Spencer Pumpelly is no stranger to the racing scene—his father Tom competed in the American sports car circuit throughout the 1980s. However, you might say the 37-year-old Porsche specialist is a rare bird in the athletic and performance-based world of professional racing. The two-time Rolex 24 winner is a dedicated vegan who lives on a plant-based diet, and with his FIA-certified racing shoes as an exception, maintains a cruelty-free uniform.
Pumpelly claims that his fitness and ambition have only improved since going vegan. Proof positive: this past weekend he raced to victory in the American Le Mans Series Grand Prix of Mosport for his class.
Here, he tells us about his go-to vegan spots, both on and off the national racing circuit, and why beer will never be on his banned foods list.
Where are you originally from?
I grew up in Northern Virginia just outside of Washington, D.C. After college I moved all over the East Coast chasing opportunities in racing.
And where’s your home base?
About eight years ago I found myself living in the Atlanta area and I have been here ever since. Currently my wife and I live in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood of Atlanta.
How long have you been vegan?
I have been a vegetarian for about 10 years and a vegan for two.
What are some of your favorite places to eat in the city?
I have a few favorites in Atlanta. Cafe Sunflower is one of the best vegetarian restaurants I’ve ever been to in any city. It does have one or two dishes with cheese but for the most part it is a vegan restaurant. We have two vegan Chinese restaurants that I would recommend, Green Sprout and Harmony Vegetarian, both of which are good places to take meat-eaters. They serve traditional Chinese dishes with faux meats that exceed expectations.
What about Southern fare?
In the Southern tradition of soul food, we also have a vegan restaurant called Soul Vegetarian with two Atlanta locations. My favorite is the country-fried steak with a side of collards and mac and cheese.
What’s it like being a vegan when you’re on the road?
Last year I was on the road for 180 days. [It] can be tough at first, but after a few weeks you get the hang of it. I love seeing places like Moe’s or Chipotle, but Subway becomes a must in many cases. When I’m in a major city, I try to take advantage of it. My two favorite [vegan restaurants] now are in L.A. and Philly. L.A.’s The Vegan Joint is great because the menu is elaborate, and you can reacquaint yourself with pancakes with sausage, or chicken and waffles — all vegan of course. It might not be the healthiest meal I eat all year, but I certainly enjoy indulging there. The last time I was in Philadelphia I had some time to kill so I found a couple of restaurants to try. Hip City Veg was great.
Is it tougher in Europe?
Believe it or not, Stuttgart, Germany has my all-time favorite. My wife and I went there last year and we were both worried about finding food. We stumbled across a place called Cooxs & Candy and we both agreed it was worth the trip even if we had done nothing else.
What made you go vegan?
There are two reasons: first is health and fitness, both for racing performance and my health in general. It is difficult to describe to someone not familiar with sports car racing, but driving a race car is extremely physically demanding, especially from a cardio standpoint. My diet has improved my fitness tremendously, and it’s given me more energy to train away from the car. We are seeing a lot of top athletes from the NFL and UFC, to cycling and tennis, going plant-based for this reason. The other [reason] is the compassion and the sense of justice.
We hear you’re going to be a father soon—congrats! Will the baby have a vegan lifestyle too?
Yes! I think there will clearly be some exceptions as he grows up and interacts with other kids and families, but while we are home we will stick to a plant-based diet.
What does your diet mostly consist of to ensure you get all the nutrients you need, especially for training and racing?
My diet is made up of veggies, fruits, nuts, beans, seeds and grains. I try to eat a good variety of each. I don’t really count calories or plan my meals, but I do avoid junk food before a race, and hydrate a lot. We lose lots of fluid in our cars due to the heat inside. The only thing I supplement is B-12, something vegans can overlook if they are not careful.
Last great memorable meal?
We had a group of friends over for the Fourth of July. Some were vegans, but most were meat eaters. We fired up the grill and did the typical American thing only we did it with Garden Burgers, Tofurkey Beer Brats, and Smart Dogs. Everyone enjoyed the food as if it was just another day of grilling.
Do you like to cook?
I’m not against cooking but it isn’t my forte.
Besides ensuring something’s vegan, do you pay attention to food labels when you cook or eat?
Yes! Just avoiding meat, dairy and eggs isn’t enough. I am always looking to eat healthier so I try to limit simple carbs, trans fat, saturated fat, oils and all artificial sweeteners. I also don’t drink soda or caffeine. I look for organic, non-GMO ingredients where I can find them.
What does the inside of your fridge look like?
Of course there is the beer shelf, but besides that we have almond milk, whole grain bread, OJ, spinach and kale, Daiya cheese, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, avocados, blueberries, whole grain tortilla wraps, oil-free dressings and fruit preserves.
And your drink of choice?
Any guilty pleasures?
Yes, beer! I don’t drink during the race week, so after a race I often find myself trying to make up for it all in one night. Of all the healthy things I do, I allow myself a few beers, especially our local brews from SweetWater Brewery here in Atlanta.
What does your daily non-racing “uniform” usually consist of?
I’m typically in jeans these days. I don’t wear any leather or wool, with the exception of things I owned before I realized what went into the process. Suits are hard, but I have found a few good cotton pieces and am always on the lookout for more. Matt & Nat is a good source of non-leather things like wallets. My only exception to the leather rule is racing shoes. To date, there are no FIA-certified shoes that don’t have leather so I have no choice, but I have been working with a company to try to get something offered.