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Meet the vegan 'hippie chick' NASCAR driver

"Never underestimate a vegan hippie chick with a racecar." So goes Leilani Münter’s motto. Our wide-ranging, two-hour interview certainly confirmed that I would never, ever underestimate Münter about anything. This includes her crusade to bring sustainability, as well as vegan diets, to the auto-racing world. 

GreenSportsBlog: I have to admit I’m intrigued that I’m talking to a "vegan, hippie chick with a race car." How did this come about?

Leilani Münter: Well, as far back as I can remember, growing up in Rochester, Minnesota, I was concerned about animals. I’m not sure how old I was — was very young — I remember a little boy, out of boredom, smashing an anthill. I thought, “How could you do that? That was someone’s house!” We had horses that we boarded on a farm out in the country so I was interacting with cows, chickens, and pigs. I was confused as to why our society would decide it was OK to keep dogs and cats as pets but that other animals — with just as much personality — could be slaughtered for humans to eat. So I’ve been a vegetarian almost my whole life, becoming a vegan in 2011. There are three things that give me hope for our future: Solar power, electric cars and veganism.

GSB: Were you an athlete or into sports growing up?

Münter: I did do gymnastics but my life was really outside: snowboarded; got certified scuba diving in high school; rode horses.

A lightbulb went off as I realized I could be a bridge between the race fans and the environmentalists. Racing gave me a voice.

GSB:  How did you get into racecar driving? Your outdoorsy life doesn’t scream "NASCAR" to me.

Münter: It started with a bucket list I began in high school. Jumping out of an airplane — check! Swimming with a Great White Shark — that will be checked off in May when I am in South Africa. I still want to scuba dive at the Great Barrier Reef

GSB: You’d better get to that one quickly. It’s on the road to extinction thanks to ocean acidification due to the historic levels of atmospheric carbon since the industrial revolution.

Münter: I know. And driving a racecar was on the bucket list.

GSB: Were you a racing fan growing up?

Münter: Not at all — I’m not a sports fan. I am not a good spectator — I like to participate, not watch. And I was drawn to the idea of going fast.

GSB: When did you first get into a racecar?

Münter: I went to racing school in Southern California in 2000. There were about 40 drivers in the class — I was the only woman — and I became the quickest car on the track.

GSB: What brought you out west?

Münter: Well, I went to college at UC San Diego — I earned a degree in biology, specializing in ecology, behavior and evolution there. After college I was doing a bunch of different things, including working as a photo double, standing in for Catherine Zeta-Jones.

GSB: How does one go from racing school to actually getting on a NASCAR circuit?

Münter: In my case, a local NASCAR regional team owner approached me at the racing school and said I showed talent and, as a woman driver with natural ability for speed, I might be able to find sponsorship dollars. Without that, I couldn’t go anywhere. The next week I started approaching sports marketing companies and about nine months later, I found a sponsor and ran my first race — Saturday night short track racing. I challenged for the lead in my first race and became hooked. Being the only female was certainly part of the motivation for me.

GSB: How did your fellow male drivers react to you?

Münter: Some were welcoming. Some were mean and nasty — another motivator.

GSB: So I get the bucket list aspect of driving a racecar. But how did you, environmental activist, justify to yourself the insanely high carbon footprint of auto racing? Shouldn’t you have been protesting the sport?

Münter: My goal became to bring green to the racetrack and to racing fans. Because in the environmental movement, in the animal rights movement, we are always preaching to the converted. We have to get people who don’t agree with us — yet — but in a non-confrontational, "I’m-right-you’re-wrong" kind of way. We have to bring it to where they live.

GSB: So you became the Eco-Vegan-Chick with a racecar?

Münter:: Eventually. First I moved to North Carolina in 2002 to pursue the sport — Charlotte is where NASCAR teams are headquartered — started racing late models, super late models, NASCAR Elite division and then the ARCA Racing circuit — a stepping stone to NASCAR itself. I also raced open wheel in Indy Lights.

In 2006, motivated by Al Gore’s documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," I dedicated my career to greening auto racing.

GSB: How did you go about that?

Münter: One of the first things I did was to let my fans know on my website that I was going green and a curious thing happened. One guy got pissed off that I was promoting "An Inconvenient Truth" on my website and specifically about Al Gore, called me names, said I was spewing "left-wing propaganda." Then a questioner on the thread asked if the guy had seen the film. By the end of the thread, people were actually discussing climate change. I mean, racing fans were talking about parts-per-million of atmospheric carbon on a NASCAR thread. A lightbulb went off as I realized I could be a bridge between the race fans and the environmentalists and all of a sudden my career change from biology to racing made sense. Racing gave me a voice.

GSB: That’s amazing! How did your environmental-movement friends react to your being a racecar driver?

Münter: Some people in the environmental movement can’t accept auto racing or the people who follow it. Of course, I share their concerns about carbon footprint, so in 2007 I made the commitment to adopt and protect an acre of rainforest for every race I run to offset the carbon footprint of my car. After sharing this publicly, I got this great comment from a classic NASCAR fan: He needed to get his wife a birthday present and, after reading my story, he decided to adopt and acre of rainforest to protect in her name.

GSB: That is too cool. But I’ve got to believe that, especially back in 2006-2007, human-caused climate change denial or skepticism was prevalent among NASCAR fans.

LM: Oh, of course, you’re right. That was the case for a lot of the world, not just racing.

GSB: How has your crew reacted to being on the "vegan, eco hippie chick’s" racing team?

Münter: They’ve been terrific. Great story: We were at a race in Kansas City. Now our race team isn’t small — we have four drivers and four crews so there’s about 50 guys on my team. I brought vegan chicken wings from a sports bar to the team at the track and they were blown away; they all loved them and some of them have even started to eat the vegan meat substitutes instead of real meat after tasting how good it was.

The companies that are on my cars are companies that are like-minded: renewable energy like solar and wind companies; LED lighting; recycling companies.

GSB: That’s great  —  so the team’s on board. How has it been to get sponsors?

Münter:: That has been the hardest part of this whole journey. I don’t work with any fossil fuel companies (no coal, no oil, no natural gas), I don’t work with any companies that use fur, meat or dairy in their products and I also will not work with any companies that test on animals. The companies that are on my cars are companies that are like-minded: renewable energy like solar and wind companies; LED lighting; recycling companies. …

GSB: Which reflects your values. I read that your home is powered by solar panels, features a 550-gallon rainwater collection system, solar and LED lights and, of course, has a vegetable garden. To my mind, you are a perfect evocation of the 100% Sport (#Go100Percent) ethos — athletes and sports teams commit to powering their homes, stadia and arenas with electricity generated from 100 percent clean sources. But I digress. Back to finding mission-appropriate sponsors…

Münter: I’ve also crowd funded to run a couple of eco-documentaries on my car: "The Cove" and "Blackfish." But a lot of the smaller companies I’ve worked with have small budgets. So my biggest challenge is simply to get to the starting line —  to go to Daytona or Talladega with a quality team and testing costs around $125,000.


GSB: Have you had any big-bucks companies interested in you?

Münter: Yes, but I’ve had to walk away a few times because the environmental records of the companies were not in line with what I felt comfortable promoting. After the BP Oil Spill in 2010, a multi-million dollar sponsorship opportunity came to me for an open wheel circuit. But my heart dropped when I found out that the CEO wanted me to dial back my criticism of the oil industry.

GSB: Why?

Münter: I don’t know why because they didn’t produce any oil products, but I had just gotten back from visiting the site of the BP spill. So I had to walk away.

GSB: You can’t make this stuff up. How much has this hurt your career?

Münter: Certainly, it has set me back as a racecar driver. I had a chance to be in a car full-time, which would’ve allowed me to make it to the upper levels of my sport. But I’m not going to promote something I don’t believe in.

GSB: Are you bitter?

Münter: Not at all. Even though I’m not on track very often, racing has amplified my voice tremendously. And I have not given up. My next thing is to get sponsors for a vegan-themed car and to have a tent giving away vegan food at the race. I’m working on getting sponsors.

I’m not going to promote something I don’t believe in.

GSB: How have your on-track results been recently?

Münter: Last time I raced was 2015 at Daytona, and I got in a wreck. Physically I was OK from the crash, but it turned out that I had pretty severe carbon monoxide poisoning. I was lucky that I was in the wreck or I would have never seen the doctor and been diagnosed.

GSB: Have you thought about Formula-E, the two-year old electric vehicle racing circuit?

Münter: Formula-E is open wheel and is overseas and I have spent most of my career in the stock car world so that’s not really my wheelhouse. In the United States, NASCAR is far more popular and that is where I can make the most difference as an activist. I do drive my Tesla Model S to and from all my races and the race fans love my Tesla; they often ask me at the track if they can see it.

GSB: Speaking of Tesla, I understand you’ve been involved with vegan and eco-themed documentary films, including one that featured Tesla co-founder and CEO and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk

Münter: I worked as a volunteer for activist Ric O’Barry, who is featured in "The Cove." It won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2009 — on the brutal dolphin hunting practices in Japan. I ran a racecar at Daytona featuring "The Cove" in 2012 and in 2014 I raced a "Blackfish" car at Talladega.

GSB: "Blackfish" being the 2013 documentary about the harsh treatment of orca whales at Seaworld and other places like it, correct?

Münter: Yes. I was crowdfunding the car but hadn’t raised much money, until Sam Simon, the late "Simpsons" co-creator, sponsored the car. He came all the way to Talladega to cheer for me even though he was already very ill with cancer.

GSB: I had heard about Simon’s role. So sad. I saw the movie —  it basically changed the way the Seaworlds of the world do business.

Münter: That’s right, they’re not going to breed orcas anymore.

GSB: Talk about "Racing Extinction," the 2015 documentary about how humans are causing the sixth mass extinction in recorded history — with the fifth extinction being the dinosaurs. You were in that film.

Münter: Yes. My role was to drive a highly modified Tesla with a very powerful projector on it which allowed us to project images of species that are now extinct or going extinct due to human activity. We projected on to buildings like the Empire State Building and the United Nations building in New York to show to masses of people what is happening. The car also has electroluminescent paint and a high-definition FLIR (Forward Looking Infra-Red) camera with a very special color filter on it that comes out of the front of the car and has the ability to make methane and carbon dioxide visible to the human eye.

GSB: And Elon Musk was also in the film?

Münter: After director Louie Psihoyos told me what he wanted me to do, I knew the car we used in the film had to be a Tesla. So I took Louie to SpaceX and introduced him to Elon and then we filmed at the Tesla factory a few times. When I took my first test drive with Elon in the Model S, I immediately decided that my next car was going to be a Tesla Model S and I absolutely love my car.

GSB: I saw "Racing Extinction" —  GreenSportsBlog readers, you must see this film; you can rent it from iTunes. This is not a plug for Apple, by the way. It’s just so worth your 90 minutes and $5. What’s next?

Münter: Well, in February I worked with the non-profit Sustainable America on a video about food waste. In the U.S. we throw away 40 percent of the food that gets produced and people are hungry.

GSB: That is something that we must improve upon. When and where will be able to see that film?

Münter: It will be coming out online. I would suggest following Sustainable America on social media and you’ll be sure to find it.

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