If you’ve never heard of Leilani Münter, the beautiful and talented environmentalist race car driver, you’re missing out. Münter, the only carbon neutral NASCAR driver, uses her sport in the most unlikely way to promote climate action. Her mission is to completely revolutionize the racing industry, and given her powers of persuasion, I have no doubt that she’ll win.
Leilani Münter likens herself to a bumble bee, which for all practical (and physics-based) purposes, should never be able to fly. Like the bumble bee, a young, female, biologist is an improbable race car driver, but, again like the bumble bee, Münter excels in her sport and in her advocacy through sheer persistence. “No” is simply not in her lexicon.
She is an uncommon messenger. “It was difficult for some of the old-school NASCAR drivers and viewers to take a young, female vegan seriously as a competitor,” said Münter with a smile as she reflected on her racing career during a presentation at Green Builder Media’s recent Sustainability Symposium 2017: Ready for Anything.
“Oh but I didn’t stop there—I gave them more to digest.” she said. “In 2006, after I saw the movie Inconvenient Truth and became very upset about the unremitting degradation of our planet, I took my personal concerns about our environmental situation public. I started speaking out and posting environmental news on my website. In 2007, I even announced a commitment to adopt an acre of rainforest every time I sat in my racecar.” (Leilani admits that offsetting is not a complete, long-term solution, but, for now, it helps to counteract the unavoidable impact from her racing.)
“The more that I learned about our environmental challenges, the more that my racing website ended up covered in facts about renewable energy, electric cars, alternative fuels, green buildings, plant based diets, and environmental legislation,” she went on. “The reaction that I got from the racing community and the public was strong from both sides of the fence. Once I got past the personal attacks, I realized that my actions were stimulating a dialogue about climate action within the NASCAR crowd—I guarantee you that was the first time that the NASCAR audience had entered into a public debate about parts per million (PPM) of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which made me smile. I had started a dialogue, and that’s the first step to facilitating change.”
Münter is a strong supporter of plant-based diets (she is a vegan), electric vehicles (she is a proud Tesla owner and says that she will never go back to owning a fossil-fuel powered vehicle), and total solar proliferation. She is aggressively pushing the racing industry to develop clean, electric solutions that provide speed without burning fossil fuels.
She was told by many people in the racing industry that she was making a big mistake by combining her passion for racing with a solid, vocal commitment to environmental activism. “I was told to shut up, drive my car, and plug my sponsors,” she said. “Marketing experts told me that by talking about political and environmental issues, I would alienate myself from companies that might want to sponsor my race car—companies with CEOs that don’t believe in climate change. And I said to them, screw you, watch me.”
Münter doesn’t waste any opportunity to talk about what she believes in, even if it means that she’ll get sidelined (as a case in point, she was recently banned from SeaWorld properties indefinitely for bringing roses and a sign to mourn the death of Tilikum, the 35-year old orca held in captivity at SeaWorld in Florida, whose story was told in the popular documentary Blackfish.) If a sponsor doesn’t want to support her cause of caring for the planet, she doesn’t want said sponsor.
Fortunately, Münter is able to work with a spectrum of sponsors that are, like her, committed to climate action, including companies in the recycled paper, solar, wind, and LED lighting sectors, as well as important environmental documentaries like The Cove and Blackfish.
In 2014, her pit became the first in history to utilize 100% solar power. “We quickly found out that there are some unexpected benefits to using solar. For example, our crew no longer had to yell over the generators, which is a competitive advantage.”
Her race car is now a 200 mile-per-hour billboard to promote shifts in our behavior. Her goal is to inspire race fans to rethink their daily choices and reduce their environmental footprint. “Just because race fans love racing does not mean that they don’t care about planet earth,” asserts Münter. “Liking fast cars and caring about clean air and clean water are not mutually exclusive.”
She is on a mission to clean the sport of racing. She hopes to soon shift to a new electric race car (a modified version of the Tesla Model S,) which will give her the speed she loves without burning any fossil fuels.
Her goals are bold. “I won’t stop until I see every race track powered by 100% renewable energy, every sponsor taking responsibility for their impact on the environment, every racing tire recycled, every race car abandoning fossil fuels for electricity or alternative fuels, and every race track concession stand offering vegan options.”
Münter’s biology background makes hers particularly interested in—and motivated by—the science of our changing planet. “Scientists predict that the human footprint on our planet may cause the loss of half the world’s species by the end of the century. We’re undergoing the sixth mass extinction that our planet has ever experienced. We’re in a new geological period, the Anthropocene, which translates into ‘The age of man.’ Human impact on the planet has become so extensive that that we are actually changing our fossil record.”
Nonetheless, Münter is hopeful about the future. She believes that solar, vegan diets, and electric vehicles are pivotal in solving our climate crises, and she is encouraged by the fact that it only takes 10% of the population to back an idea to reach a tipping point that makes that idea inevitable.
Be sure to check out Münter at her most recent race, the ARCA Racing Series at the Daytona International Speedway, where she is racing a car that celebrates her passion for veganism, www.VegasPowered.org, sponsored by Plants4Hunger and fielded by Venturini Motorsports.
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