Leilani Munter 'vegan powered' for her ARCA return

Leilani Munter's funding for her car -- a project she has been working on for five years -- is led by A Well-Fed World, a nonprofit that responded after she gave a speech for winning an award as vegan athlete of the year. Arthur Mola/Invision/AP

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Leilani Munter will return to the racetrack for the first time in two years when she competes Saturday at Daytona International Speedway.

For the environmental and animal-rights activist who races cars, Munter will compete in the Automobile Racing Club of America season-opening race thanks to sponsorship that she views as a product of several years of work, with the purpose of looking ahead to her advocacy work.

Munter will drive her "vegan-powered" car, which has sponsorship from a collection of nonprofits, to promote a plant-based diet. In addition to the car, the funding will also support a tent that will give away vegan food samples for four days during the Daytona race weeks.

"When I'm going to vegan festivals or clean-energy events, it's preaching to the choir," Munter said Wednesday at the track. "I'm standing there talking to a bunch of people who already get it. ... For me, I always feel like I'm making the most difference being at the track.

"This one, giving out the food, will probably be the greatest impact I will have."

Her funding for this car -- a project she has been working on for five years -- is led by A Well-Fed World, a nonprofit that responded after she gave a speech for winning an award as vegan athlete of the year.

"I was starting to give up on the vegan car," Munter said. "I was like, 'You know, I have emailed all the people I know, I have been talking about it for years, and it's just not happening. Maybe it was just too soon to try to do something like this.'

"Then, just giving that 10-minute acceptance speech, I got the call two or three weeks later."

Among the athletes who will be at Daytona over the next week to support the cause is former NFL player David Carter, and one of the chefs will come from a vegan food manufacturer.

"We're serving the kinds of foods race fans are going to find at the track," Munter said. "I'm not going to show up with kale. I'm showing up with vegan chicken wings and meatballs -- stuff they would expect to find at the race track. ... We're not going to open minds if we're not putting food in their mouths.

"That is the moment where people change."

Getting people to change is why the 43-year-old Munter still races. She has competed sporadically in developmental leagues in both stock cars and IndyCar over the last several years as she devotes time to her causes.

Her most recent races have included promotion of documentaries "The Cove" and "Blackfish." Earlier this year, she was banned from SeaWorld property after the park called the sheriff while she was standing outside the gates with flowers and a sign mourning the death of killer whale Tilikum.

Munter, who spent nearly four years dedicating most of her time to the climate crisis and mass-extinction film "Racing Extinction," where she drove a Tesla, said she doesn't worry that her activism or news of her SeaWorld ban could turn away sponsors. She also knows that her activist-themed sponsorship isn't designed for longevity. She has competed in just eight ARCA races since 2010, having finished as high as 12th twice -- at Chicagoland Speedway and Kansas Speedway in 2014. Both those races came with the Venturini Motorsports team, which she will race for on Saturday.

"These were all nonprofits [sponsoring me these races]," Munter said. "They don't have multimillion-dollar budgets where they can run a full season. I never really expected any of them to turn into a full season.

"That comes with the territory of me being an activist and wanting my car to carry these cool messages. ... You work really hard, you get the car on the track, you get one race and then you're starting over again."

Because of that, Munter knows Saturday could be her final race. But she never knows, as her activism continues.

"Every time I sit in the race car, a little part of me is thinking, 'This could be the last green flag that I take. This could be the last time that I sit on the starting grid,'" Munter said.

"I savor every moment. ... It's been two years since I've been in a car. It could be never that I'm in a car again."