Beyond The Cockpit - Driver Q & A · Becca Gladden · Wednesday May 23, 2007
In a move that caught nearly everyone who has followed her career by surprise, race car driver Leilani Munter recently announced her move from stock cars to open wheel racing. In this week’s edition of Beyond The Cockpit, Frontstretch Senior Staff Writer Becca Gladden spoke with Leilani regarding the move and her new plans for racing in the Indy Pro series and beyond.
Leilani Munter first entered the world of stock car racing in 2001 in the Allison Legacy Series, finishing fourth in her first race. After relocating to North Carolina in 2002, the multi-talented Munter was signed to a multi-year driver development contract with Team Bristol Motorsports, home of the No. 54 Busch Series race team. Though Leilani was competitive on the track, the organization was not financially secure and was forced to withdraw from competition.
Not easily deterred, Munter continued her upward trek in pursuit of racing success in late models and the ARCA Re/Max series, a stepping stone to Nextel Cup racing. Earlier this year, she completed her rookie test at Daytona in an ARCA car and was 24th quick of 59 drivers with a lap speed of 177.644 mph.
But while hoping to land a solid sponsor deal in ARCA, Munter received an offer she could not refuse: The chance to try her hand at open wheel racing. Though she had previously concentrated her efforts on stock cars, Leilani felt it was an opportunity worth pursuing. “I was working on putting together an ARCA program for the speedways and had some great offers from top quality NASCAR teams that could field the cars for me, but it was dependent on sponsorship,” she explained. “Out of the blue, I got a call from an open wheel team, we talked, and here I am.”
“Here” was Kentucky Speedway, where Munter tested last week for the Indy Pro series, which she describes as “the development series for IndyCar, competing at the same venues in cars that reach speeds in excess of 190 mph. Indy Pro is to Indy Car what the Busch Series is to Nextel Cup.”
Despite her lack of open wheel experience, Leilani immediately took to the feel and responsive handling of the car. “I didn’t know what to expect because I had never driven an Indy Pro car before,” she said. “I was shocked at how responsive it was. The car is incredibly sensitive to the slightest input in the wheel. Stock cars you have to manhandle – these cars you have to finesse. You have to be precise. The last time I drove a stock car was an ARCA car at Daytona, which is a very bumpy track. You are going through the corners there and then when you go over the bumps the stock cars move around quite a bit underneath you. In the Indy Pro car, I felt like I was glued to the track. They just have so much more grip and downforce. I also think there is a stronger sense of speed because you are closer to the ground. They are different animals – both thrilling, but very different.”
As it was her first time in an Indy Pro ride, Munter’s natural talent made a big splash with the experts on hand. “Leilani did a great job testing the Indy Pro Series car,” said Butch Meyer, Technical / Race Director of the Indy Pro Car series. “I was very impressed with how quickly she got up to speed and with the feedback she gave the team. She had a real good feel for the car, (and) she will be a very tough competitor in the Indy Pro Series.”
Munter’s lap times in the 28.70s were quicker than those posted by Marco Andretti in qualifying the last time the car was raced at Kentucky and were fast enough to earn her an Indy Pro driver’s license. “I really enjoyed myself,” noted Munter after the test session. “It felt very natural. I adapted to the race car quickly and was up to speed turning qualifying times in no time.”
Peter Parrott, President of SpeedWorks Racing, also took note of Munter’s innate driving abilities. “Leilani was very impressive today, particularly as this was her first time in an open wheel car,” he said after testing. “She adapted to the track quickly and once she found her line, was very consistent throughout the entire test. We put a lot of downforce on the car, but she intuitively knew how to find all the speed possible in that setup. She did an excellent job.”
With her Indy Pro License in hand, Munter hopes to run the Indianapolis Freedom 100 on Friday, May 25th, during Indy 500 weekend. The race will be broadcast live on ESPN2. “I won’t have to qualify because there are only 28 entries so far, but it is dependent on the team putting together the sponsor dollars to make it happen.”
As it turns out, obtaining sponsorship is the single biggest obstacle facing NASCAR hopefuls, both male and female, according to Munter. “That seems to be the problem for most racers that can’t afford to pay their own way. It’s an expensive sport and most racers fight that battle every day. I know I did, for six years.”
While she doesn’t have any definite sponsor deals in the Indy Pro Series yet, Munter is excited about her new venture, particularly since women drivers have had greater success in the elite levels of Indy racing than they have in NASCAR. Three women racers – Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher, and rookie Milka Duno – are starting this year’s Indy 500. “For some reason, women have been more successful in drag racing and open wheel racing. I’m not sure why,” said Munter.
Noting that she has received a warm welcome from the open wheel community, Leilani said she would seek advice from Danica and other Indy racers. “I will definitely reach out to her and ask for her advice when I see her next,” she said. Munter recently took a few hot laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with four-time Indy 500 Champ Rick Mears behind the wheel. “He was showing me and the other drivers the line and little tricks he uses to balance the race car going into the corner. It was an incredible honor to learn from him and since Rick is the driver coach and consultant for the Indy Pro Series, I hope to work with him some more this season.”
While Munter’s sights are now squarely focused on Indy racing, she hasn’t ruled out some additional seat time in a stock car. “My open wheel obligations do not restrict me from racing stock cars, so if a sponsor came along, I could still run ARCA when I’m not in the Indy Pro car,” she explained, “Stock car racing will always be my first love, but as a racer, I have to go wherever I can be in a race car. Someday you will see me back in a stock car.” Meanwhile, her work as a correspondent for NASCAR.com is over as she concentrates on her racing career.
“I feel great about the move,” said an optimistic Munter about her open wheel prospects. “I feel like my whole life has been working towards this opportunity.”
Interviewer’s Note : Should sponsorship be obtained, Munter hopes to enter four remaining oval track races in the Indy Pro Series, including Iowa Speedway on June 23, Nashville Superspeedway on July 14, Kentucky Speedway on Aug 11, and Chicagoland on Sept 9.
All Photos Courtesy Shawn Mahoney
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