Meet the woman racing to save the World

By Duchess Magazine

Leilani Münter is a fierce environmental activist who made her way through to car racing, over the years and earns a living in one of the most gas-guzzling industries on the planet.

But the 42-year-old, a Nascar racing driver, insists she isn’t the walking contradiction you might imagine. She’s a pragmatist. “I am making the biggest difference when I am at a race track and not when I am at an environmental event, preaching to the converted,” she says from her home in North Carolina.

There are 75 million racing fans in the US, and Münter has the platform to reach them all. “If I was just a biology graduate running around telling people to buy electric cars and give up eating meat and dairy, not many people would listen to me.”

Driving a racing car was on Münter’s bucket-list as a teen. “I was born with a lead-foot,” she says. After graduating from her degree in biology she funded her way through racing school by working as a stunt double for Catherine Zeta-Jones in the films Traffic and America’s Sweethearts.

 It was in 2001 that Münter ran her first race, and the usual announcement, “Gentleman, start your engines”, had to be changed to accommodate her. “I felt like I had already won the race,” she remembers. But receiving trophies from scantily clad grid girls can be quite a weird experience.

“It’s good for little girls watching to see me standing alongside [the girls giving out trophies] in a racing suit; hopefully it plants a little seed in their head.”

But finding sponsors who don’t compromise her ethics can be tough: she refuses to work with companies associated with fossil fuels, animal testing, meat or diary products, fur or leather.

Instead, she works with environmentally-friendly companies and advocacy groups fighting for clean energy and animal rights, and nine years ago committed to adopting an acre of rainforest for every race she runs to offset her carbon footprint. And off the track she drives a Tesla car powered by the solar panels on the roof of her house.

“I have walked away from big sponsor deals, and in some ways it has hurt my racing career because I haven’t been in a car as much as I could have,” she admits.

Getting on the track might have its challenges, but being an environmental activist who can make a quick getaway proved a valuable asset to the team behind the documentary Racing Extinction. Directed by Oscar-winning Louie Psihoyos, famous for The Cove, the documentary draws attention to mankind’s role in a potential loss of at least half of the world’s species. It follows the scientists, activists and journalists who are documenting it all over the world, and fighting to stave off mass extinction.

Münter was dispatched in a customised electric Tesla car to beam rogue projections of endangered species across New York City. Passers by were astounded to see giant tigers stalk along buildings and a blue whale swim up the Empire State. She also incriminated corporations by lighting them up and highlighting their CO2 and methane emissions, with a filter that made the gases visible to the human eye.



“With 7.3 billion people on the planet, we have to change the way we’re living and I think people are waking up to that – it’s something we have to confront,” she says. “A few times when the cops or security were called, I could speed away and, because the car’s camouflage paint job could be turned off, I’d hide in plain sight.”

Shell, McDonald’s and Seaworld have all come under Münter’s fire, and not everybody is pleased about her taking a bolshie stand with her racing car.

“I have had a few death threats and in one race I was given a security team because someone making threats was thought to be there in the crowd.”

Quick to shrug it off, she is not afraid to ruffle feathers. In 2014 she raced in a Blackfish-themed car and handed out a thousand DVDs of the film, about killer whales in captivity. She did the same in 2012 with the dolphin-hunting film The Cove and hopes to get behind the wheel of a Racing Extinction-themed car soon too.

Veganism is another movement close to her heart. She is planning to drive a vegan-themed race car and give away vegan food to racing fans at the finish line. She has already converted a few of her pit crew to eat vegan meat substitute, and that’s proof that US racing fans are just the sort of audience the environmental community should be speaking to, she insists.

“If you really want to have an impact you have to have the uncomfortable conversations with the people who may not be on our side yet.” She recently received a message from a man whom she’d inspired to adopt an acre of rainforest for his wife’s birthday.

He looked like the stereotypical Nascar fan that people picture, she says. “He had the big beer belly, the Budweiser in his hand, and I know that a lot of environmentalists would just write someone like that off and think there was no sense in reaching out to him, but that’s just not true.”

Ultimately, Münter would like to see Nascar move towards either using 100% renewable fuel or electric racing cars. “Innovation often comes from the racetrack and the sport could really help move us forward,” she says. “They have all these brilliant engineers who could also be working on making the sport more sustainable and environmentally friendly.”

Münter is going to continue to fight from behind the wheel – beating men to the finishing line while she’s at it.


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