A couple years ago while waiting out a rain delay at Kansas Speedway, Leilani Munter offered to go get her race team chicken wings for a snack. However, it wasn’t the chicken wings that you’d be thinking of, but rather vegan chicken wings.
Upon hearing they were vegan wings, she got some intriguing responses and worried glances from the team. However, after putting some in each of Venturini Motorsports’ four haulers, she returned to them all being gone, and those same team members giving her compliments in how well they tasted and how they couldn’t tell the difference between chicken wings and vegan chicken wings.
It seems only fitting that this year when she returns behind the wheel at Daytona International Speedway, she’ll have the vegan message on the hood of her racecar. Munter will race in the ARCA Racing Series season opener, driving the No. 15 VeganPowered Toyota for Venturini Motorsports.
“I’m excited,” she told POPULAR SPEED. “It’s going to be great to be back in a racecar. It’s been two years since I’ve raced so I’ve missed being in a racecar. So it’s fun to be back at the track again, and seeing the guys at Venturini again, and back working with Jeff McClure. He’s been my crew chief for the past four Venturini races, so it’s great to be back and I’m really looking forward to the race.”
Going into the event, Munter expects to “qualify well, stay up front, stay out of trouble, and be there for the end of the race”. While she hasn’t had the best of luck at Daytona in the past with a best finish 28th, she has three to-15 finishes in ARCA competition.
Notably, this is her first race in a racecar since running Daytona in 2015. She admits going into the test last month at Daytona she was “a little rusty” but she was able to work out the kinks quickly, timing in 16th quickest overall through the two days of testing.
“We were working on different set-ups for the car so it felt good,” she said. “So I’m happy and think that we’re going to do well. I’m going with a great race team whose given me a great racecar – they always have – and so I know Daytona pretty well. I’ve been there several times, turned plenty of laps there.”
As noted, she’s carrying a unique message on her car with VeganPowered across the hood, featured on the blue and green paint scheme. The opportunity comes thanks to sponsorship from Well Fed World, a non-profit organization out of D.C. Their campaign titled “Plants for Hunger” is about going into areas of the world suffering from hunger, and giving them plant-based vegan food.
“I’ve been wanting to race this car for five years since I went to Vegan, but never was able to put together the funding. But veganism has grown so much in the past five years and it’s so easy to get vegan food,” she said. “It’s a movement that’s growing and I’m sort of honored to be able to take it to race fans for the first time. I don’t think there’s ever been a Vegan sponsored car ever before. It’s kind of historic. I felt really proud having the vegan message on my car and taking laps at Daytona.”
Munter made the choice to go vegetarian decades ago for animal rights and environmental reasons. However, after learning more about the dairy industry, she made the decision to go vegan about five and a half years ago.
“Many people are unaware that more gas emissions go into raising animals for food than all of the other sectors combined,” she said. “Currently one third of the air-able land on the planet is used to grow livestock when we could feed many more people if we could feed the plants directly to people instead of animals.
“My reasons are more on the ethical side for going vegan, but of course there are many people that go vegan for health reasons. And I know many of my friends that I do it for the moral side of it – the impact on hunger, impact on our planet. Then there are people who do it for the health impacts. For me at the end of the day, I’m happy for whatever reason people do it because as the end of the day if they’re doing it for their health, they’re also helping the animals. Kind of just a win-win all the way around.”
While it may seem the veganism is new to the racing garage with Munter’s message, that isn’t the case as notable drivers Andy Lally and Landon Cassill are vegan.
Outside of Daytona, Munter does not have any other races on her schedule as of right now. However, she hasn’t closed the door to possibly running more events this season.
“If you would’ve asked me a few months ago if I was going to be racing at Daytona, I would’ve had to say I didn’t think I was. But I got a good partnership with Well Fed World, which is a non-profit and sponsoring the racecar,” she said. “These things often come unexpected. I’m always working to find partners to get back in a car and you just never know when it will happen, and not happen. There’s definitely the possibility of me getting back in the car and I hope that I will.
“But right now, all I have in place is Daytona. So my plans are to make the most of it and hope it’s not my last race and that I’ll be able to find more partners to continue to stay in the car.”
Knowing her situation, she adds she’s making sure to savor every bit of Daytona Speedweeks in case it is her last chance to jump behind the wheel.
“You never know if you’ll get another chance,” she said. “I think that’s why whenever I am in the car, I take pictures of everything and video taping everything. I really try and record everything so I can savor everything because it’s always in the back of my head that this could be my last.”
When she’s not behind the wheel, Munter is keeping herself very busy, continuing to spread awareness about environmental issues, electric cars and the dolphin captivity. After watching “The Cove” in 2010, she felt absolutely changed by the images she saw that wanted to go to Japan and help Ric O’Barry, and spread awareness about dolphin captivity. Munter says one of the things many people don’t realize is how many dolphin slaughters happen in Japan, and the connection it has to sea animal parks like SeaWorld, and dolphin shows.
“There’s people going out, driving the dolphins in and trainers will come from dolphin parks all over the world and pick out the dolphins that they want for captivity,” she said. “They can get a couple $100,000 a piece for a dolphin, and that’ll make them money in the industry. The dolphins that don’t get picked are slaughter because here they’ve spent all this time, and fuel and people going out to drive them in, and can get $600 for the meat of the dead dolphins. So it’s really the captivity industry that’s behind the dolphin slaughter.”
She has taken the movement to the race track on a pair of occasions, featuring “The Cove” on a car at Daytona, followed by featuring “Blackfish”, a documentary about captive orcas, on a racecar at Talladega Superspeedway.
“It’s been something that as people become more aware of what goes on and these animals in the wild could live a longer life and be with their families, that it’s not right to put them in a pool and make them do tricks for food,” she added. “More and more of the world is waking up, as seen with the great news the Ringling Brothers Circus is shutting down. They actually cited the changing public opinion about using animals as entertainment for people is something the general public is starting to reject. They’re starting to see that it is cruel.
“So I have a lot of hope that things are changing. When Blackfish aired for the first time on CNN, SeaWorld lost about $3 billion in market shares in one day, and their attendance has dropped. So awareness is spreading, and I feel really good that I’m on the right side of history in fighting for animal rights, justice and the environment. These are things that are all great. We are moving towards a kinder world, and where humans aren’t destroying the world around us but instead living in a more symbiotic sustainable way not just with the plants and the ecosystem, but the animals we share the world with.”
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