When racecar driver Leilani Munter made the move from stock cars to Indy cars a few months ago, she expected to face her share of challenges.
Attacking the new opportunity with characteristic enthusiasm and intelligence, Munter has proven herself a quick study with great racing instincts.
Leilani had an impressive debut last month in the Indy Pro Car series at Kentucky Speedway, driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports in the No. 57 SMART Papers/Lucas Oil car. After turning in a 192.399-mph qualifying lap, Munter demonstrated her ability to quickly pass cars and make her way toward the front. “I had a bad restart and dropped all the way back to 13th, but I raced my way back up to the front and was setting up to pass for fourth place, when the two guys in front of me touched wheels and I was collected in the mess.”
The result was a 16th-place finish, but more important was the experience garnered in her first open-wheel race. “It was a great weekend,” said Munter. “My times improved with each practice. I was really happy with my top-five qualifying effort and was even more pleased with my performance in the race.”
Before making the move to Indy racing, Leilani had received advice from one of NASCAR’s top drivers. “I got the chance to talk to Tony Stewart before I tested, and he told me I would absolutely love driving these cars, and he was right. With regards to technology and speed, they are just incredible pieces of machinery. The racing is really intense too, lots of side-by-side racing, and I went three-wide to pass a couple times in Kentucky.”
Munter also credits her team and coaches for her strong showing. “I had Jaques Lazier on the radio coaching and spotting for me, Rick Mears spent some time talking with me on race day, and I was there with one of the best teams in the league. What more could a girl ask for? I have to thank my sponsor SMART Papers and Sam Schmidt Motorsports for giving me an incredible opportunity to show what I can do in a racecar.”
Leilani is especially proud of her association with new sponsor SMART Papers. “I feel very strongly about protecting the environment, which is why I couldn’t have found a more appropriate sponsor for myself than SMART Papers,” says Leilani, who hosts an Earth Watch section on her website (www.LeilaniMunter.com). “They use up to 100% post consumer waste product in their paper without sacrificing quality. They are committed to the responsible use of forest resources and are working towards becoming a carbon neutral company.”
But what of the environmental concerns regarding motorsports in general? “I realize that racing is not an environmentally friendly sport, so I try to do what I can to minimize my carbon footprint,” explains Munter. “For example, the first thing I did when I received the sponsorship from SMART Papers was buy an acre of threatened tropical rainforest to protect. IndyCar runs on 100% ethanol and I hope that NASCAR will make the move to a cleaner, renewable energy source soon.”
Meanwhile, with a successful open-wheel debut under her belt, Leilani couldn’t be happier with the decision to race Indy cars. “It is a steep learning curve, but I am studying open-wheel racing day and night. I have been preparing to have an opportunity like this for six years, so I am ready.”
Munter has some lofty goals in sight for the 2008 season, including competing for Rookie of the Year honors in the Indy Pro Series, a title given to the rookie who finishes highest in the point standings over the course of 16 races. “I would like to win Indy Pro Series Rookie of the Year and win an Indy Pro race or more in the process,” she notes. “So far, a woman has never won an IRL-sanctioned event. I think Danica [Patrick] and I both have a good shot of making that happen, because we are both with top teams in our respective series.”
Fans of Leilani can catch her in action again this weekend when the Indy Pro Series visits Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday, September 9. As always, Munter will be looking for ways to hone her skills behind the wheel. “The place for improvement is obviously the restarts, which is where I lost all my positions in Kentucky. Looking back, it was a good experience to be able to pass all those cars working my way back to the front of the field, but going forward, I would rather not lose those spots to begin with. So the goal for Chicagoland is to qualify up front and stay up front.”
And take heart, stock car fans. While concentrating on her open-wheel career, Munter has not ruled out a return to the ARCA Re/Max series as early as this October. “I would love to run the Talladega race in October and Daytona in February. And next year during weekends where I am not in the Indy Pro car, there is no reason I couldn’t jump in a stock car. Sam Hornish Jr. has been doing that this year.”
Although she describes stock cars and open-wheel cars as “very different animals,” Munter believes she could go back and forth between the two as other drivers have. “The open-wheel cars are very light, very fast and very responsive. You have to be incredibly smooth and precise with every move you make in the car, steering wheel and throttle. The stock cars are 2,000 pounds heavier, slower and not nearly as responsive. But I think a racecar is a racecar. If you are a driver, you should be able to drive both. If I end up going back and forth between the two, I will definitely sit down and ask some advice from other drivers who have done the same.”
For now, Leilani heads to Chicagoland buoyed by her successful showing in Kentucky. “I expected to do well because of the team I am running with. Sam Schmidt Motorsports has won the championship the past three of four years, so I had high expectations for myself.”
If past performance, perseverance and a positive mindset are indicators of future success, Munter’s confidence in herself and her race team is well-placed and her goals well within reach.