How Leilani Munter Uses Racing To Raise Environmental Awareness

Leilani Munter is a driver for Venturini Motorsports in the ARCA Racing Series, and some environmentalists consider that a betrayal. Courtesy of Alex Krohn

Leilani Munter positions herself behind the steering wheel of her sleek, silver-colored Tesla Model S and excitedly talks about the quietness, the performance and the pleasure she derives from driving her electric car. She switches on the heated seats on this cold winter day and immediately demonstrates her car's quick acceleration. A few minutes later she's parked in front of a coffee shop, and upon walking into the business she takes delight in the employees' reaction to the wording on her North Carolina license plate: EFF Oil.

"I had applied for EFF U Oil, but I got a letter from the DMV saying no," Munter said with a laugh. "Then I filed for EFF Oil and that one went through."

An environmental activist, the 5-foot-3 Munter touts herself as a "carbon-free girl" in her unlikely profession of auto racing. When she isn't campaigning for the environment, she's racing a Toyota for Venturini Motorsports in the ARCA Racing Series, a profession many environmentalists view as a betrayal.

"I try to explain to them that I could give up racing cars and race a bicycle or something that's not burning fossil fuels, but my ability to reach a new demographic goes away," Munter said. "I think most of them get it, but there will always be people on the hard-core side who will never accept me because I drive a race car."

A vegetarian since childhood and a vegan since 2011, Munter guarantees a segment of the environment benefits every time she steps into a race car. When she is involved in a test session or a race, she adopts an acre of rain forest. She also supports coral reefs and ocean preservation projects. Last month at Daytona, her team used a solar-powered pit box for the ARCA season opener.

Solar power also charges Munter's electric car when she uses Tesla supercharger stations during her travels. Last year, she drove her electric car from North Carolina to Chicagoland Speedway to demonstrate that long trips are possible with that type of vehicle. In February, before leaving on her trip from North Carolina to Daytona, she publicized her route and visited with fans for 15 minutes when she stopped at a Tesla supercharger station.

"I haven't been to a gas station in a year and a half," said Munter, 41. "The only time I go to a gas station now is if I want to buy a lottery ticket."

Munter and husband Craig Davidson, an engineer for Irwin Industrial Tools and a New Zealand native, have solar panels on their house in Cornelius, North Carolina. They also collect rainwater in a 550-gallon tank -- which they use to water their vegetable garden in the summer -- and make compost from their food scraps. The electricity generated by the solar panels charges Munter's car and benefits their neighbors by connecting to the grid. Any of their excess power goes to the houses surrounding them.

So what drives Munter to race? Simply the excitement the sport provides. A self-described adrenaline junkie, Munter was drawn to racing in 2001 after acquiring her biology degree from the University of California-San Diego. She had attended a racing school at Southern California's Auto Club Speedway in 2000, and a local team owner who watched her performance encouraged her to compete at the area's short tracks.

It took Munter nine months to acquire her first sponsor, and it was another nine months before she drove in her first race. Racing became so important to Munter that she turned down an opportunity to be the photo and stunt double for Catherine Zeta-Jones in the movie "Ocean's Twelve." Munter had performed those duties for Zeta-Jones in "Traffic" and "America's Sweethearts."

In 2003, Munter made her debut in the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series at South Boston (Virginia) Speedway. She also has competed in ROMCO super late models, USRA super late models, ASA and the Indy Lights series.

She made her ARCA debut at Daytona in 2010 with a 39th-place finish. Her best ARCA finishes occurred last year when she placed 12th at Chicago and Kansas. She was 38th at Daytona this year.

The four races she competed in last year were the most she's driven in a single season since moving to ARCA. She hopes to have funding for the May 1 ARCA race at Talladega and would like to put together financial support for the remainder of the season.

"She has talent in driving a race car; she has raw speed," said Billy Venturini, co-owner and competition director of Venturini Motorsports. "...She needs to be in a car more often because the intangibles are probably a little difficult for her. She needs a little bit of work on restarts, getting through traffic, pit stops, things that are repetition stuff. She shows promise; she just needs to be racing more."

Venturini believes if she could race in eight to 10 events during a season, she would "improve dramatically."

When not racing, Munter attends environmental conferences and renewable-energy events. If that entails visiting government officials, she doesn't hesitate. Her most recent trip to Washington, D.C., with the Solutions Project took her to a renewable energy meeting with Vice President Joe Biden. And when there was a bill in the North Carolina legislature that would have banned the selling of Tesla cars in the state, she headed for Raleigh to meet with the joint legislative women's caucus.

Dedication to the environment has earned Munter ELLE magazine's Genius Award, the distinction of being named the world's No. 1 eco athlete by Discovery's "Planet Green," and the honor of being called "an eco-hero" by Glamour magazine. Before heading to Daytona last month for the ARCA season opener, she attended the Sundance Film Festival for the premiere of "Racing Extinction," a documentary film in which she stars.

For one so passionate about environmental issues, it would seem the electric-car Formula E series might have some appeal. The series, viewed as the possible future of motorsports, made its debut last September.

"If the opportunity was there, I would consider it, certainly, but I really like what I have going in stock cars, where I am not preaching to the choir,'' Munter said. "...My whole goal is to bring these messages about the environment and clean energy to the place where you least expect it.''

A native of Rochester, Minnesota, Munter wasn't always so open about her environmental stance. When she first moved to North Carolina about nine years ago, she worked diligently to be accepted by the racing community, shying away from telling people she was a vegetarian and an environmentalist. Eventually, she embraced her identity and became vocal about environmental issues despite being told it could alienate her from companies that might want to sponsor her.

Instead, Munter has found environmental projects such as Green and Save, Dolphin Project/The Cove, PrairieGold Solar and Energy Freedom to sponsor her. And she even purchases vegan food for her race team.

"There's a sports bar across the street from Kansas Speedway that has a section on its menu that's all vegan meat," Munter said. "We had a rainout, so I told my crew since it was getting close to lunch I was going to run across the street to get some vegan chicken wings. Their faces were horrified.

"...I put the chicken wings in all four haulers and I go to the drivers' meeting. When I came back all of them were gone. ... To me, those little messages are a victory."

One of Munter's goals this year is to run a vegan-sponsored race car with a food-sampling tent set up outside the track for the fans.

"We're in the middle of this big shift right now in the way that we're living," Munter said. "I feel like our purpose, this generation, it's our duty to help us adapt and shift the way we're living and utilize the intelligence that we have as a human species to adapt so we're not destroying everything around us."