show and it made me resilient and pushed my perseverance. You don’t know your limits until you push them. It was helpful for racing in terms of mindset and never give up mentality.”

The never give up mentality had to be carried over to racing, when Landauer competed in Limited Late Models at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Virginia last year. Teamed up with three-time NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion Lee Pulliam, Landauer had immediate success but a mid-season penalty set her back.

After a wild race in late June, every single car that rolled through post-race technical inspection, including Landauer, was disqualified, shuffling up the points standings.

“That was a nightmare,” Landauer remarked. “We had a little incident with the lapped car. That one was really challenging. I thought, ‘I lost my championship dream, we can’t do it,’ then we looked at it mathematically and figured out we could do it. Lee and I were very optimistic and positive and kept pushing and hit everything perfectly.

“It was great teamwork. They had faith in me and I had faith in them and we maximized our performance. I knew I deserved it. I need it is really what was driving me. When you’re in the zone, nothing else matters.”

Racing for one of Late Model Stock Car racing’s greats was beneficial for Landauer in many ways. Not only did she have great cars, but the two had chemistry and worked well together.

“Working with Lee (Pulliam) and the entire team was so beneficial for a couple reasons,” Landauer explained. “I learned more about the cars and setup and how to do everything mechanical, so that was cool. It was great to see a champion’s mindset and what his thought process was.

“Because Lee is closer to my age, closer than any other team owner I had, it was the first time I felt like I was one of the guys and didn’t feel being a woman had impact on my performance. The fact that they treated me helped me. They yelled at me when I didn’t do well and praised me when I did to well. I couldn’t have asked for a better setup for 2015. There’s no better equipment out there.”

Despite being in great equipment, winning the first race of the season wasn’t the expectation anyone had for Landauer, not to mention winning the championship. After all, no woman had ever won a race at the ultra-competitive Motor Mile Speedway and only one woman had ever won a Late Model championship in the Southeast when Haley Moody won a championship at Southern National Motorsports Park the year before.

However, Landauer is more than just a pretty face showing up to race on raceday. Landauer holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Bachelors in Science, Technology and Society from the prestigious Stanford University. Landauer is mechanically savvy and smooth in the racecar.

“Winning the first race exceeded my expectations,” Landauer stated. “Once I knew I could do it, I reset my standards and wanted to win races and the championship. I learned I was capable I was doing well so that elevated the bar of wanting to do well.”

Landauer went on to do more than just win races. She would rebound from the mid-season penalty with two victories in August which allowed her to complete the comeback and win the Motor Mile Speedway track championship. Even more impressive is that she did it against some very tough competition.

“I think the fact that the competitors were so hard and so tough made me elevate my game,” Landauer remarked. “Between Scott Lancaster, Karl Budzevski, Daryn Cockram and Preston McGhee, they gave me a really hard time and if I was gonna get it, I was gonna have to elevate my game and push back. I have to thank them for getting tougher. Even at the end with Ryan Repko, he did super well so he was really a threat at the end there. It was really cool to battle with those guys cleanly for the most part too.”

Landauer’s racing background is more than just Late Models. She’s been racing since she was 10 – competing in go-karts, the Skip Barber racing series where she won a championship, Formula BMW, USAC Midgets and Legends. In fact, she has raced for Bill McAnally in the past – the team she is reuniting with to compete in the full NASCAR K&N Pro Series West schedule.

“2015 proves a lot of momentum moving forward,” Lanauer commented. “2016 in the West Series is going to be exceptionally difficult. People will have more seat time and experience but I feel I am capable of being a champion and winning. Racing with Bill McAnally racing, they were champions last year so I’m confident I’ll be able to do well and my expectation is to win this season.”

If Landauer continues to surpass expectations, she might reach her ultimate goal in the coming years – which is to compete in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

“Like all my competitors, my dream is to get to the Sprint Cup Series so I’m going to keep taking the steps I need to take to get there.”

Landauer will make her NASCAR K&N Pro Series West debut when the series opens its season at Irwindale Speedway in California on March 19th.

EMAIL ANDY AT andy.marquis@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @amarquis32

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, it’s owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement

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Daniel Suarez, Lee Pulliam Chasing Twin NASCAR Championships

By Matt Weaver — Somewhat removed from the bright lights of the big three NASCAR tours are two decorated Home Track young guns who are looking to make history this season and may have to go through one another to make it happen.

Both Daniel Suarez and Lee Pulliam are rival contenders in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East this season but are also attempting to win twin NASCAR championships — Suarez in the Toyota Mexico Series and Pulliam, a third consecutive crown in the Whelen All-American Weekly Division.

Suarez will also have the added pressure of making his Nationwide Series debut for Joe Gibbs Racing this weekend at Richmond while also competing in the Pro Series race earlier in the afternoon. Once done in Richmond, he plans to fly back home to Monterey, Mexico to compete in the Mexico Series.

The Mexican sensation has had the most success thus far chasing two championships. He is currently the Mexico Series championship leader, having won two of the first three races and sits second in the Pro Series ranking after winning two of its first four events. Just how far is Suarez willing to go in order to win both championships?

As far as it takes, assuming that additional opportunities do not present themselves in the Nationwide or Camping World Truck Series, something that would obviously take precedence for the 22-year-old top prospect.

“I really feel lucky to be in this position,” Suarez said. “Not many drivers have the opportunity to do one race or two races or three races like I do this weekend, in the same weekend and that’s kind of cool for me.

“I think we can learn a lot about this situation … having the opportunity to race with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide Series, the K&N, and also in Mexico — all these three teams — they are pretty strong in each series.”

Meanwhile, Pulliam has some work to do as he sits 13th in the Pro Series East standings, following two disastrous races at Bristol and Greenville Pickens. But it hasn’t been for a lack of speed. He posted back-to-back top-5s at New Smyrna and Daytona but a crash at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile left his team struggling to catch up.

He hopes to right the ship this Friday, at Richmond, against Suarez and the rest of the Pro Series roster in the Blue Ox 100.

lee1Pulliam is perhaps the most successful Late Model Stock Car driver of the past half-decade but the 26-year-old must make a national statement this season if he is ever to advance beyond the short track ranks. Winning two NASCAR championships simultaneously would definitely get that point across.

His Pro Series team, Hattori Racing Enterprises, has won in the Pro Series before and both Pulliam and teammate David Garbo Jr. bring a lot of talent and experience to the mix. It’s not lost on Pulliam just how impressive twin titles would be.

“It would be pretty neat,” Pulliam said earlier in the season at Daytona. “It’s also going to be a challenge but it’s not entirely impossible. Hattori has good equipment and we can win in these cars. Winning the weekly championship will be tougher now just because we won’t have any mulligans. We’re going to miss some races due to the K&N schedule but the championship format gives you room to work with. We just have to make the most of each race and hopefully we can win both championships — how cool would that be?”

Mike Stefanik is the most recent driver to post twin championships in NASCAR, winning both the old Busch North (predecessor to the Pro East Series) and NASCAR Modified Tour championships in both 1997 and 1998 — an amazing four NASCAR championships in two years.

Stefanik, a legend of the New England racing scene, says winning twin championships would be a much tougher task in 2014 due to the logistics. When he won his championships, a majority of the Busch North and Modified Tour races were centered around the Northeast.

Pulliam will have to travel all across the Eastern Seaboard and Southeast to win the Pro Series and All-American championships while Suarez will have to bounce between two different countries on two sides of the continent in order to win the East and Mexico crowns. Stefanik says he’s rooting for both of them.

“I think it would be neat to see,” Stefanik told Popular Speed. “I’m not a guy that’s overly concerned with being the last to do something or whatever. Records were made to be broken and I think it would be neat to see just for their crews.

“Racing is such a team sport and to be able to win two different NASCAR championships in one year says a lot about the people that Lee and Daniel have surrounded themselves with — and that’s the best part of this deal.”

Communication will be the key, especially for Suarez, who speaks jagged but ever-improving English. Paying attention to all three teams and giving each equal and adequate attention will go a long way towards positive results, especially at Richmond and jumping back-and-forth between two completely different Stock Cars.

“I have been spending a lot of time in the shop trying to learn as (much) as possible about the racecar, the language I’m going to use with my crew chief,” Suarez said. “You need a language to set up the car and everything.

“Right now I have been trying to split my time in three different teams and I think so far we are pretty good. I’m really looking forward to do something good this weekend.”

For both Suarez and Pulliam, the good may lead to historic by season’s end.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN