Females in Motorsport got to talk to Canadian racing driver Amber Balcaen who made history by becoming the first Canadian female to win a NASCAR-sanctioned race in the USA.
Speed runs in Amber’s blood as, everyone on both sides of her family, raced: her grandfather, Lou Kennedy Sr., her cousin, her uncle and her dad, Mike Balcaen, who has won 56 track championships.
Amber’s racing journey started at the age of 10 by racing go-karts and then she already knew that she had to fight to achieve her dream.
“My journey has been challenging because I didn’t have any family funding so I had to raise every single dollar of sponsorship on my own,” Amber tells Females in Motorsport.
Her dad has always been the person she looked up to the most because he had built his whole career on his own and this helped Amber to develop new skills. Nowadays, Amber is not only a racing driver but also an entrepreneur of her own company, Amber Balcaen Racing Inc., a motivational speaker and also a social media influencer, utilising her platforms in motorsport to inspire others to pursue their dreams.
Amber has a bachelor of business, administration and marketing and, when she wanted to go back and finish the exams to get her full degree, she decided to entirely focus on racing.
“I didn’t want to do anything else other than driving racing cars for a living,” it’s what she said to herself back then. She started then with spring cars and got noticed by the NASCAR Drive For Diversity programme.
“When I got the call, I thought it was so cool as I used to watch the races every Sunday but, until I saw Danica Patrick racing there, I wouldn’t ever imagine someone like me doing that,” she says.
In 2016, Amber had her debut in NASCAR, racing her first season on asphalt in the NASCAR Whelen All American Series (now called NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series). In her first year, she got her first win at the Motor Mile Speedway, making history as the first Canadian female driver to win a NASCAR-sanctioned race.
“It was a good day,” Amber says. “I was excited about the win but the next day I was already thinking about what would have been the next goal and that win seems already so long ago.”
Post victory, she decided to focus on climbing the NASCAR ladder and for this she had to leave her hometown to pursue her dream of competing professionally in the United States.
“I moved to North Carolina about six years ago because most NASCAR shops and even its headquarters are here - it’s the place to be if you want to race NASCAR,” she says. “At first, it was lonely. I didn't know anyone and I was learning and figuring out more about this industry as I’ve been in racing for so long but in dirt racing. The NASCAR path was completely new to me but nowadays I’m so grateful to be here now.”
Racing can be brutal as Amber got to experience in 2020 when she got involved in a nasty crash while competing in the POWRi Midget Racing Series.
“The night that I crashed badly when I was in the ambulance, I couldn’t feel my arms or legs,” she says. “I thought I was paralysed and I told them that. I was freaking out but after a few minutes, I started to get the feelings back. That was the first moment I was seriously scared of what racing could do to my health. That night I said that I’m done with racing but the next day I asked the doctor how long until I could get back into a race car so I quickly changed my mind.”
In those three months without racing, Amber had to do a lot of rehab, even if mentally she was strong.
In 2021, she went back to racing by taking part in three ARCA Menards Series West races while 2022 has been the best racing season to date for Amber as she managed to compete full-time in the ARCA Menards National series with Rette Jones Racing.
“It was awesome - getting to race the full season last year was amazing,” she says.
“We went through a lot of ups and downs, we had tons of bad luck and mechanical issues. It was very testing but I was happy to have finally gotten the experience of running all the races.”
The 2022 ARCA Menards Series season consisted of 20 rounds around different kinds of circuits like short tracks, intermediate ovals, superspeedways, and road courses.
She completed her season in seventh position overall with 774 points under her belt.
“I had a year where to improve my skills, learning the tracks, and the car,” she says. “I learned so much last year that it made me excited for this year to put everything I learned to use.”
Among all the 20 races, Amber had, of course, her favorites.
“Daytona is always a super special one as I dreamed about racing it my entire life - I’ve been going there as a fan for so long that it was a ‘full circle moment’ for me,” Amber says. “Another event that also stands out to me from last year is Charlotte because it was really fun and that was our best finish of the season.”
Now, in 2023, Amber is back in ARCA with a part-time schedule, which included the season-opener held in February at the Daytona International Speedway and another race at Talladega Superspeedway with Venturini Motorsports. The team is known to be one of the strongest of the series, in particular on superspeedways.
At Daytona, she had to start in P35 and managed to finish in sixth position, taking her best ARCA career finish and she can’t wait to race at Talladega on April 22.
“I’m looking forward to Talladega as we had such a strong run at Daytona,” Amber says. “Talladega is also wider; you can go three-wide there and be able to do more moves so from how strong we were at Daytona and just having that one race under my belt for the season, I feel really good about Talladega.”
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t get at least a podium there.”
While she’s working to get more sponsors to fill out some more races for this season, she already looks up to her next step.
“My next step would be the NASCAR Xfinity Series as the cars are similar to the ARCA ones,” she says.
“It would be the natural progression to do.”
North American racing has been full of important women drivers but the last time we had a full-time female driver in the current NASCAR Xfinity Series was back in 2012 with Danica Patrick. She’s been also the last female driver to compete in a race of the highest stock car championship, the NASCAR Cup Series, at the 2018 Daytona 500.
“It’s still really difficult for women to get the funding they need to move up to the next level and this is why there’s not a woman in the Xfinity or Cup Series full-time,” Amber says. “I don’t think there’s a lack of talent because there are a lot of talented women out there.
“I want to be able to help women in motorsport: from on-track, by proving that we belong here.”
All pictures are courtesy of Amber.