Career

Fast & Fabulous: What It's Really Like to Be a Race Car Driver

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what their work lives entail. This week, race car driver Amber Balcaen—the first Canadian woman to win a NASCAR-sanctioned race—gives us a glimpse into her high-speed daily grind

female race car driver: Amber Balcaen in her racing gear

(Courtesy of Amber Balcaen)

Age: 25

Education: Associate business degree from Red River College

Length of time as a professional race car driver: I’ve been racing professionally my whole life, but I’ve only been able to switch it over to a career in the last year. I started racing when I was 10 years old, driving go-carts, and kept advancing to bigger races and different vehicles (lighting sprints, 410 outlaw sprint car and asphalt late model). Last year was my first year of NASCAR.

Racing is notoriously male-dominated. Growing up, did you ever find it hard to picture yourself on the track?

No, because when I put my helmet on, I’m just another driver. I might have lipstick on or not, or I could be a dude—you can’t tell who’s underneath the helmet. I’ve never let the fact that I’m a woman stop me when it comes to pursuing racing.

Your grandfather, uncle and your dad were all dirt racers. What made you want to follow in their footsteps?

Basically since I figured out what racing was, I wanted to race cars. Dirt was all I knew because that’s what everyone in my family did. I started out in dirt and loved it so much. As my passion and love for the sport grew more and more, I realized I wanted to make a career out of it.

What made you want to switch from dirt to pavement?

NASCAR is obviously the biggest form of motorsport so I thought I would aim high. The transition from dirt to pavement was difficult because I didn’t really know the industry, and neither did anyone in my family, because no one had switched over to pavement. It’s definitely been a difficult transition, but I’m just trying to make it work.

Female race car driver Amber Balcaen's race car

(Courtesy of Amber Balcaen)

A lot of people might think that to be a race car driver you just need to know how to drive a car, but it seems like it’s a lot more than that.

I always say that racing is more of a business than it is a sport. It’s the only sport where money can get you further than talent. I need to be a businesswoman as much as I am an athlete. My business has to succeed in order for my racing to succeed.

It can be hard to make money as a professional athlete. Is racing your primary income or do you have to have a side gig as well?

My grandfather, uncle and dad all had side jobs to make money when they were racing. Since I’m Canadian, I’m currently living in the U.S. on an athlete visa. That visa only allows me to make money by driving race cars so I can’t get a job at Starbucks or a restaurant or anything like that. As of right now, I don’t have sponsors, which means I’m not racing, which means I’m not making money. The struggle is very real right now. It’s a very expensive sport and I didn’t grow up in an overly wealthy family to be able to support my racing habit. I have to work that much harder to find sponsorship to do it.

Is sponsorship the main way that racers make money in this sport?

When you win races, you keep your winnings so that’s how we make money, but in order to get on the race track, you need sponsors to help pay for the cost of the race car and actually being on the track. I need to show these companies that there will be a return on their investment. I’m not asking for a couple hundred dollars, I’m asking for close to $1 million. It’s hard to raise that kind of money.

What does your typical day entail?

I get up in the morning and go to the gym. I work out for about an hour and then I go home or to Starbucks and work on finding sponsorship. Some days I’ll have photoshoots or interviews. I filmed a show called Cars That Rock the other week and I just started doing some segments on a driving news show here in Charlotte, North Carolina so I definitely keep busy.

Racing is a very different sport than say baseball or basketball. How do you train your body for being a race car driver?

It gets to be about 40 degrees Celsius in the car when I’m racing. I’ll lose 4 to 5 pounds in water weight in one race. I’m also fighting the G forces and the steering wheel all while in extremely hot conditions, so I need to be in really good shape. Naturally men are a bit stronger than females, just the way they’re built, so I need to make sure that I’m just as strong. I push myself that much harder at the gym to make sure that after 150 laps, I’m not tired.

How do you build up a tolerance for that heat?

I do a lot of cardio in sweatshirts. The more you drive, the more you get used to it. Luckily, your adrenaline takes over a bit so you don’t really notice it too bad, you just go out there and do it.

A post shared by Amber Balcaen (@amberbalcaen10) on

You’ve mentioned on your site that NASCAR and women aren’t typically synonymous. Why is that?

It’s known as the old boys’ club. The old white male is predominant in business and in NASCAR racing. It’s going to take more and more females in this sport to break those barriers. We’ve come a long way—back in the day women weren’t even allowed in the pit, so to have women driving race cars now and competing at the top levels of NASCAR is a great thing.

You’re following in the footsteps of the men in your family. What was their response when you said you wanted to race?

Actually, my dad didn’t want me to race because of the time, the commitment, the financial aspect to it, and there is of course some danger associated with it as well. He knew that he wouldn’t financially be able to support me in this sport, and he knew this commitment really takes over your whole life, so he didn’t want me to do it. Since I still wanted to pursue it, he told me, “Amber, if you want to race, you have to come up with the money yourself, and you have to do it on your own.” So that’s what I’ve done since I was 11 years old, and I think that really showed everyone how badly I wanted it.

As you mention, unlike in other sports, racing can be really dangerous—life and death in some scenarios. How did that factor into your decision to do this professionally?

I think it’s just something that I’ve grown up with, so the danger factor has never really been an issue in terms of going forward in my career. I love this sport so much and it brings me so much happiness and joy. Being in a race car, there’s nothing else like it. It really allows you to be 100 percent in the moment. When you are in that moment, you’re not thinking about crashing, you’re thinking about how you’re going to pass the person in front of you or how you’re going to improve on that next lap. For me, the danger is not something I’m worried about. The only thing I’m worried about is failing.

Did you face any challenges getting into such a male-dominated sport?

There’s pros and cons. The challenges are that I’m under a microscope, so whether I have a good or a bad race, everyone will hear about it. Because of that, I need to be more cautious about what I do, what I say, who I’m around, what I wear and everything else people can comment on. It’s about having that sense of security in who I am and having enough self-esteem to not let other people break me. The guys absolutely drive me way harder on the track knowing I’m a female. They won’t give me any room, and they’re more likely to take me out (i.e. crash into me). It’s just part of the sport. I don’t know any other way.

That’s kind of crazy that you become a target just because you’re a woman. Have people ever outwardly threatened you that way or does it just come out on the track?

I’ve heard it outwardly too. I’m not saying all guys have a problem with a girl beating them, but some do. But I try not to bring up the gender factor and just go out there and do my thing as a race car driver and drive to the best of my ability.

Female race car driver Amber Balcaen

(Courtesy of Amber Balcaen)

You’ve also described yourself as being “girly”—do you get flack for that in this sport?  

One of the most important things in life is to be your most genuine self. I’m really girly when I’m off the racetrack. I like to do to my hair and makeup and wear dresses with heels. But then, when I’m at the track, I go into focused, strong, driving mode. Girls can do both. We’re not just one thing. Not all pro-race car drivers are tomboys. I absolutely get flack for it, but if I’m not doing that, I’m not being my true, authentic self. I’m not going to tone down my girliness because I’m a race car driver, or not race because I like to wear makeup. It’s important to show people that you don’t have to fit into society’s idea of being one way or the other. There’s no molds anymore. I want to show people that you can be more than one thing.

Have you noticed any changes in the industry? Is it becoming more open to women?

Absolutely. The number of women in the industry is growing. We have really talented females out there racing and doing really well. The respect is starting to come, it’s not where it needs to be but it’s only getting better. In my career personally, there’s low points, and then other points where I have received a lot of respect from other drivers.

What is your advice to other women who might want to get into racing?

Throw the gender factor out of the way. Try and go out there with a positive mindset and know that you’re just like any other driver and you’re capable of anything that they’re capable of achieving. Make sure people take you seriously as a person.

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