Leilani Munter is an accomplished race car driver who is rather unique in her industry. She’s an environmental activist who offsets her carbon footprint for each race, lobbies before Congress on behalf of environmental issues, and travels the world to protect the planet when it needs her help. She’s a vegetarian to boot! Leilani doesn’t make hollow eco-claims, though; she’s a woman of her word whose actions speak loudest.
Leilani’s slogan — “never underestimate a vegetarian hippie chick with a race car” — is a fine summary for this eco-athlete and model, but I wanted to learn more about this unique talent. Her accomplishments have landed her on 14 magazine covers and on the pages of USA Today, the New York Times, Italian Vogue, Esquire, ESPN, Men’s Journal, Newsweek, Glamour, Reader’s Digest, Vanity Fair, and the Washington Post. Sports Illustrated named her one of the top 10 female race car drivers in the world. And now, she can call herself a ‘Heroine for the Planet,’ as well.
Leilani shared with me the origins of her passion for the planet, her experiences at the BP oil spill, the commitment she’s made to stop dolphin slaughter in Japan, and her thoughts on the United States’ energy policy. We even talked about whether her sport will someday make a transition to electric vehicles.
Lindsay: Pleasure to meet you, Leilani. So, I’m very curious, how does a gal from Minnesota who graduated college with a biology degree become a professional race car driver?
Leilani: I’ve always been an adrenaline junkie. As a kid I rode horses and did gymnastics and in high school I became a scuba diver. More recently I started skydiving, so I think I have always had a natural attraction to things that really get your heart pumping, which would explain my natural attraction to racing. Eventually I went to a racing school, as something to knock off my bucket list, and while I was there a race team owner noticed that I had some natural abilities in the car and encouraged me to pursue racing professionally. That short conversation changed my life and I’ve never looked back.
Lindsay: You’re an ardent environmentalist as well as a vegetarian. When did you develop such a connection to the environment? What’s one of your go-to vegetarian meals to fuel up for a big race?
Leilani: I grew up riding horses in Minnesota, so I was raised around nature and animals. While I was earning my degree in biology, I was a volunteer at a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center. I became vegetarian because of a compassion for other living creatures, I looked at animals as my friends and I wasn’t going to eat them. Of course, the environmental benefits of being vegetarian and the health benefits are also wonderful, but my primary reason is because of how awfully these animals are treated. I think that it is obvious that the way people are living on this planet is not sustainable and that it’s time for us to adapt to renewable energy and to make kinder, more eco-conscious choices in our day to day lives, including what we put on our dinner plate. With 7 billion people on our planet and a growth rate of 250,000 people per day, our daily choices have a big impact on our earth.
As far as meals before a race, I work out more when I am preparing for a race, so I like to fill up on a vegetarian pasta or risotto. I always make sure we have veggie burgers and lots of fruit and veggies to snack on at the track. Besides juice, I also like rice, soy and almond milk.
Lindsay: You’ve made a commitment to purchase an acre of rainforest for every race you run to offset your carbon footprint. How many acres have you purchased thus far?
Leilani: I started that program back in 2007, so I have many acres by now. If I was at home I could count all the certificates I have in my office; I get one for every acre, but I am traveling, so I will have to guess that the number is somewhere around twenty.
Lindsay: You’re incredibly involved with environmental policy and you’ve even spoken before Congress on behalf of climate issues. What are your thoughts on our current environmental/energy policy?
Leilani: We need to get away from fossil fuels and move towards clean renewable energy sources from the wind, the sun, the ocean, geothermal, and biofuels. The United States currently spends $1 billion per day on foreign oil and we don’t have enough oil reserves in the United States to last us more than three and a half years at our current rate of consumption, which is why that “drill, baby, drill” line is so ridiculous. Green jobs in the form of renewable energy are waiting to be created, but we need Washington to act now to phase out the old fossil fuel economy, cut subsidies for oil and coal, and reward clean renewable energy that will create thousands of jobs here in the U.S. We need a smart grid to support electric cars, infrastructure for cars running on alternative fuels, and green buildings utilizing energy efficient systems and capturing solar and wind wherever we can and being able to send that energy captured back into the electrical grid.
Lindsay: Tell us a bit about your site, CarbonFreeGirl.com. Where do you envision it going?
Leilani: I will be launching a new campaign with Carbon Free Girl towards the end of 2011, and I don’t want to give away what we’re doing, but it’s going to be powerful, interactive, and we are going to reach a lot of people in mainstream America with it. I’m really excited about it, but we are not ready to reveal what we are doing just yet.
Lindsay: You were one of the first activists to visit the BP oil spill. What was that experience like? What are your thoughts on the big oil companies?
Leilani: I went to the oil spill twice last summer and on my first trip, I arrived only 10 days after the Deepwater Horizon sank. There was one particular moment on that trip that I will never forget: I was 75 miles away from where the Deepwater Horizon went down and I was floating in the Gulf of Mexico and all I could see from horizon to horizon was crude oil. As an environmentalist, the enormity of that sight… it knocked the wind out of me. I made a vow that day that I would never own another gas powered vehicle and I am shopping around for an electric car now.
I have had people in racing tell me I shouldn’t pick a fight with big oil. Because the big oil companies are extremely powerful and they are tough to fight, but that’s what we need to do. It’s David versus Goliath. The top five oil companies spend $150 million every year on 750 full time lobbyists that live in DC working to get the laws written in their favor. I go up to DC and lobby for clean energy but we don’t have that kind of money or power.
I’ll tell you one thing I am extremely angry about and that is what Exxon did to the fishermen in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez spill. Their lawyers fought for two decades and got the settlement for the fishermen reduced from $5 billion to just $500 million – pennies on the dollar – and by the time the legal war was over, 20 percent of the fishermen Exxon owed money to were already dead. We have to make sure BP doesn’t get away with that in the Gulf. We need the people to stand up and fight. We need to take to the streets and protest, we need this to change and it’s the people who need to make it happen, but they have to get angry enough and feel empowered enough to do that.
Lindsay: Dolphin activist Ric O’Barry’s documentary The Cove touched so many of us and shed light on an issue which many Americans were previously unaware of. I’ve read that you actually stood in Tokyo, next to Ric O’Barry, to deliver a petition signed by 1.7 million people from 151 countries asking for the dolphin slaughter to end. Are you still involved with this movement?
Leilani: Yes, I am very involved. I went to Taiji twice last year during the dolphin hunt and documented two slaughters while I was there. It was horrific and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of the dolphins in the Cove. Just last week I organized a benefit screening of The Cove in San Rafael, CA, with the California Film Institute. Ric O’Barry and director Louie Psihoyos were both there and they did a question and answer after the movie and then my brother-in-law, Bob Weir (from the Grateful Dead) played an acoustic set and all the money raised went to Ric O’Barry and Save Japan Dolphin’s efforts to end the slaughter in Japan. I will be returning to Taiji with Ric O’Barry when the hunting season begins again in September and will continue to do so until the waters of the cove rest in peace.
Leilani: It was quite an honor. I didn’t even know about it until I started getting messages on Facebook and Twitter from people who had seen it. I was surprised and totally honored. I love Discovery Channel and Planet Green. There is a short video playing now on Planet Green about my eco-education efforts in racing called “Fast Forward.”
Lindsay: Will your sport ever make a transition to electric vehicles?
Leilani: I know there are electric racing series in the works, and there is already an electric drag racing league on the West Coast. I don’t know if I see NASCAR or IndyCar going electric because at this point the batteries are very heavy and can’t last long enough for our races. I think the much more realistic option is biofuels which we have already made the move to. IndyCar has been running on 100 percent ethanol for several years, NASCAR is running a 15 percent mix this year, and the American Le Mans Series has the Green Racing Challenge where they have some cars running on second generation cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel. For decades racing has been used for innovation in safety and fuel efficiency and that technology eventually makes it from the racetrack to our street cars. Let’s put these racing engineers to work on alternative fuels and efficiency in the engines!
Lindsay: You’ve even been a model for Lucky Jeans! You’re an eco renaissance woman! I’m dying to know what your beauty regimen is. Can you recommend any great natural products to our readers?
Leilani: I moisturize every day and only wear make up when needed, not everyday and when I do, the products I use are organic, natural, and cruelty-free cosmetics. There are plenty of lists of these types of products: Google is your best friend. I just try to live healthy, eat healthy (and cruelty-free!) and get outside and be active whether it’s riding my bike or swimming or just working in my vegetable garden. I enjoy being outdoors and I think that is a more natural state for humans than sitting at a desk all day under artificial lighting in front of a computer. Sometimes I grab my computer and take it outside and work on my porch, just so I can feel more connected to the outdoors. It’s too easy to remove yourself from nature completely these days, and I don’t think that’s good for our beauty – inside or out!