Vegans are excelling at the highest levels of a wide range of sports, from ultramarathon running (Scott Jurek) to boxing (Tim Bradley).
But if one sport lies beyond the reach of the March of the Vegans, it would seem to be auto racing.
Let's face it. Stock-car racing is the sport that is most closely identified with the South, with Dixie, and with all the shredded pork, barbecued beef and fried chicken that clogs arteries down there.
So The Beet-Eating Heeb is particularly happy to report that this fortress of bad-for-you, bad-for-animals, bad-for-the-planet food has been breached. Meet Leilani Munter. Vegan. Stock-car driver.
Munter may not be challenging Dale Earnhardt Jr. for supremacy in the NASCAR standings. In fact, her most recent racing has been on the lower-level ARCA circuit. But she is lapping most of her competitors in the most important race of all: the race to save the planet. And she has received more media attention than most other drivers and for all the right reasons.
A longtime vegetarian and relatively new vegan, Munter is a staunch advocate for animal welfare, clean energy, and other environmental causes. In fact, she is perhaps best-known for racing four months ago at the famed Daytona International Speedway in a stock car decorated with images from "The Cove", the Academy Award-winning documentary about dolphin slaughters.
More recently, she has been working to line up sponsors for a vegan-themed race car. (Tofurkey, are you reading this?) You won't see huge decals for Exxon or Burger King on her vehicles.
When she races, Leilani offsets the carbon emissions by donating money for rainforest preservation.
While she might not be Jewish (yet), she is a living, breathing, racing manifestation of the concept of tikkun olam. Certainly, more Jews, more of everyone, should aspire to live to a life of such moral integrity.
Leilani paid a short business trip to The Beet-Eating Heeb's hometown of Pittsburgh recently and took time out to give BEH an hour-long interview. Among other things, The Beet-Eating Heeb learned that Leilani's eldest sister is married to the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir. (In contrast, The Beet-Eating Heeb's eldest sister is married to an HMO administrator. )
Here are a few other highlights of the interview:
BEH: You’re a trailblazer as one of the very few female race-car drivers. But you’ve also distinguished yourself by using your high-profile status as a racer to promote causes, including environmentalism and veganism.
LEILANI: “I’m a messenger and I’m a race-car driver and I’m not what you would expect. People relate to me because they like race cars, so when I talk to them about veganism or clean energy or alternative fuels, there is a chance they will listen.
“You cannot have a green movement, you cannot have an environmental movement and leave behind 75 million NASCAR fans. It’s wonderful to go to vegan conferences and restaurants and be around people like you. But you’re not moving the needle by talking to people who already get it. You have to talk to the people who don’t agree with you yet.
“My goal is to make veganism mainstream. And you don’t get any more mainstream than NASCAR.
“Not everyone is going to go vegan or vegetarian, but I’m asking everyone to give it a shot. I’m hoping they’ll try Meatless Mondays and it will spill over into the rest of the week.”
Race car driver by day, vegan cook by night.
LEILANI: “Not at first. What prompted me to become a vegetarian is that I love animals. I didn’t want to be any part of the torture and killing of them. It’s just an inhumane and cruel industry and I don’t want any part of it.
“I just switched to vegan in the past year, after reading “Diet for a New America” (by John Robbins), watching (the documentary) “Forks Over Knives,” and watching Gary Yourofsky’s “Best Speech You Will Ever Hear.”
“It’s not only about animal cruelty. You have the health benefits of being vegan, you have the fact that it’s a much smaller carbon footprint for our planet, and then you have the world hunger issue.”
BEH: As a passionate environmentalist, you do make it a point to draw the connection between animal agriculture and climate change.
LEILANI: “Yes. Unfortunately, most people don’t associate their carbon footprint with the food that they eat. They really associate their carbon footprint with their traveling. For some reason, that connection between the food you’re eating and its impact on the environment hasn’t taken off yet.”
BEH: So The Beet-Eating Heeb has to ask, what’s it like being a vegan in the stock-car-racing world?
LEILANI: “There were definitely a lot of raised eyebrows when they found out I was vegetarian. I even had NASCAR people say that the lack of meat in my diet must have stunted my growth. But I’ve had many events in my house where I’ve had meat eaters in my house and I’ve fed them all kind of meat substitutes. In some cases, they didn’t even believe it wasn’t meat.
“More and more people are discovering that you don’t need to put dead animals in your body to live, you can be perfectly healthy and happy without that, and enjoy it.”
This shouldn’t surprise you: Leilani Munter is The Beet-Eating Heeb’s favorite race-car driver. Shouldn’t she be your favorite, too?