Behind the Wheel with Leilani Münter, ARCA Racing Driver and Environmentalist
In every walk in life, it's important to remain true to one self in order to absolutely make the most of opportunities we encounter and experience.
Some may fold under the pressure and find that it's best to put on a different identity to please others. Although it may help that individual gain popularity and acclaim, the ultimate loss is forgetting who we truly are when those times come to an end.
There are those who don't forget about being their true selves, especially when it comes to being in the spotlight with all eyes watching their every move. They're the ones who may not get a whole lot of credit from the masses and often take the humble route with the things they love to do. Ultimately, success comes their way as well as a legacy that truly impacts our world for the better.
One of those amazing individuals is ARCA series racer and environmentalist Leilani Münter, whose passion for motorsports can only be matched by her love for the world and preserving it for future generations. Passionate, unassuming, and determined, this congenial driver will continue her dreams at the asphalt arena with a unique and special partnership.
Piloting a car with the liveries of 1% For the Planet, VegNews Magazine, and Wildlife Works, her ARCA ride will promote a plant-based diet which will not only aim to make people healthier, but to also preserve and save animals as well as our environment. Preparing for the season ahead, Münter is actively looking for additional partners to join her racing efforts. Tax deductible donations can be made to the car by visiting http://onepercentfortheplanet.org/leilani/ right now!
To say the least, it's her most ambitious effort yet, combining her two passions with the biggest reach possible - at an event at a racetrack that will be seen by fans in the stands as well as those watching from their living rooms at home. Her ideals and beliefs follow her, whether it's documenting the unjust slaughtering of dolphins off the coast of Japan to visiting the Gulf coast during the oil spill crisis in 2010. Münter absolutely has integrity and grace, redeeming qualities which speak volumes about her as a driver, an environmentalist as well as an individual.
A champion for our world and in racing, there's no stopping this sensational talent. Probably the only thing that could match Münter's passion for racing is her ambitions and how she carries herself through it all, no matter how difficult situations can get for her. Having known Münter for nearly three years, she's got the makings to find true, long-term success on the track that will parallel with her accomplishments off the asphalt.
I got a chance to catch up with Münter during Daytona Speedweeks and she's about as ready to get back on the track and not only share word about her newest partnership, but you can get a sense that she wants to get some unfinished business completed.
In an exclusive interview with "The Podium Finish," we get "Behind the Wheel with Leilani Münter, ARCA Racer and Environmentalist!" Strap up those belts, put on the helmet and gloves, and let's get to know more about the pride of Rochester, MN!
Rob Tiongson : It's been a while since I caught up with you. I believe it's been like two years. Can we catch up to speed with what you've been doing?
Leilani Münter : It's been a year since I've been on track. "The Cove" car was the last car I drove and that was at Daytona last season in the ARCA race. We're continuing on with the theme to use the racecar as a way to draw attention to environmental issues and issues that need some attention. This time, we're going to be running the VegNation car which is basically aims to promote a plant-based diet, highlighting how that is not only good for human health but for animals and the health of our planet.
RT : That's pretty cool. I know that you're very passionate advocating and getting the word out on things that you're really enthusiastic and have a lot of drive for so what's it mean to you to actually have driven some cars that aren't exactly your everyday sponsors but it kinda says a statement about who you are?
LM : Yea I definitely took a few risks. I remember when I first started speaking vocally, publicly about these environmental issues, it was around 2006. I had a few people in racing and in marketing that really kind of didn't think it was a great idea. They felt I was sort of putting myself in a position where I was limiting who I could work with because I was being very vocal about my ideals and my ideas about clean energy and our planet and how we need to take care of it.
I think I got to a point where I felt like I was going to talk about it anyway and I kind of hoped it wouldn't end my racing career. It didn't end my career. There's definitely been sponsors that I've walked away from and opportunities that I've walked away from that could have had me in a car full-time but they didn't work out with my environmental requirements and my ideals morally.
So you know, in some respect, it has kept me away from a racecar. It's also gotten me in racecars where I'm promoting things that I really love and care about, whether it's clean energy cars, or wind power, solar power, and LED lighting, and recycled paper companies and of course we did "The Cove" at Daytona last year which I'm really passionate about. I really like the idea of using my car to raise awareness around things that race fans may not be thinking about, but I think they should be thinking about, and we all should be thinking about.
The United Nations has done a study that showed that 40 percent more greenhouse emissions actually come from animal agriculture - that's raising animal for food -- than all of the entire transportation sector put together -- all the planes, trains, ships, cars, SUVs, trucks, racecars - all of that put together is 40 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than what comes from our meat industry.
And that's the interesting thing because a lot of people don't think of that - a lot of people think of the obvious thing: what kind of fuel am I burning when I'm driving my car to work? They're not thinking about what's on their dinner plate but in reality, it has a very, very big impact on our environment. Not only that, but of course, there's the animal cruelty side of things - if you look at how these factory farms are treating the animals, it’s very inhumane.
That's just the nature of the beast when you have seven billion people on the planet. Thankfully, there are now 600 million vegetarians on the planet so there's quite a few of us who aren't participating in the meat industry but still you have a such a high demand for meat. The pollution that comes with that is gigantic. The demand for water, it’s much harder on our natural resources than growing plants are and also the human health issues.
If you want to learn about the health benefits that's moving towards a plant based diet, I highly recommend a movie that's called "Forks Over Knives," which came out last year and I know a lot of people, friends of mine, that were meat eaters that changed the way they ate after they saw that film. So there's a lot of reasons to get behind this car, as we've not only partnered with environmental groups but I'm also working on with some animal advocacy groups and we want to reach out to some groups that produce vegetarian or vegan food products in the food and beverage industry.
In addition to the health education community, this issue touches on so many different things. It's a win-win-win all across the board. There's really no reason to not make the move and there's so many different great meat products out there and when I say meat products, I mean substitute meat products. They're made out of plant proteins but it's ground beef - so if you're gonna make spaghetti but you want ground beef with the spaghetti sauce, you can use the vegan version of that with just tastes like ground beef. I've had friends over my house that are meat eaters that can't believe it's not real meat and actually ask to see the packaging cause they don't believe they're not eating meat. I've been vegetarian since I was about six so that really speaks volume when I hear someone that eats meat every day, it tastes different, and they can't taste the difference, that tells me that these companies are getting really good at imitating meat and that you're not participating in the awful animal cruelty and pollution to our planet. It's also healthier for your body so if you can't taste the difference, what reason do you have to not switch?
RT : Exactly, and you almost have me sold on it since I love to eat meat. That sounds actually pretty convincing to me to tell you the truth.
LM : If you have a chance, outside of this talk that we're having, I'd really love for you to watch the movie "Forks Over Knives," cause I think you'd be surprised to see a lot of the information that's in there. I know a lot of people that eat meat all the time that watched the movie haven't eaten meat since (chuckles). It really changed a lot of my friends in the way that they look at food.
RT : That's the thing about racing fans - we can assume a lot of them eat meat. Your mission is going to be pretty huge considering that you're gonna be driving a car that a lot of people are gonna be like, "Wow! What's this VegNation about?"
LM : Right?
RT : I think you're going to get your message across well.
LM : I think it's going to be great and we also don't just want to have the racecar. We want to go even beyond that where we want to have displays at the racetracks where we have a vegan chef cooking vegan food and giving it away to the fans so that they can tie a vegetarian, vegan version of a sausage or a vegan taco and all of these meat substitutes that are really going to feel like they're eating a hamburger or they're eating a hot dog or a sausage or ground beef or even chicken. In fact, it's pure plant protein instead of animal protein.
RT : I can go for that! (both laugh)
The thing about groceries especially is that it's really expensive to eat healthy but yet, when you go to a store, the basic ones, the stuff that's not supposed to be good for you, it's really affordable. Don't you find it an irony when you try to promote your product and then all of sudden people want to try it but then obviously the bad foods, per se, are the ones that are more affordable?
LM : Well, if you look at the comparison, if you're eating meat and you're buying ground beef and you're going to buy a meat substitute instead of that meat, I think you won't see too much of a difference. Yea, I know what you mean about how healthy products tend to be more expensive and that is true.
But I think the more people that choose them, and the more people that go that way of eating when you've got 600 million people rejecting meat altogether, it can make a difference in what these food companies can produce. It's going to make some of these meat and dairy companies rethink their way of thinking and perhaps start making some vegan and vegetarian options.
So a lot of the big brands that you see out there that are producing vegetarian products have been meat companies in the past or in some cases, still are. But they’re understanding that the world is changing, and people’s choices are changing and they're starting to realize that, they don’t want to lose their customer base so if their meat eaters are becoming vegetarian, now they're producing vegetarian products. We’re the consumers, we determine the way the market goes. I've been in North Carolina for 10 years and I've noticed how many more vegan and vegetarian products that you can find now in your normal grocery stores.
You don't have to go to the health food stores or specifically like a Whole Foods or Fresh Market to try and find a meat substitute. You can just go to your normal everyday corner grocery store and they're going to have substitute chicken, substitute hamburgers, substitute hot dogs, substitute cheeses. I've gone vegan in the last year and there's lots of substitute vegan cheeses, and there's even vegan ice cream, vegan whip cream, all that stuff.
So that really, to me, speaks volumes, that I can go down the street in North Carolina and find that on my grocery shelf tells me that the market is changing because when I moved here 10 years ago, I'll tell you that, those were definitely not there.
RT : We have gone a long ways since 10 years ago, which doesn't seem that long ago!
LM : Absolutely!
RT : Just imagine the day when you go to a racetrack and you don't see the normal hot dogs, hamburgers, and chicken, and all of a sudden, you see the foods you've been promoting all these years, what will that feel like, if that happens, will that feel like a victory for you?
LM : Absolutely, absolutely! Obviously getting the race car on the track and getting the message out there is huge and that's why I really don't want it to just be a racecar, I want it to be really be a racecar with a display so the fans can actually taste the food. I've seen how the race fans have really embraced my environmental movement. I've had race fans, lifelong NASCAR fans, email me and have read about my rainforest adoption program where every time, since 2007, when I got in a racecar, I'd adopt an acre of a rainforest to offset the carbon footprint from the fuel that I'm burning.
I've actually had lifelong NASCAR fans email me and say, "I read about your program, and I couldn't figure out what to get my wife for her birthday this year. But I've read about how you adopt an acre of a rainforest every time you run a race, how do you do that, cause I think this year, I'm going to give her an acre of a rainforest in her name for her birthday. These are NASCAR fans - I mean, just because you love fast cars does not mean you don't care for the environment.
Oftentimes, I think a lot of environmental groups, companies or environmentally minded individuals may think that, "Because you like racing, that means you don't care about the planet." That's just not true. That's why you're finding now Tesla electric cars and the Fisker Karma sports car, which is a hybrid electric. There's people out there and there's a lot of them and being somebody who is immersed in the world of the environment and the racing world, I see both sides. I have the race fan come up to me and tell me “I’ve have solar panels on my roof and I’ve had them since the 80’s, long before it was cool to have solar panels. And on the other hand, I’ll be at a green energy event talking about clean energy or solar or wind, and I’ll have a solar or wind executive come up to me and say “I’ve been to six Daytona 500s in my life.”
So there's a lot more crossover between these two worlds than people give it credit for. I'm in the unique position of seeing both of them because I live in both worlds and not a lot of people are immersed in both of those two places at the same time.
RT : As I've gotten to know you over the years, you don't do the whole, 'I'm gonna do this and you don't really back up what you're saying." You really walk the walk and talk the talk about the things you're passionate about and it's a victory that you get to be a racecar driver, which is what you've been doing almost all your life, and then you're promoting things that you stand by with your life. Not a lot of people in life can say that.
LM : It's been an interesting journey. There's been definitely been times where because of my environmental stance and because of my real morals and feeling like I only want to represent people on the track that I really feel strongly about, they're doing the right things...where I’ve sat out of race cars that I could've been in full time rides and higher up series, and that was hard.
As a driver, sometimes you're torn between the two because I’ve had to give up being in racecars that could give me a lot of seat time and take my racing career to the next level. But in order to do that, I was going to have to give up... bending... on who I could work with and that was tough.
But at the end of the day, I'm hoping that these choices will keep me in a racecar, but when I get there, maybe it'll take longer, but when I get there I'll be carrying the colors of people that are really doing good things for the planet, and for humans, and animals, and trying to make the world a better place. We live in a pretty rough world and there's a lot of bad things going on. I want to work with people that are trying to be a part of the solution.
RT : I would say you're doing a pretty good job with that!
LM : (chuckles) Thank you!
RT : The NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit has welcomed Danica Patrick into their series as a full-time competitor after years of dabbling in the ARCA and Nationwide ranks. How would you describe your relationship with Danica and when did you meet her?
LM : Danica and I have a great relationship. Danica and I first met 10 years ago. 2003 was when we met.
We've always gotten along great. I always get mistaken for her at the track because we've got long dark hair. If I have a suit on that's the same color scheme and all as hers, people come up to me and y'know, "Can we take pictures with you?," and they're like, "Thanks Danica!" (laughs) It doesn't happen that often but it's happened quite a bit in the past and it's kind of funny. She knows, I've told her about it, and she laughed. It's kind of funny.
RT : (laughs) Talk about double take right there! Now going back to the time leading up to your ARCA race back in 2010...I believe you have an interesting story to share with the fans at home that involves a mandatory racing equipment and Danica. You had to borrow her HANS device to get on the track - what happened there, my friend?
LM : She's the only one in the garage that has the same neck size as me. My HANS device needed to be updated to the new requirements. So my HANS had to be sent back to the manufacturer to be updated and then sent back to me. It got lost in transit on its way back to Daytona.
So here I am, arriving for my first race at Daytona finally, and I've tested there several times. Finally raised the money to run the race and worked really hard for it for nine months to put the sponsorship together and I get there. And I have no HANS device because it got lost in transit. So I go up to Danica and I'm like, "Oh my God, I don't have a HANS device! Do you have a spare?" They won't let you on the track obviously without a HANS and she's the only one with the neck size to fit me. Danica lent me one so I could go out and practice and that was really cool of her.
RT : Speaking of cool, Danica won the pole for the Daytona 500, which was a tremendous accomplishment for any rookie racer to add on to their resume. Why do you suppose it's such even greatly heightened with Danica and for female racers, how critical was her pole win? Also, what do you hope will happen as a result of her recent Daytona success?
LM : She's the most well known female driver obviously. She's on the top level, she's sitting on the pole, and I think it's great. It goes to show, look, females are capable of doing this and they're capable of not only running in the front but also running the fastest lap when they have the right funding around them, the right team around them...Danica is in such a unique position that none of the other female drivers really coming up have been there.
She has the backing, she's got the best people around her giving great race cars. She's got funding to make that happen. That's something I've never had and a lot of the other girls have never had. What I hope is that Danica doing well shows these companies that when I'm sitting in a boardroom and I'm trying to pitch my ARCA car, in the back of their mind, they're remembering how well Danica is doing and that women are really capable.
In the past, I don't think women were really given the chance and seats with the great teams, the good teams, the teams that could run up front. They didn't have the funding behind them to run very many races. She's the first one that's been in a situation completely unlike any other. She has great sponsors behind her that have tons of money, she gets a ton of publicity, and she's got great race cars and she's gonna do well.
In fact, 10 years ago, when Danica and I first met, we had dinner together. It was in Long Beach and we cheered for her winning the Indy 500 one day cause she was in open wheel (Toyota Atlantic at the time), and for me winning the Daytona 500. I told her, "10 years ago, we cheered for that and now it's all you. I'm cheering for you to do it."
Author's Notes: I want to thank Leilani for allowing me to interview her during a rather busy and diligent time when we spoke and caught up. It's always an honor to catch up and speak with "The World's Fastest Environmentalist" and learning about her latest ventures on and off-the-track. For more information on Leilani, "Like" her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter! Additionally, check out her official website to learn how you can make a difference in our world today.
Also, I'd like to thank Dustin Parks of All About Horsepower for helping with the image/video alignments on this piece - thanks a bunch!