Leilani Münter is a passionate environmentalist — and a rising star in the motorsports world. It may seem like a paradoxical pairing. But in Münter’s mind, that’s a good thing. She believes that the faster she drives, the easier it will be to sell her environmental message to the sport’s 100 million U.S. fans — a group not widely associated with overt ecological concern.
Münter, 34, first made headlines when she placed fourth in a USRA Super Late Model Series event at the Texas Motor Speedway in 2006 — the highest finish by a female driver in the history of the track. And she’s been using her high-profile racing career to spread a pro-environment message ever since.
Münter realizes that for the most part, she’s not preaching to the choir.
“If I didn’t have the racecar,” she says, “most of these folks probably wouldn’t be paying attention to me.”
So she keeps her message to fans simple: There are easy ways to lighten your footprint, such as recycling, LED lighting, solar water heaters and alternative fuels. “I just try to talk about the things that I’m doing,” explains Münter, who lives with her husband just outside Charlotte, N.C.
“I say, ‘Hey, I just put in a rain-water collection system.’ Then I’ll put a picture on my Web site of my little project at home or my solar lights or my new LEDs.”
Münter acknowledges that motorsports are anything but low-impact — although the longtime vegetarian points out that the meat industry emits more greenhouse gases than all types of automotive traffic combined. She has lobbied NASCAR and other racing organizations to use alternative fuels (the IndyCar circuit has been fueling its cars with 100 percent ethanol for many years). Meanwhile, to offset her own greenhouse emissions, she adopts an acre of rainforest through the World Land Trust prior to every race.
She also accepts only environmentally responsible sponsors. She’s backed these days by GREENandSAVE, NativeEnergy, LED Savings Solutions and GroSolar, among others.
Münter, who studied biology and ecology at the University of California, San Diego, has been racing professionally for nearly nine years, but she started promoting her environmental message in earnest in 2006.
At first, it didn’t go so well. “I definitely ruffled some feathers,” she recalls. Sponsors were shy about supporting someone with such an eco-friendly message (especially if they hadn’t taken steps toward greening their businesses). Motorsports officials didn’t like having their eco-lapses pointed out so publicly. And fans thought she was “some weirdo, vegetarian, hippie girl from California talking about carbon footprints.”
But, she’s gradually been able to gather support for her views in the motorsports world, even as she’s boosted her profile as an activist away from the track. Münter is a frequent speaker at pro-environmental events, and as an ambassador for the National Wildlife Foundation (NWF), she’s lobbied members of Congress on climate change issues.
“Her experience as a professional racecar driver and her passion as an environmentalist bring a unique voice to the conversation about how we develop solutions to global warming,” says NWF communications director Christine Dorsey.
Passion comes easily to Münter, as does a taste for adventure. “I remember when I got my first car — I definitely got a lot of speeding tickets!” says the Rochester, Minn., native. “I’ve always enjoyed pushing the limit, and I’ve always been an adrenaline junkie. Once I got behind the wheel of my first [race] car, I just fell in love with it.”
To stay in shape for her sport (drivers need to stay in good physical condition to withstand the physical and mental stress of racing), Münter works out regularly. “I like to swim best, but I will scuba dive if I am near the ocean. If I am near snow, I snowboard. I also enjoy tennis and have been taking kickboxing lessons,” she says. “In general, I step up my workout program when I have a race coming up and will exercise every day in preparation.”
With five races on the ARCA circuit in the next four months, Münter will need to stay sharp. Her fans — and the planet — are counting on her.
Go behind the scenes at our cover shoot with Leilani Münter: