Racing to Save the Environment

Racing to Save the Environment

By Lorena O'Neil

Leilani Munter is a female stock car driver on the heavily-male ASA Racing circuit.
SourceWill & Deni McIntyre/Corbis


Leilani Munter is an environmental activist who just happens to be a race car driver. Can she really turn a race car into a 200mph billboard for green causes?

By Lorena O'Neil

It’s easy to argue that race car driving can kill the environment, but for Leilani Munter, the opposite is true. Her love for the environment is hurting her racing career.

Cue tires screeching on a pavement. We know, it is a tad counter-intuitive.

Munter, 37, is a race car driver who has professionally raced both open wheel and stock cars. She’s also a self-proclaimed “vegetarian hippie chick” and an environmental activist. She travels around the world speaking about carbon footprints, dolphin slaughter, biofuels, global warming and more. To offset her carbon footprint, Munter donates to both rainforest and coral reef protection for every race she enters. She signs all of her emails: ”For the earth… Leilani.” While it may seem like her two worlds are mutually exclusive, Munter says racing is actually an unconventional, yet effective platform.

She refuses to accept sponsors who aren’t green. Less sponsorship means fewer races. Which, in turn, diminishes her power as an activist.

“My race car can be a 200 miles per hour power billboard for the environment,” she says in a phone interview from her home in North Carolina. She points out that there are 75 million NASCAR fans in the United States, and if she can get five percent of them to be environmentally conscious, even with small daily changes like bringing reusable bags to the grocery store, it would have a huge impact.

Leilani sitting facing camera leaning against a stock car

Racing to Save the Environment

Source Will & Deni McIntyre/Corbis

Sounds great. Except for one thing: Munter refuses to accept sponsors who aren’t green.  She won’t work with fossil fuel companies or businesses that sell meat, leather, or engage in animal testing. Compare this to Danica Patrick, who earns millions in sponsorships as one of the world’s highest paid female athletes. With less sponsorship opportunities for Munter come less funds, and fewer races. Which, in turn, diminishes her power as an activist.

“As soon as I stop racing, I lose my voice a little. When I’m gone from the track, my messages will be gone from their mind,” she says.

So how good is she? She races in the ARCA  national stock car series. Switching temporarily to open wheel – where the wheels are outside the car’s body and racing is often faster and more dangerous– Munter became the fourth woman in history to compete in the Indy Pro series in 2007.

Racing blogger Bill Zahren says he has been impressed by Munter’s ability, especially since she doesn’t have the benefit of racing frequently. “Even though she’s just had a race or two each year, she seems relatively competitive in those races,” he write in an email. ”She also got some positive feedback from some racing veterans when she raced in the Firestone Indy Lights open-wheel series. I think if she had a full season of racing she would surprise a lot of people with how quickly she improves.”

Munter majored in biology at the University of California San Diego, but her love of science and nature dates back to her childhood. Her mother, a Japanese-American nurse raised in Hawaii, met Munter’s father, a German neurologist, at the Hawaii State Hospital. They moved to the Mainland to work at the Mayo Clinic, and Rochester, Minnesota is where Munter grew up with her three sisters. The family boarded their horses at a farm and Munter said she always viewed barn animals as akin to dogs and cats. She became a vegetarian at age 6 and moved on to a vegan diet two years ago.

When Munter was 14 her mother had a horse-back riding accident that resulted in severe brain injury and memory loss. Since then, she says, “there’s an underlying feeling every day when I wake up that I don’t know how much time I have.”

The teenager created a bucket list, which she adjusts to this day. It included scuba diving, skydiving, and driving a race car. “I’m a little bit of an adrenaline junkie,” she says, laughing.

Her personal car? A Tesla, naturally.

She saved up for racing school by working as a photo double for Catherine Zeta-Jones in Traffic and America’s Sweethearts. Her first time in a real race car, she beat everyone on the track and a local NASCAR team owner asked if she had considered racing professionally. Nine months later after knocking on doors and acquiring small sponsorships, Munter entered her first race. It wasn’t easy at first – someone once commented that she was ”checking her makeup” when she went under her car to work on it  – but the disrespect stopped when she moved up to higher levels of racing. 

“When you are a woman in the sport I think a lot of people are doubtful,” she explains. “You have to prove yourself more.”  

Add ardent environmentalist to the mix and the road gets even tougher.

After posting a link to An Inconvenient Truth on her website in 2006, a heated discussion about the environment ensued on a NASCAR forum. One person posted a graph of carbon dioxide emissions. Munter said this was the moment she decided to use her race car to get people to talk about the environment.

Zahren named his big green recycling bin “Leilani,” because he found himself thinking she would be pleased every time he threw something in it. He was environmentally conscious before, but says that Munter’s advocacy has “greatly heightened” his awareness of what he can do.  “If she does that for all her followers and fans, she’s already having a huge, pro-environment impact on the world.”

The woman he named his recycling bin after agrees. “When you are just sitting around talking to people that get it, that already agree with you, you aren’t moving the needle. We have to talk to people that aren’t on board yet. It’s a more difficult conversation to have but it’s the most important to have.”

Does it pain her to have her activism affect her racing? 

“I want to race like all drivers, but I am as passionate about the environment and unwilling to compromise those beliefs, so this is the reality of the situation for me,” she says. “Sometimes I am going to stick to my morals, and watch the race from my couch instead. It sucks, but at least I am not selling out. I hope that someday those sacrifices will pay off.”

Munter’s Stats: 

  • In 45 starts, she’s had 9 top five and 19 top ten finishes
  • First woman to qualify in 45-year history of Bettenhausen Classic at Illiana Speedway in Indiana
  • Set the record for highest finish for a female stock car driver at Texas Motor Speedway, finishing fourth in 2006
  • Fourth woman in history to race in the Indy Pro Series, the development league of IndyCar