Leilani Münter drives fast, and she does it for a living. She’s also the biggest environmental activist in sports racing, and sometimes this pisses people off.
Case in point, a fellow activist at Al Gore’s Climate Reality leadership training corps. Both Münter and Planet Experts attended the event back in September, but the NASCAR driver caught a little more shade for her efforts. “One of the guys that was training there was just fuming at me and so offended that I raced cars and he was flipping out,” she said. “And I was like, but do you not see the bigger picture? I’m burning 30 gallons of gasoline and then I’m reaching millions of people with that race car that you can’t reach by racing a bike.”
Münter acknowledges that she could quit racing and just ride bicycles from now on, if that’s how she defined environmentalism, but that won’t take a single race car off the grid. “That race car will still race,” she told Planet Experts, “it’ll just have a different driver in it, and I guarantee you that driver is probably somebody who isn’t adopting an acre of rainforest every time they sit in the car, and they’re not talking about these issues on their car.”
That’s no exaggeration. Every time Leilani Münter races, she adopts one acre of rainforest. And when she races, her cars don’t sport the logos of traditional sponsors; she races for documentaries like Blackfish and The Cove, for 100% Renewable, for veganism. Münter races for a better, greener world, and when she’s not on the racetrack she’s driving through town in her Tesla Model S (her North Carolina license plate reads EFF OIL) and powering her home with a full solar array. In fact, as of this writing, Münter’s solar panels provide more than enough energy to power her house and her car, which means she puts electricity back into the grid every day. “That feels really good,” she said, “and it’s a choice I hope more and more people make.”
Münter’s own choice to live an environmentally-conscious lifestyle wasn’t made without cost. Her strict rule of thumb is that she will not accept sponsorships from companies that produce fossil fuels (no oil, no coal, no natural gas) or those that test on animals or produce any sort of meat, dairy products, fur or leather. That rules out a lot of big names, and the kind of money that would allow Münter to race full-time, something she’s dreamed of since she was a little girl.
“It has hurt,” she admitted. “It’s definitely hurt my career as a driver, because I haven’t been in a car as often as I could be. But, on the other hand, when I’m racing I feel truly, strongly, about what’s on my car. [My sponsors] are on my car because there’s a deep synergy between what I’m fighting for on the planet and what their company is doing. It’s not like I’m just pushing sugar water, you know?”
Even without the kind of track time she craves, Münter has racked up an impressive series of honors. Discovery’s Planet Green has named her their #1 Eco Athlete and Sports Illustrated has named her one of the top 10 female race car drivers in the world. As Münter is fond of saying, “Never underestimate a vegan hippie chick with a race car.”
On December 2, this vegan hippie chick will star in a major Discovery Channel event, as it airs the documentary Racing Extinction to 220 countries and territories around the world. In the film, Münter partners with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Louie Psihoyos and Tesla CEO Elon Musk to create “006,” a flashy little car with a big environmental message.
Joining the Racing Extinction Team
Fossil records show that the Earth has experienced five mass extinction events in its multi-billion-year history. Mere blips on the register in geologic time, but apocalyptic events for the planet’s living, breathing residents. The most recent was caused by the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, but the most devastating occurred over 240 million years ago during the Permian age. Theories vary as to the cause – asteroid impact, catastrophic methane release, sea level change – but what is certain is that 96 percent of all living creatures perished during the event. It is for this reason that the Permian Extinction is also referred to as “The Great Dying.”
We are living in what some scientists call the Anthropocene age (so called for the measurable impact human beings are now having on the planet) and believe it or not we are on the verge of an Anthropocene extinction event. Species are disappearing at breathtaking pace – 1,000 times faster than before the rise of humanity, according to one Duke University study – and the acceleration is largely due to human encroachment, human predation and a rapidly-changing climate (courtesy of human greenhouse gas emissions).
In Racing Extinction, director Louie Psihoyos traces the roots of species’ disappearance to a few key factors, including overfishing and the steady buildup of carbon in the planet’s atmosphere. The latter issue is where Münter comes in.
The NASCAR driver met Psihoyos after watching his Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, a brutal exposé on the annual slaughter of dolphins and whales in Japan’s Taiji cove. Münter began volunteering with Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project to raise awareness about Taiji, which included fundraising, documenting the hunt in Japan and organizing to light the Empire State Building bright red. The next step was bringing the issue to her fans at NASCAR. “People that are buying tickets to SeaWorld,” she said, “those are the people that need to see this.”
In addition to killing hundreds of dolphins each year, Taiji fishermen also capture many young members of the pods that are herded into the cove, which are then sold to marine parks around the world. It is a traumatic experience for the animals and yet the practice continues to this very day. That’s why SeaWorld fans need to see it, said Münter. Environmentalists, conservationists, animal rights activists, they either know about this already or have seen the film. “The people who need to see it are the ones who have no idea,” said Münter, “who’ve probably never heard of the film and are buying tickets to these dolphin parks because they don’t know any better.”
Münter contacted Psihoyos and asked if he’d donate 1,000 copies of The Cove for her to give away at Daytona. “Absolutely,” the director told her. That year, Münter raised enough money to drive a Cove car in the race and afterwards Ric O’Barry helped her pass out the DVDs to her fans. Psihoyos also attended, and told her he had a job for her in his next film, though wouldn’t get into the specifics.
“I kind of had a feeling it had something to do with driving,” she said.
The Racing Extinction team named their neon Tesla “006” as a nod to both James Bond and the Earth’s potential sixth extinction. Except where 007 would need to blend in and strike at the enemy covertly, 006 would stand out and strike at the enemy overtly. Equipped with a state of the art film projector, the electric car lights up like some kind of dazzling deep-sea fish and projects images of endangered sea life. When driven by Münter, those projections usually took place against oil company buildings or edifices owned by Koch Industries. The show wasn’t always appreciated by local law enforcement.
“We got stopped a few times,” Münter said with a devious laugh.
Of course, the sleek 006 that appears in the film was almost a very different beast. “The first car was not a Tesla,” said Münter. “It was like a white van with a projector attached to the top. I was like, ‘Oh man, you want it to be 100 percent electric, right?’ And Louie said, ‘Yeah, of course.’ And I said, ‘Alright, well we have to get a Tesla.’”
Münter introduced Psihoyos to Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who jumped aboard the project right away. Soon after, 006 was born, complete with the very first vegan interior.
Driving to the End of the Oil Age, One Race at a Time
It wasn’t so long ago that women weren’t allowed in race car garages. “There were times when the wife of the drivers wouldn’t even be able to walk their husbands to their cars and wish them luck,” said Münter. Times certainly have changed, though not every driver has changed with them.
NASCAR legend Richard Petty was against women racing when Janet Guthrie first hit the Coca-Cola 600 in 1976, and he’s still against it today. That’s been a tough pill for racing fans like Münter and other female drivers to swallow. But she considers it a generational disconnect.
“The younger drivers are definitely more accepting,” she said. “When I was having drivers be nasty to me, they were usually older guys. And I think for them they just can’t comprehend that not only are we allowed in the garage area, we’re now racing against them and in many cases beating them…. They were put on such a pedestal – ‘you’re so brave, it’s so amazing that you do 200 mph next to a wall’ – they got this superhero status. And I’m like five foot three and a hundred pounds and I’m going faster than them. And there’s something that probably hurts a little bit about that. If a little girl can do it, maybe they’re not as tough as they think they are.”
The disconnect isn’t just between male and female drivers, however. One Fortune 500 company balked at sponsoring Münter after realizing that, should she be killed on the track, they’d be the ones associated with the first death of a female race car driver. “‘That could be our company name on the picture of the crumpled-up race car,’” she recalls them saying. “And that’s sort of sexist, right? They certainly don’t have any problem putting guys in cars at Daytona, and they get hurt too.”
There is a double-standard at work, and not just for female drivers. For Münter, even her appearance in Racing Extinction is not enough to satisfy those environmentalists that insist she’s part of the problem.
“There will always be the extreme environmentalists who say [Münter does her best Wicked Witch impersonation], ‘We’ll never accept her because she drives a fossil fuel race car when she’s not in her Tesla.’ And then there will always be some NASCAR fans that won’t accept me because of my environmental stance or maybe just because I’m a woman.”
And while it’s impossible to please all the people all the time, Münter is racing for the people living between those two extremes. “The vast majority of people are in the middle and I can reach them,” she said. “At the end of the day I am more of an activist than I am a driver. I’m an activist that races. The race car is kind of the thing that allows me to reach all these millions of people that wouldn’t hear me if I was just a biologist trying to get people to buy an electric car or use solar or go vegan. It’s the race car that gives me my platform and my voice.”
Leilani Münter graduated from University of California, San Diego, with a degree in Biology (specializing in Ecology, Behavior & Evolution). She has been fully vegan since 2011 and hasn’t been to a gas station since September 2013. She hopes to run a vegan-themed car at Daytona or Talladega in early 2016 and recently launched VegNation, a vegan t-shirt company that uses all sustainable fabric made 100 percent in the USA at solar-powered facilities.