Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Speed runs in the family

Champion dirt-track racer Mike Balcaen's daughter a pedal-pusher, too

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Have you ever wondered why it takes so long to get the oil and filter changed in your car? It's a phenomenon that quite possibly could be among the top 10 mysteries in the universe.

You should watch Mike Balcaen and his pit crew work on his big red No. 10 late-model race car. It would set your head spinning.

In 27 years of late-model, dirt-track racing, Balcaen has won 34 track and series championships, 10 Victory Lane Speedway championships, 10 River Cities Speedway championships and four National Late Model Racing Association titles.

No one could accomplish those kind of results waiting around for their regular corner mechanic to keep their car in tip-top shape. Then again, not everyone has the luxury of taking their own mechanics on the road with them.

"The reason why we won 34 championships is because of our crew. The guys have been with me... well, my crew chief, Steve Boulanger, has been with me for at least 15-plus years," Balcaen said over coffee in his Charleswood home. Other longtime members of his pit crew are Lance Burton, Harry Klaus and Tom Howards.

As for speedy auto service, Balcaen provided a couple of examples. "Several years ago we qualified a car, and the car you qualify in a preliminary race is the one you have to run in the feature.

"Well, we damaged the motor after a qualifying race, so we had to pull the engine out of the other car (he tows two cars behind his motor home). Then we pulled the engine out of the car we were racing and swapped the engines from one car to the other between races."

Last year they did the same thing, only this time it was rear ends after blowing one crossing the finish line of another qualifier.

Balcaen got his first taste of speed at age 11, racing go-karts. At 16, he graduated to super stocks and in 1984 moved up to late-models, which is what he still drives.

Racing in the Balcaen household is a family affair. His wife Kim, who he met in Fargo 27 years ago, is the daughter of veteran Winnipeg sprint-car driver Lou Kennedy, who cut his teeth at the old Brooklands Speedway in the '50s and '60s. Kennedy's son, Lou Jr., also races sprints and his sons are also racing. "My cousins, George and Tom Balcaen, also race."

Balcaen's 19-year-old daughter Amber is a chip off the old block. She graduated from go-karts at 16 and moved up to lightning sprints, which she raced at Red River Co-op Speedway the last two years.

"She grew up with racing," her dad said. "It's her passion, and it's not something I forced her to do."

"When I was 16, I tried out my cousin's car, my dad's car, other people's cars at the speedway," Amber said. "Everything I hopped into I enjoyed, but the one I enjoyed the most was my uncle Tom's full sprint."

The first time she put the pedal to the metal of a sprint car, Amber said the adrenalin rush was like nothing she'd ever experienced. "For sure, yeah. I call it my happy place. I'd love to be the next Danica Patrick."

Despite a lifetime of auto racing in her family, Kim still finds it's nerve-wracking watching her baby race. "I have been the daughter of a race-car driver, a sister, an aunt and a wife, and the hardest thing I have ever had to go through was watching her race. She's my baby and it's really difficult.

"I'm happy that she races, because it's something she wants to do and I would never take that away from her. People ask me if it ever gets easier, and no, it never does."

Last year, Amber crashed at Greenbush, Minn., flipping her car six or seven times. "My mom was more scared than I was. I think it's scarier watching the crash than actually being in the crash, because it happens so quick and it's over in seconds."

Not so long ago, there was a saying around the dirt tracks of America and Canada: "You run what you brung," which meant exactly what it said -- whatever you showed up with was what you raced. But things have changed a lot over the years.

For instance, Balcaen's red No. 10 has a chassis built in California. "They are nothing you can buy at your local GM, Ford or Chrysler store," he said. "It's called Chromoly Tubular Chassis.

"We also have sophisticated shock and suspension packages, unlike before, where you would just bolt it all together with whatever shock you had. We're fully adjustable on the shock absorbers, and the suspension is adjustable to track conditions.

"Cars are way more adaptable to different conditions and surfaces. It's more of a science now. You're constantly focused on everything about your car, so it's more of a chess game than a hop-in and hang-on deal."

Balcaen says that unlike the old days, where every track had its own set of rules, the WISSOTA organization is now the sanctioning body that sets the rules for 55 tracks throughout the Midwest, including Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and a total of 3,000 licensed drivers.

Engines must be 362 cubic inches maximum. "There is a specified head you cannot touch. It's an aluminum cylinder head, but you have to run it the way you get it."

Another major change from the old days is the tires. "We used to run open compound, or certain compounds. Whatever held air you could run, it. Now we have one tire compound (hardness and texture) and it's good that way. Everyone is the same in terms of tires."

Obviously, all the changes mean Balcaen's "hobby" is more expensive than ever. "We try to keep it at a level where we're doing well enough that it floats on its own. It's kind of a two-edged sword. You have to run well and win races and championships so that you can make money. When you do that, your product suppliers are more likely to either give you stuff or give you stuff at 50 cents on the dollar."

Still, Balcaen said the free part or product is not always the one he uses. "It's not just about getting stuff for free; it's about having the best possible part for the car. If one guy has a part that's not as good, but it's free, I won't necessarily put it on. If I know I have the best part and I know it's going to give me the best results, I'd rather have the better part."

The lofty heights of NASCAR were never a major goal for Balcaen. "At my age now (45), maybe 20 years ago there were some aspirations, but I'm content just doing what we do. The dirt-track late-model situation right now is extremely competitive. It's a tough game, and if you run good or be decent at this thing, then you should be proud, because it's one of the toughest games.

"I'm sure NASCAR would have been great and it would have been cool to try it or do it," Balcaen said. "Over the last several years of racing, we've had lots of opportunities. Some panned out, some didn't. I've lived a good life and I have no regrets, that's for sure."

allan.besson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 11, 2010 D4

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