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AUTO RACING: 22-year-old attempts to live her dream of being a fulltime sprint car driver

Having grown up around the track Amber Balcaen is aware that it is a good idea to keep one's eyes open for other race drivers heading to or from the track. Darren Gibbins special to the Herald1 / 6
Amber Balcaen chased the leaders during her debut on opening night. Darren Gibbins special to the Herald2 / 6
Amber Balcaen checks out some sprint car action prior to heading back to her car, strap on the helmet and crawl behind the wheel. Darren Gibbins special to the Herald3 / 6
Amber Balcaen and her father Mike Balcaen make a last minute inspection of her car before her debut in Grand Forks. Darren Gibbins special to the Herald4 / 6
Amber Balcaen chats with another young driver prior to her first race of the season. Darren Gibbins special to the Herald5 / 6
One of the guys, Canadian Amber Balcaen hangs with the guys taking in a drivers meeting at the track. Darren Gibbins special to the Herald6 / 6

Amber Balcaen did not race her way into Friday night’s World of Outlaws 40-lap feature at River Cities Speedway. That’s not a surprise, considering the 22-year-old from Winnipeg is in her first season racing a 410 sprint car.

But Balcaen gained valuable experience, the kind she hopes will eventually lead her to race against the country’s top sprint car drivers on a regular basis.

Growing up in a racing family, Balcaen has set her sights on a motorsports career. And in her first season, she’s already made significant strides.

“I’m having a lot of fun,” she said. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do, even before I could say sprint car.”

Racing has played a big role in her life.

Her dad, Mike, has raced late models for more than 30 seasons, and he took another big win Friday night by winning the 25-lap NLRA late model feature following the Outlaws’ 40-lap A main.

Amber’s grandfather is legendary racer Lou Kennedy. And her uncle is Lou Kennedy Jr. Her first cousin is Thomas Kennedy, who recently turned in one of the faster laps in RCS history.

No pressure to go fast

There is a lot of racing tradition in the family, but Amber said she didn’t feel any pressure to race.

“I had to beg my dad to race go-karts,” she said.

From go-karts, she advanced to lightning sprints. After she earned a college degree in business management, Balcaen went to work on lining up sponsorships for her race team.

Her offseason search was successful as she found herself in the cockpit of a 410 sprint car owned by Chris and Charlotte Unrau, owners of Apex SpeedSports Inc.

It was quite a jump from a lightning sprint to a 410. “I’m going from 185 horsepower to 800,” she said. “And the way you throw the car into the corner is a lot different, too.”

She made a minor splash recently at RCS, where she nearly won her heat race on a fast track. She led for seven laps before being passed by Austin Pierce. Balcaen finished second and turned in speeds of more than 100 mph.

Despite her dad racing and her relatives turning in thousands of laps for years, Amber said she didn’t have an overabundance of nerves when she raced a 410 for the first time.

“My dad still has a hard time with me racing this car,” she said. “But it’s all me. I didn’t have any nerves the first time I raced compared to my mom and dad. I think they used them all up for me.”

It still isn’t easy for her parents to watch their daughter maneuver a 410 sprint around the small, high-banked quarter-mile track at RCS, where trouble is only a split second away.

Is her mom, Kim, nervous when her daughter races?

“Always,” she said.

And that comes from someone who has watched her husband and other family members race for decades.

“It’s different when it’s your kid,” said Kim.

Steep learning curve

Learning to race a sprint car is one thing. To learn at RCS is another. The quirky track is demanding as usually the quickest way around the bullring is to ride the high side. Lapped traffic is constant and most races are won by a driver’s ability to handle it.

“This is definitely a different track than most,” she said. “It’s fun. Some might say it’s trickier. I got the feel for the high side of the track a couple of weeks ago. You have to have a little nerve to go up there.”

Despite being a first-year driver, Amber still has goals — aggressive ones.

“I have a lot of goals,” she said. “Rookie of the year and finishing in the top 10 by the end of the year are two of them.

“But No. 1, I want to gain respect from the other drivers in my class. That’s important to me.”

Wade Nygaard is one of the most experienced drivers at RCS and the region. With more than 240 wins, he knows what it takes to drive a 410 sprint.

So far, he’s been impressed with Amber’s driving.

“For most people, it takes at least a couple of years to get going in a sprint,” said Nygaard. “But she won’t have any problems at all because of the ability she showed in the lightning sprint. That should cross over.”

Watching her dad race both a late model and sprint car hooked Amber on racing at an early age. Racing was her outlet from the outset.

“As a kid, you go through all kinds of struggles that kids go through,” she said. “Racing was always my escape. Racing is home to me. When I come to Grand Forks and RCS, it’s home.”

And she’d like to call any race track home if she continues on her career path.

“Racing is everything to me; it’s in my blood and I love everything about it,” she said. “It’s my big passion and I want to turn this into a career. I hope to be in the World of Outlaws in five years or so.”

Wayne Nelson
Nelson is the sports editor of the Herald
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