When you've been racing as long as Amber Balcaen has, chances are you've been in a crash or two.
But nothing prepared Balcaen for flipping her open-wheel car multiple times and slamming into the fence at a dirt track in Missouri in a POWRi National Racing Series event in July.
"When I woke up, I was hanging in the fence and I saw a bunch of paramedics around me. Then I passed out again and the next time I woke up was when I was in the ambulance. I couldn't feel my arms or my legs," Balcaen, 28, a Winnipegger who now resides just outside of Charlotte, N.C., told the Free Press on Monday.
"That's the first time I had ever lost feeling or movement in a body part. That really scared me. I wasn't even able to wiggle my toes or my fingers. I couldn't feel any part of my leg and I couldn't move any part of my leg so I thought I was paralyzed. I got engaged last year and I was like 'Oh my gosh, I'm not going to be able to walk down the aisle at my wedding because I'm paralyzed.'"
The paramedics injected adrenaline and she regained feeling after a few minutes. But the wreck still did quite a bit of damage. She suffered a severe concussion, collapsed lungs, and small burns to her arms. She was convinced her racing days were over.
"I remember FaceTiming my parents and fiancé (Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive lineman Jordan Reaves) and I told them that I was done racing. They were petrified," she said.
"When I woke up, I was hanging in the fence and I saw a bunch of paramedics around me. Then I passed out again and the next time I woke up was when I was in the ambulance. I couldn't feel my arms or my legs."
"This was the first race of the season my fiancé missed so he wasn't there with me and he felt terrible for not being there. My parents were super afraid and scared. They saw me with the neck brace on, an IV, and breathing tubes. They were really freaked out. I said 'Don't worry, you won't have to go do this again. I'm done racing.'"
Unfortunately for her parents, they didn't get that in writing.
"The next day when I started to feel better I was like 'Well, we'll see what happens.' Then two days later I was figuring out how soon I could get back in the car... I'm addicted to racing. I always joke racing is my drug of choice because I'm addicted to the feeling. It's my entire life," Balcaen said.
Balcaen made history in 2016 when she became the first Canadian woman to win a NASCAR sanctioned race and she's hoping the accident was only a bump in the road. It was announced last week Balcaen will be one of 14 full-time drivers who will compete in 40 races on the West Coast for Bill McAnally Racing (BMR) this season in a new NASCAR development program called the BMR Drivers Academy.
Balcaen raced on dirt tracks last year as she couldn't land a sponsorship that would foot the bills for a NASCAR program. Luckily she can return to the pavement as she secured a six-figure sponsorship with ICON Direct, a Winkler-based manufacturer of after-market motorhome and RV parts and custom plastic products. Winnipeg trucking company Glen McLeod & Son Ltd. will also sponsor Balcaen for a fifth straight season.
"My parents were super afraid and scared. They saw me with the neck brace on, an IV, and breathing tubes. They were really freaked out. I said 'Don't worry, you won't have to go do this again. I'm done racing.'"
"It's really cool to be sponsored by two Manitoba companies while racing in the USA on the big stage out here," Balcaen said.
"A lot of drivers in my position come from a lot of money. Like 99 per cent of drivers in the lower series of NASCAR have a ton of money. It's their parents backing them, or an uncle, or their grandparents or something like that. For me, having a sponsor allows me to race. Without a sponsor, I can't race. That's why I was only racing part-time these past few years. I didn't have enough sponsorship to race full time. I wouldn't be racing full-time this year if it wasn't for ICON Direct."
Balcaen isn't just happy to be there. She plans on her sponsors getting their bang for their buck.
"My goal is to win at least 10 races and win the championship at the end of the year. I mean, I'm looking more towards winning 20 races, but we'll see how it goes," Balcaen said with a laugh. Throughout the season, BMR Drivers Academy points leaders will be awarded an opportunity to move up a level and compete in an ARCA Menards Series (Automobile Racing Club of America) race.
"I definitely know I can do well in this series. With my career, in the past, I've always lacked speed time, I've always lacked being able to race a bunch. The last four years I've only gotten to race a few times each year, which is really hard when you're trying to develop your skills. So the fact that I get to race 40 races this year, I know that'll put me at an advantage for sure. I'll be able to build on that momentum, develop my skills and use that momentum to put me in a higher series next year."
Balcaen and her competitors start the season on March 26 in Roseville, Calif.
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.