Leilani Münter stands with feet firmly planted in two worlds that could almost not be further apart. Münter is a race car-driving environmentalist, she has a degree in biology, is a former volunteer of a wildlife rehabilitation center and a long time vegetarian. Several times she has visited Capitol Hill to lobby Congress in support of the Climate Security Act. She knows that driving 200 mph race cars is by all means a waste of fuel, tires, and carbon fiber. But racing for her is not just a job — it is a calling and a passion. And, really, what demographic could be in more need of an outspoken environmental advocate?
You compete on the Indy and Nascar Series, are there any other women?
I just got back from testing Daytona in the ARCA Series, the development league of NASCAR. In February when we go back for the race , there will be at least three women in the field of 43 drivers: myself, Danica Patrick, and Alli Owens. When I was racing in Indy Lights in 2007, I was the only female driver in that series at the time. Last year I think there were two females in Indy Lights and three females in IndyCar.
Sports Illustrated has named you one of the top ten female race car drivers in the world, what made you decide that you wanted to devote your career to racing?
I was earning my degree in biology at the University of California in San Diego and when I sat in a race car for the first time, I was in love. I knew I wanted to chase my dream and I always had my biology degree to fall back on if the racing didn’t work out.
You are a very beautiful woman, and I am sure you have faced your fair share of gender discrimination, how do you deal with that?
I think that female race car drivers develop a pretty thick skin early on in their careers because you have to in order to survive in this sport. Of course there will always be detractors and people that don’t think women belong on the track, but I just concentrate on doing the best I can on the racetrack. It used to bother me when I first started racing but now it goes in one ear and out the other. I think most female drivers will tell you the same thing.
I think many women (and men, for that matter) admire the fact that you took a stand for your beliefs and dared to stand up against those who thought you were crazy when you created your Carbon Free Girl persona. What kind of feedback do you get from fans?
When I first started talking publicly about environmental issues on my racing website back in 2006, there was a mixed reaction. I remember in particular, coming across an argument that had started on a NASCAR forum about my environmental activities. The thread became very long and people were arguing back and forth — some liked me, some didn’t. And when I got past the personal attacks on myself, I sat back and realized that I had started an argument about climate change on a NASCAR forum. I had started a dialogue between the two sides — and that is the first step in creating change. That very simple thing became something very important to me. As environmental awareness spreads, the feedback has been much more positive.
That’s so great, you’re reaching people that may never have even thought about the environment before. But you were told by many people in the racing world that you were making a big mistake, that you just needed to shut up, drive the car and plug your sponsors. Marketing people warned you that by talking about political and environmental issues you would isolate yourself from possible sponsors who would shy away from your “weird, greenie, vegetarian hippie chick image.” You didn’t listen, thankfully. How is the sponsorship situation working out for you?
It was a struggle for several years because I wanted to work with environmentally responsible companies and that narrowed the number of potential sponsors down. However, as of quite recently, it’s going well. At the Daytona test last month I was sponsored by NextEra Energy Resources, the largest renewable energy company in the U.S. I have also partnered with a company called GREENandSAVE which is bringing energy efficiency to corporate America through LED lighting. GREENandSAVE will be my partner throughout the 2010 racing season and any company that wants to go green and save money can do it by signing up for our lighting upgrades with LED lights that reduce electricity demand by up to 80 percent. This program allows companies to reduce energy costs immediately without spending a dime — companies only pay for the cost of the lighting retrofit from a portion of the actual money saved each month so the program is cash flow positive for companies from the start. As an additional benefit, companies that initiate the LED lighting retrofits will receive sponsorship exposure through my race program. So our goal is to change out a lot of light bulbs, help companies save money and go green, and get my eco race car into victory lane!
You purchase an acre of rainforest for every race you run to offset your carbon footprint, which I think is fantastic. How many acres do you own now?
I think I have around eight or nine acres now. I have certificates for each one hanging on my office wall but since I am traveling I can’t count them right now. Since I have not raced full time recently, it’s not as many as I would like. This year my goal is to run the ten televised ARCA races so that would mean I will purchase ten more acres this year. Last year I got an email from a lifelong NASCAR fan who wanted to find out how I went about this. He didn’t know what to give his wife for her birthday, and got the idea from my race program to adopt an acre of rainforest in her name.
That’s great, I’m sure she was pleased. I know you probably hear this too much, but I have to ask. You once worked as a photo double and stunt driver for actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, how was that?
I had a great time. I worked for Catherine on Steven Soderbergh’s movie Traffic and then again on America’s Sweethearts. I had worked as a stand in on another Soderbergh film, Ocean’s Eleven, and was asked to work for Catherine again when she was cast in Ocean’s Twelve but I was already living in North Carolina and concentrating on my racing career full time so I kind of had to leave the movie stuff behind me when I left California. I had a lot of fun working in the movies while it lasted. I got to work with amazing people like Julia Roberts, Christopher Walken, John Cusack, Billy Crystal, George Clooney and Brad Pitt to name a few — who wouldn’t enjoy that? But all I really wanted to do was to race, so I left Hollywood to pursue my dream.
What was the coolest stunt scene you ever got to do?
Catherine was pregnant during the filming of Traffic so she didn’t have many stunts in that film. But in America’s Sweethearts I did a driving scene where I kicked John Cusack out of this silver Mercedes (it was the director’s car) and took off down a dirt road leaving him in my dust. It was funny because I remember the director coming over and asking me to dial it down because I had kicked up so much dust that the camera couldn’t see John Cusack through all the dust. I also did stunts on Scorpion King for Kelly Hu, on that set I was thrown across a wooden table in the middle of this huge fire and big fight scene with The Rock. It was fun, but not as much fun as racing.
Sounds very exciting to me! Now, you are a devoted vegetarian living in Cornelius, North Carolina. How do you make that work? I imagine many post-race dinners and such are held in some not so veg-friendly establishments?
We cook a lot at home but I have actually found that pretty much any restaurant you go to these days has something vegetarian on their menu. In the rare event where there is not a vegetarian meal on the menu, if you ask the chef, they will usually whip up something amazing. I think the chef’s enjoy it too because they get to be creative.
That’s true, I think chefs like cooking veggies because it does require a bit more creativity on their part. So, what’s next for Carbon Free Girl?
I will be racing on February 6th at Daytona International Speedway in the ARCA Series race, against Danica Patrick and 41 other drivers for the checkered flag. You can tune into watch the race live on SPEED.
What, besides fast cars, gives you hope for the future?
People give me hope. The brilliant minds working on solving our problems are coming up with amazing new technologies every day. Business for eco geeks is booming and there is no end in sight. Wind and tidal turbines, geothermal energy, second generation biofuels like cellulosic ethanol and algae biodiesel, hydrogen fuel cell and electric cars, desalination, thin film, concentrated PV and thermal solar technology are our future along with so much more.
What does the good life mean to you?
Being happy. Enjoying my work every day. Spending time in the ocean scuba diving. Spending time with my husband, my family and my friends.
Top photo by Adam Taylor.