Interview with Spencer Pumpelly: Vegan Pro Racing Driver
Written by Leigh-Chantelle
Created Thursday, 19 September 2013
Spencer Pumpelly is a two-time class winner in the Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the GT class in 2006 and 2011. He is a multiple time winner in the American Le Mans Series as well as both the Grand Am Rolex and Continental Challenge competition and has class victories in five major Rolex Series endurance races. Spencer currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife Lindsay and son Ryder. When not racing he enjoys running, and flying helicopters.
How and why did you decide to become a vegan?
In 2003, my father began having heart issues. I knew that I would be at risk if I didn't make some changes so I tried to go vegetarian for a little bit just to see if I could. It was easier than I thought so I continued and have not (intentionally) eaten meat since. While vegetarian, I began searching the web for recipes and became aware of all the cruelty that went into the production of animal products. I had always considered veganism to be extreme and assumed that it would be impossible for me given that I'm on the road over 180 days in the typical year.
As time went on, I became more and more aware of both the health risks and cruelty involved with eating things like eggs, cheese, and dairy. I can't pinpoint exactly what pushed me to finally go vegan, but when I did I found that while difficult, it was possible to be on the road and find vegan food. I can't see myself ever going back.
Over 3 years
I have seen all sorts of benefits. For one I am about 15 lbs. lighter than I was as a vegetarian. When we race, the cars are weighed without the drivers in them so while the cars cannot be lighter than the minimum weight, the car and driver combination can be. 15 lbs. doesn't sound like much in our sport - we have to optimise everything when lap times are measured in hundredths of seconds. I also have much better endurance in the car so I can attack at the end of a long race.
Veganism is justice. While life isn't fair, societies for centuries have sought and valued the concept of justice and have gone to great lengths and struggles to try to get ever closer to that goal. There is no way anyone who seeks to be part of a just society can justify the extreme suffering and torment of the innocent. We have a choice every time we eat or shop to make things better or worse. Unfortunately, many otherwise caring and compassionate people have let societal norms lead them to avert their consciousness and support things they would not if they knew they had a choice. Veganism is about becoming aware and then acting when rationalizations seem much easier.
What sort of training do you do?
It is hard to describe to someone who hasn't raced just how physically demanding it is but in order to keep a car at it's absolute limits with the heat and G-forces all while making thousands of decisions in a very stressful environment you have to be in great shape. During the off-season, I run a lot and do weight bearing exercises at least twice a week. The type of cars I race take more cardio fitness to drive than muscular strength so running makes up the majority of my training.
Racing is unlike other sports where you can practice every day. It's cost prohibitive and you need to be near a racetrack - which isn't the case for me in downtown Atlanta. Instead, I try to run 3-6 miles 4 days a week with light weights and strength exercises. In season, I will run twice a week on the days between races.
I do private coaching for aspiring drivers but we don't often get to work on fitness.
Just racing. I used to skateboard but I had a few rough falls and injured myself two years ago. Luckily for me, it was two days after our season ended so I had time to heal but it convinced me to stick to safer things like running.
Strengths, Weaknesses & Outside Influences
What do you think is the biggest misconception about vegans and how do you address this?
I am finding fewer people with true misconceptions as veganism becomes more popular. A few people still think of it as a hippie-inspired counterculture trend, much like I did a few years ago. I feel now when it comes up in conversation I get good questions from people who are truly interested.
Since becoming vegan I have improved my overall fitness, first by personal best 5K and 10K times, run my first half marathon, and dropped 15 lbs. I also feel more motivated to train so it's easier to stay in shape. This translates to better performance on the track. My first year as a vegan I won 5 of the 15 races I entered and finished on the podium in 10 of them.
Finding healthy food on the road is by far my biggest challenge. It's easy to find vegan food, but when you're on the road sometimes what you eat isn't the healthiest. I often have to choose between things like potato chips or nothing at all. Planning ahead when I can helps, and at the track our team has caterers who do a decent job of providing healthy options.
Some like to kid me about it. I have a buddy who texts me a picture of his food every time he eats a steak. But, for the most part everyone is supportive and respectful.
Yes, very much so. My wife Lindsay is also vegan as are my Mother and her husband. Our 3-month old son Ryder is going to be raised vegan and is welcome to eat meat when he can by it with his own money - that might be a while.
“Where do you get your protein?” I get it less and less but I still get it. I went to a screening of Forks Over Knives here in Atlanta and got to hear Rip Esselstyn tell the audience how he responds and I use his response sometimes. When asked he says, "Protein? Never really thought about it, how much do you think I need?" Brilliant!
I love my job and I want to keep racing well into my 50's. The problem with racing is that for every driver making a living racing cars there are hundreds of equally motivated drivers on the sidelines who would kill to take your seat. My love for what I do pushes me to be the best so I can continue to have the privilege. I am also a small part of a big team. We have over 30 people on our team working hard at what they do, giving their all - year round. They inspire me to work as hard as they do so their work isn't wasted on a driver that can't push because he's tired.
I am also motivated to stay healthy by my family. I want to be around to see my great grand kids which means giving myself the best odds at beating disease. If that isn't enough, all I have to do is think of the suffering on factory farms and that's enough motivation in itself.
Food & Supplements
What do you eat for:
Breakfast - Vegan Shakeology shake with soymilk and a banana, decaf coffee. Cereal with almond milk. On a cheat day a (faux) sausage egg and cheese biscuit from either Dough Bakery or La Dolce Vegan here in Atlanta.
Do you take any supplements?
I supplement with B-12. My B-12 levels were off the charts last time I had blood work done but I know I don’t get enough on the road so I supplement it in season.
I have to be very careful. I try to only directly talk about it to those who ask. It’s very easy to get preachy and turn people off. I promote veganism by first being 99% vegan - there are still no FIA approved racing shoes that are leather free but I am working on it. I try to find good hand me downs from other drivers. That's the only thing that keeps me from 100%. I tweet about animal cruelty often and support causes like Farm Sancutary. Everyone knows I'm vegan without me having to shout about it.
Follow me on Twitter and catch our races on the Speed Channel, ABC, and ESPN2. A full schedule of my races can be found at spencerpumpelly.com.
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