Taking the wheel for green change
For former stock car racer Leilani Münter, plastering her cars with graphics trumpeting the virtues of veganism and warning of the threat of mass extinction made them the ultimate vehicles for influencing public policy on the ground.
“That race car was what allowed me to talk about these issues that I cared about with the environment and animal rights to a group of people, a demographic of people, that weren’t really hearing that message,” Münter told The Hill.
The 48-year-old environmental activist — whose advocacy has extended to the halls of Congress and the United Nations — didn’t always dream of a future on the racetrack. A longtime animal lover, vegetarian and eventual vegan, Münter said she initially assumed she would become a marine biologist.
“Biology was kind of a natural choice for me,” she said in a recent interview with The Hill.
Münter earned a biology degree from the University of California, San Diego, but, along the way, she changed gears.
“One of the things that was on my bucket list was to drive a race car because I was always getting in trouble for speeding,” she said.
After graduating from college, Münter worked as a stunt double for Catherine Zeta-Jones and saved enough money to enroll in racing school, which she said took her “down a completely different road from biology.”
Her first race was in 2001 in Southern California, where she finished fourth, according to her website bio.
In the 18 years before she retired in 2019, she raced in the Allison Legacy, NASCAR Weekly Racing, ROMCO Super Late Models, USRA Super Late Models, ASA, NASCAR Elite Division, the ARCA Racing Series and the Indy Pro Series.
While she always tried to incorporate sustainable practices into her life, Münter said what specifically spurred her to activism was the 2006 film “An Inconvenient Truth,” which struck a chord with both her and her now-husband.
“It was no longer enough to just talk about the environment and nice things that we cared about, just to family and friends,” Münter said. “I needed to somehow try and use my place as a driver to address them.”
Münter said she pledged to adopt an acre of rainforest every time she sat in her race car. Carbon-offsetting, she explained, was the only way that she could address the fossil fuels she was burning while racing, since switching energy sources wasn’t an option.
“I ended up adopting over 1,500 acres of rainforest over my career,” Münter said, adding that most recently, she is doing so through the Rainforest Trust.
Her fuel usage — about 30 gallons per race, across 61 lifetime races — was small in comparison to what she would have been using in her daily life, had she been driving a gasoline-based car at home, Münter said. She has driven the same Tesla — which recently hit 100,000 miles — since 2013.
“I started driving to all my races in 2014 with my electric car, and I would invite the race fans to join me at the charging stations along the way so they could see an electric car in person,” Münter said.
Although today there are a few electric racing series, they have yet to gain the mass popularity of traditional racing.
Throughout her racing career, Münter said she prioritized sponsorships from environmental companies and groups. She also ran ads — through crowdfunding — for the 2009 Oscar-winning film “The Cove” and the 2013 film “Blackfish.”
And at one point she had a “vegan-themed car,” from which she distributed vegan cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets to fans.
“It was really my vehicle to reach people,” Münter said. “Once I retired, I lost that. I lost that billboard.”
But her environmental activism continues today, even though she’s no longer behind the wheel.
Münter first became an ambassador for the National Wildlife Federation in 2008, advocating for clean energy legislation on Capitol Hill. She began working in 2012 with the Oceanic Preservation Society — the makers of “The Cove” — on their film “Racing Extinction,” which explores mankind’s contribution to mass extinction.
She has also spoken about extinction to the United Nations in Geneva and at its New York headquarters, where she projected footage of disappearing species on the building’s exterior during the 2014 climate march.
Much more effective than presenting “a bunch of numbers” is getting people to “feel something for the individual animal,” according to Münter.
Münter strives to ensure that her actions speak for her beliefs, including generating solar power, recycling collected rainwater, cultivating a vegetable garden and composting at her North Carolina home.
She and her husband have also decided to not have children, due to their concerns that the world’s population growth may be unsustainable. Today, she said, the planet is incurring a net growth of about 81 million people annually, or a billion people every 12 years.
“Just in my lifetime, the population has nearly doubled from 4 to 8 billion,” Münter said.
While emissions-reducing behaviors do help, she expressed doubt that these efforts would be sufficient “to combat the overall driving force behind species extinction and habitat destruction, and climate change and ocean acidification and pollution.”
“All those things are increased when we continue to increase our numbers,” Münter said.
But even when couples do choose to have children, Münter said that deciding to have small families “can make a really big difference over time.” On a personal level, she said she receives a lot of angry comments about her choice to not have kids.
“Racing probably prepared me for it because I grew very thick skin as a female driver in a sport that’s mostly men,” Münter said. “By the time I started speaking about population, I had developed that sort of ability to not take those insults too personally.”
In addition to talking about population, some of her current work includes advocating for electric cars in North Carolina, as well as fighting against efforts to reduce subsidies for solar rooftops in states including Nevada and California.
“I am a big believer in doing everything you can, whether that’s volunteering and knocking on the doors of Congress and asking them to make big policy changes — or just making that change in your own backyard,” Münter said.
Looking back at her choices, Münter said she feels like racing helped her become a more effective activist than she ever could have been as a scientist.
“You can’t expect a NASCAR fan to show up at an environmental-level film festival,” she added. “But if I put the environmental film on the hood of my race car, then they might be inclined to watch the film.”
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