The Cockpit And Beyond - Driver Q & A · Becca Gladden · Thursday August 24, 2006
Some may know Leilani Munter as the weekly reporter from NASCAR.com, while others may simply see her as another Drive for Diversity candidate, set up for a Busch ride back in 2003 before her team – and her NASCAR dreams – nearly fell apart. But three years later, Leilani is back racing and doing well, once again eyeing her ultimate goal of rising up into the Nextel Cup series.
Our own Becca Gladden sat down with Leilani to discuss her past and future racing plans, the development of women drivers, and why the fashion shoot with FHM was one of the best things to happen to her racing career.
Becca Gladden, FS: Tell me a little bit about where your racing career is right now – the series you are competing in, how you’ve been doing, and where you feel you’re headed.
Leilani Munter: This is my first full-time season in late models and I owe it all to my sponsor, Konica Minolta Printing Solutions. In the past I have had sponsorships, but they were usually one race deals, so after that race was over I was back to putting together another deal for the next race. This year, it was a relief for me to be with the same team and sponsor all season. I have had more seat time this year than all the others put together. I’ve had good days and bad days like all rookies do, but I am really happy with my progress. I set a record at Texas Motor Speedway in June when I finished 4th (highest finish for a female driver in the history of the 1.5 mile speedway) and have had some good runs on the short tracks too. Last time I raced at Madison, I was running 2nd in my heat race and on the very last lap a guy got under me going into a corner and I lost position, so I was really disappointed. But to be running as high as 2nd on the last lap felt really good. I am racing against a lot of veteran drivers that have much more experience than I do, so I am just trying to learn as much as I can from them. This year gives me the foundation I need to move up. The next series I would like to run in is the ARCA RE/MAX Series.
Gladden: Earlier this summer, you competed in a late-model race in Wisconsin with NASCAR Champs Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth. What was that experience like, and what was the main thing you learned on the track?
Munter: I was one of 50 late models that showed up for that race. It was great to race with guys with so much experience and success. Besides racing with two Nextel Cup champions, the rest of the field was compiled of short track winners and champions – I was so green next to those guys. It was only my second time at Madison International Speedway and only my 10th late model start ever. You learn to be the best by racing with the best, and that’s what I did that day. When I got the printout of the lap times, I was really surprised to find out that I was only 3/10 of a second off of Tony Stewart’s best time. That gave me a lot of confidence. For the amount of experience he and the other drivers had, and the lack of experience I had going into that race, I felt like I did a good job. I had a clean race, I ran consistent fast lap times, and finished 25th of 30 of the toughest short track racers in the country. ESPN was there filming me for a NASCAR documentary, so some of the footage of that race will air next year.
Gladden: You have quite an interesting background, including a college degree in biology and working as a Hollywood stunt double. When did you realize that you wanted to focus on racing as a career?
Munter: I knew I wanted to race while I was in college, but as a starving student, I had no money for it. As soon as I graduated with my degree in biology, I landed a job doubling for Catherine Zeta-Jones. I moved to L.A. and worked in the movie industry for a while doubling, standing in, and finally doing stunts and some driving scenes. I saved up the money I made and went to the track to turn laps every chance I got. Eventually, I gave it all up, packed up my car, and moved to North Carolina to chase my dream.
Gladden: You’ve written in your blog about some of the hurdles that women racers still face in being accepted. With everything that’s gone on the past few weeks at Evernham Motorsports, what is your take on the Erin Crocker situation?
Munter: I don’t know Erin personally (I have only met her once), so I really can’t comment on her situation. Personally, as a female driver, with the daily challenge of earning respect from my peers, I steer clear of having personal relationships with men in the garage. I look at all the guys in the garage as my co-workers. Racing is a high profile environment and reputations are very important to sponsors. What you do off the track is as important as what you do on the track. I have been happily dating my boyfriend for over two years. He has nothing to do with racing and I like it that way, but that’s my personal choice. What other drivers do is their own business.
Gladden: Do you think women drivers face some physical challenges in stock car racing that might make it harder for them than their male counterparts?
Munter: Yes. Men are naturally physically stronger than women, so we have to work harder to get in the physical condition to drive these race cars for long periods of time. Besides strength, you also need stamina and heat tolerance. I am working out much more since I started driving full time this year. I do “hot yoga” where you work out in a room heated to 100 degrees for 1.5 hours. I also lift weights, swim a lot, and try to keep active with other sports like scuba diving, snowboarding and hiking.
Gladden: Do you have a racing idol? Is there one driver whose style you particularly admire or try to emulate?
Munter: I admire drivers that race clean. I always try to race people clean. I try to give them room to do their thing. I want to beat them because I am faster, not because I put them in the wall.
Gladden: In the Hostess ad campaign that you did with Danica Patrick and Melanie Troxel, the three of you are called “Race Divas.” Did you have any misgivings about that label? Do you consider yourself a diva?
Munter: Diva is actually the Latin and Italian word for “goddess”, so I was quite honored with the moniker! Every time my boyfriend questions me, I remind him that he is speaking to a Goddess. (Just kidding!) Honestly, what I think Hostess is implying with that name is strong women as opposed to any other meaning. I wanted to be a part of a company promoting women as more than trophy girls or models. I think it’s a really cool ad campaign. Next month, you will see more Hostess Race Divas boxes in the grocery stores as well as news about how to get our 2007 Hostess Race Divas calendar.
Gladden: How did you feel about all the attention paid to Danica Patrick’s possible switch to NASCAR racing? Aren’t there a lot of capable female drivers coming up through the stock car ranks that deserve an opportunity like that?
Munter: Right now there aren’t any women in Busch or Cup. Shawna Robinson’s last Cup race was in 2002. While there are several of us in the lower ranks working our way up, people have to understand that it takes time. You don’t just jump into a Busch car and go racing. I think Danica has done a lot for open wheel racing, and if she eventually comes over to NASCAR when she is done with open wheel, I would welcome that. There is room for more than one woman on the track. Last time I checked, there are 43 seats out there, and eventually you will see women occupying more than one of those seats.
Gladden: Did you have any concerns about doing photo shoots like the one in FHM? Do you worry about sending mixed signals?
Munter: Yes, I had a lot of concerns about doing modeling shoots after I started racing and the mixed signals it would send. It took some convincing on FHM’s part – I turned them down, but they were persistent, and eventually I had a meeting with the race team I was with (to get approval). Because we needed to get the word out that we were going racing and needed sponsors, I agreed to do the shoot under the conditions that I had some control over the outcome. When I was uncomfortable, I let them know, and we stopped shooting. My layout is tame when compared to others, but I definitely had to put my foot down a couple times to get it that way. The following year, FHM sponsored me in a race in Texas and I ended up setting a qualifying record that day (4th, highest qualifying effort for a female at Texas Motor Speedway). Looking back, that shoot helped me get to my ultimate goal – to race – and I didn’t have to do anything I was embarrassed about. Playboy has approached me several times, and I have turned that down because it’s just not my style. But I am not ashamed of the pictures in FHM.
Gladden: It seems you were on your way to landing a Busch ride a few years back. Can you explain what happened in that situation?
Munter: In 2003, I signed with Team Bristol Motorsports as a developmental driver. I worked on the Busch team from January until my late model season began in April. Shortly after I debuted in the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series Late Model division with a Top 10 finish, the team went bankrupt. It was very disappointing for me, but I had no control over the situation. It happens all the time – teams run out of money and fold up. I just had to pick myself up, dust myself off, and start over.
Gladden: Is there a specific item on the list of things you hope to accomplish in racing that will let you say, “I’ve made it!”
Munter: When I turn my first laps at Daytona!
Gladden: If all goes according to plan, where do you see yourself five years from now?
Munter: I would like to continue climbing the racing ladder. But whether I am in ARCA or Trucks or Busch or Cup or late models, as long as I am racing something, I will be happy!
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