Leilani Munter - Environmentalist-Vegetarian Race Car Driver

The former stunt double for Catherine Zeta-Jones brings an eco-friendly message to racing fans, and to Congress. Leilani Munter is looking to use the popularity of NASCAR to teach fans about global warming

Friday - December 05, 2008
By Chad Pata
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Drivers would be mistaken to be fooled by Munter’s softer side

ferent, you might have a better shot at getting sponsors to help you.’”

The next day she went down to a sports agency and learned the hard lesson that success in the racing world is the same as in Hollywood or Nashville: It is 1 percent glamour and 99 percent being a vacuum cleaner salesman.

“It’s nine months and a thousand doors and a thousand phone calls and how many sponsor meetings, then you get one yes and you get to go race for a little while,” says Munter.“Then you go back to raising money.You’ve got to really love it to do it; you have to be so dedicated to put up with everything else just so you can get in the car.”

Once the racing world saw her, she became an instant hit racing in the little brother (or is it sister?) of NASCAR, the ARCA Series. Publications as disparate as The New York Times toEsquire magazine to Sports Illustrated were writing about the attractive and competitive new girl crashing the boys’party.


 

“It is really cool the first time you hear the starter, because he has to change the words for me,” says Munter. “Instead of ‘Gentlemen, start your engines,’ it is ‘Lady and gentlemen, start your engines.’ For me, I had already won because they had to acknowledge me.”

Raising sponsors was increasingly difficult for Munter. Because of her core beliefs about the environment, the Exxons and Chevrons that so dominate the racing world would never be allowed on any vehicle that Munter would drive.

“Because I am so involved in the environmental world, I don’t just take money from anybody,” says Munter. “I vet each sponsor I am working with to ensure their environmental practices are solid.I can’t bring my environmental message to the 100 million racing fans in America and feel OK about it if I am doing it with a company that is not being responsible with the environment.”

Munter and fellow driver Richie Hearn take a moment prior to qualifying for her second start in the Indy Pro Series

Ideally she would like to have several smaller sponsors rather than a major sponsor, as that would give her the autonomy to put environmental messages on her car. In the primary sponsorship areas she would like to bring a new message to each race,like one race a CFL light bulb, and the next “No Plastic No Paper,“to encourage the use of canvas shopping bags.

“After the race, during the interview with ESPN or Speed Channel, I will ask the fans to go home and just change out one light bulb, or all the light bulbs in their homes,” says Munter.“The impact that could have - it is not a big thing if one person does that, but you multiply that by 100 million race fans in the U.S., that is a huge impact.”

Her new celebrity status also is opening doors for her outside the racing world,joining the cause with Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio in the battle against global warming. The National Wildlife Federation has named her as its ambassador for the Global Warming Initiative, which entails lobbying before Congress.

This begs the question: Which is more frightening, taking a turn at 200 mph or standing and speaking before the men and women who control the future of this country?

“When you drive a race car, you never really have any fear or else you wouldn’t be driving it,“says Munter, who has switched to racing in the Indy Pro Series in 2007. “You would get out of the car pretty quick if you were thinking about the dangers.

“But going before Congress is scary the first time. I talk about the environment to my friends and family all day long,but then I was standing there with the senators,and these are the people it really matters to be telling these things to.

Munter won’t work with just any sponsor. Companies also must be environmentally conscious

“At first that was really intimidating; this guy’s vote will affect the future of renewable energy in the United States! Not exactly the same as hanging out with your neighbor drinking a beer, talking about how solar panels are the future!”

The bill she was lobbying for was the Climate Security Act, asking Congress to put a cap on carbon emissions that would be reduced by 2 percent a year for the next 40 years.

President Bush promised to veto the bill if it passed, and with several key senators out on the campaign trail, the bill had little chance this go round.

“But we environmentalists are very excited about the results of this last election,” says Munter, who hopes to see a similar version of the bill reintroduced next year.

Meanwhile the racing world she hopes to turn 100 percent green is coming around a little bit. As she puts it,“it is like trying to turn the Titanic.” Yet NASCAR officially changed from leaded to unleaded gas, and the IndyCar Series is now using 100 percent ethanol for its cars, so progress is being made.


Meanwhile, Munter is going to keep on competing, and with her success will come more publicity for her worthy cause - just don’t expect her to compromise her values for a few more mph.

“I would love to win, but I would never abandon my message to do it,” says Munter. “If I had an opportunity to get in a great car but it was the George W. Bush mobile-Drill-Baby-Drill car, I would not drive it.

“It is a huge opportunity for me to carry the environmental message to them, ‘cause I don’t know how many other people are going to want to do it. I feel like they will listen to me ‘cause I am there at the track driving. The message is too important to me, but of course I want to win in the car with the message on it, ‘cause then how many people are going to change out their light bulbs when the CFL light bulb car is sitting in victory lane?”

 

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