Posted on in The Interview by Rob Sidon



Leilani Münter was born in Minnesota in 1974, the youngest of four sisters. Her father was a doctor and her mother a nurse, which influenced her decision to study biology at the University of California in San Diego. While there, she saved enough money to attend a race driving school to see what it would be like to indulge her need for speed without the highway patrol giving her tickets. To her surprise, she beat everybody and was spotted by a local team owner who encouraged her to go pro.

Inspired by her brother-in-law, Bob Weir, who used his notoriety as a member of the Grateful Dead to help advance eco awareness, Leilani uses her unusual platform as a woman racer to promote a range of causes including animal rights, veganism, solar energy, and climate change. She has strict guidelines as to the kinds of backers she’ll endorse. Because she won’t work with any organization that sells meat or leather or conducts animal tests or is involved with any fossil fuels, she has had to turn away millions from typical NASCAR and INDYCAR sponsors.

Living in two distinct worlds, Leilani is as comfortable around Northern California tree huggers as she is in North Carolina (where she lives) amid racing enthusiasts whose cultural norm includes gas-guzzling V8 trucks and hunting. An early adopter of electric cars, she plays an active role in Racing Extinction, an upcoming documentary by Louie Psihoyos, whose first documentary, The Cove, won an Academy Award. She drives a prototype James Bond–style Tesla that projects thought-provoking images on skyscrapers and mountains. Common Ground is proud to share Leilani’s views of her unusual and courageous mission.

Common Ground: So how did a nice girl like you get into the macho world of NASCAR racing?

Leilani Münter: I had a lead foot in high school and got a lot of speeding tickets, which is when I put “drive a race car” on my bucket list—just to see what it would feel to push a car to its limits and not get pulled over. Then, while in college [UC San Diego], I saved up to attend a racing school, which I thought would be a onetime thing. It turned out I was the fastest on the track. A local race team owner started asking me questions and encouraged me to talk to a sports marketing company—especially because it was unusual to have women racers—to see about getting sponsors. It took nine months before we found a sponsor to pay for two Saturday night short track races, for $1,500 each. That was the summer of 2001. I fell in love with it and have been racing ever since.

I grew up a race car buff, so that fantasy is alive in me. What’s the sensation behind the wheel?

Amazing, but hard to describe if you haven’t raced at those speeds. There’s an intense, peaceful focus that sets in as the rest of the world just disappears. Races are famously very hectic, with sponsors and mandatory autograph sessions, fans, media, the crews, the owners, the strategy sessions, the noise, and you’re being pulled in 50 different directions.

But when I finally strap into the race car and I put on the helmet, it all becomes very silent and calm. My second-favorite sport is scuba diving, where it’s similarly calm and therapeutic 40 or 60 feet beneath a stormy surface. Ironically, despite the 200 mile-per-hour speeds and the 40 other racers, racing feels like slow motion. Baseball hitters talk about being able to see the laces of a 90 mile-an-hour pitch spinning at them. That is the same feeling I have in the car.

It sounds like meditation. Do you have a particular spiritual path or meditation practice?

I do hot yoga. Leading up to my Daytona race last month, I did 37 hot yoga sessions with the room heated to about 110 degrees. This helps me physically, and conditions me to tune out extreme heat. I’ve raced in Texas where it was 155 degrees inside my car. On top of that, I am in a helmet and a thick, three-layer fireproof racing suit. Besides hot yoga, I do a lot of visualization, picturing that perfect lap in my head; I don’t know if you consider that meditation, but I’ve always been a person that has been able to focus. It’s essential to be able to concentrate for long periods of time in a race car, or it can be the end of the day.

Back in the ’90s I was driving a go- kart and got cut off by another driver, resulting in my kart doing several somersaults. I wound up in the hospital for several weeks with broken ribs front and back, a snapped clavicle, and collapsed lung. I was driving probably 20 miles per hour. How do you reconcile the risks of your profession?

There’s definitely some of that in the back of my head. Before I get in the car, I give my husband or sister a hug and a kiss and wonder if this is good-bye. Things can go wrong in race cars, but for the most part, they are very safe. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we walk away uninjured. I’m probably safer than you were in that go-kart because every single piece on that car is built to take the impact so that I walk away from a crash. But then I have seen races where people get killed. Race car drivers just tune it out, because if we were to focus on the danger and the fear, we wouldn’t be able to be good at it. I am something of an adrenaline junkie, and I can’t tell you how amazing it is to win a race at 200 miles an hour. That joy outweighs the risk of it.

What was your biggest scare?

At Chicago Speedway in the Indy Pro Series, a race car in front of me flipped, and the tether on his wheel broke. The tether is supposed to hold the wheel to the wreckage so it doesn’t go flying, but it broke, and the wheel flew toward my head, which is exposed in Indy cars. That was one moment where I remember thinking, This could be the end. But I just stayed on the gas, and I maneuvered under the wheel.

Soon after, the same accident killed a Formula Two racer in Europe. He was the grandson of a champion Formula One driver, and the wheel hit him in the head and killed him instantly. So I went under the oncoming wheel and was fine, but he didn’t make it. That’s part of the excitement, right? If you make it 100% safe, then the thrill of danger is gone. I am very afraid of heights but not speed. I push my fear of heights by bungee jumping. Three times I parachuted from a plane; it’s terrifying to me, but I do it.

Do you run into animosity for being a woman in this good-old-boy sport?

I’ve come across supportive people and others who remember when women weren’t even allowed in the pit or garage area, let alone behind the wheel. Richard Petty is vocal that women should not drive race cars. It’s a generational thing, but the world is changing.

Once, when I had the local news come down to talk to me, a fellow driver was yelling at me, saying he’d been racing there for 10 years and that no one had come to interview him. He was upset because he felt I received special media attention for being a woman.

A sexist racer with an attitude could be lethal on the track.

It’s part of the game. I have had incidents where they actually talked with each other on the radio ahead of time about how they were going to wreck me. When you’re breaking the mold, you have to be able to handle that. It’s what you signed up for. To be a woman in the sport, you get a thick skin very early on because if you don’t, you’ll quit. But the vast majority have been very supportive.

I imagine you’re targeted as much for your environmental positions as for being a woman in a male-dominated sport.

On my car I am waving the flag for animal rights and solar power. I am fighting against the deep-seated fossil fuel industries: oil, coal, and natural gas. People are threatened by the kind of sustainable living choices I advocate. The being-a-chick-on-the-track stuff just rolls off my back now; I don’t even pay attention anymore. I don’t think of myself as carrying a flag for women’s rights. I’m rocking the boat for climate change, clean energy, and veganism, and all these issues that I care deeply about.

“Never underestimate a vegan hippie chick with a race car.” That’s your slogan.

I’m petite, 5’ 3” and 105 pounds, so when people meet me, they can’t believe I drive a race car. It’s counterintuitive, so that’s where the “underestimate” comes from. Obviously, I am a vegan hippie chick, so that one sentence sums it up quickly.

Global warming is one of the most contested issues.

Not really. Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree on it. The jury is in. It’s only contested in the media and to people who are not in science.

You’re known as the carbon-free girl. Why?

There is nothing I can do about the fuel that I burn at the racetrack; I have to run what everybody else runs. But since 2007, which is just after An Inconvenient Truth came out, I’ve adopted an acre of rainforest as offset for every race that I run. There are a number of organizations that help do that. That’s where “carbon-free girl” came from—part of a commitment to neutralize my carbon footprint. Otherwise, I drive an electric car that draws its fuel from my own solar panels. The only time I am at the pump—and it kills me—is when I am someplace where I have to rent a car that is not electric.

Motorsports are intrinsically linked to petroleum fuels. You’re inside the belly of the beast.

I’ve walked away from millions in sponsorship because I didn’t agree with the companies going to sponsor me. This has kept me out of the race car, but I feel strongly about the causes and must keep that integrity. Typically, racers don’t get involved with issues that will ruffle feathers. Their charity stuff is uncontroversial, like children’s hospitals or cancer or leukemia. I have all these rules. No fossil fuels, no company that uses meat or dairy products or animal tests. No leather. When I give my list to sports marketing people, they just laugh because I just nixed 95% of their clientele. If you’re a team owner looking for a driver and you’re sponsored by Shell or Mobil One, you’re not going to call anybody who’s shown up with Leilani Münter at the BP oil spill or who has shown up in DC to speak out about renewable energy. It’s definitely slowed down my racing career. I’ve been told many times, “You need to pipe down about all this green stuff.” “You need to take that off your website.” “Just drive your car and shut up.” I’ve had to watch Daytona from my couch—watching a guy drive the race car that I could have been in except I felt wrong about the decals on the side of the car.

Are you a professional race car driver first and activist second, or the other way around?

More activist than driver. Driving gives me a voice and amplifies it. If I was just a biology graduate from UC San Diego trying to get people to go vegan and drive electric cars and adopt solar energy, who would really hear me? The reason you asked me to do this interview is because I race.

No offense, but Elon Musk was my first choice for this interview. His handlers said he was too busy—maybe next year. You’re friends with him. What’s he like?

I will thank him for being busy so that I got the interview with you. He’s very busy revolutionizing transportation and how cars are sold. He’s revolutionizing the space industry. He’s a total disruptor for all the best reasons. I have a huge amount of respect for Elon; he’s making a better world for all of us.

I love that he’s vindicating Nikola Tesla—history’s greatest would-be disrupter. But what do you say to critics of electric cars? They say the same amount of greenhouse gasses are pumped into the environment, just that they come from coal-burning electric plants instead of tailpipes.

It’s far less with electric because the efficiency of internal combustion engines is very low. The energy efficiency of a gasoline car is only 17% to 21%. In other words, only 17% to 21% of the energy a car burns actually goes toward propelling the car forward. Whereas an electric car is 90% efficient. I mentioned that my power source is the solar panels on the roof, so that’s zero pounds of greenhouse gas that goes to fuel my car—a best-case scenario. But take the worst-case scenario, a state like West Virginia, which uses the highest coal ratio—96%—to generate electricity. In West Virginia, the emissions equivalent of a Tesla comes to 25 pounds for driving 40 miles. For a gasoline car, it’s 45 pounds of emissions that are fed into the atmosphere as a result of driving 40 miles. In California, which uses more natural gas and renewable sources, the emissions for plugging into the grid and driving 40 miles is only 8 pounds versus 45 for gas.

So, to be clear, if every car were electric, even if electricity were 100% derived from dirty coal, there would a massive net gain for the environment.

Absolutely. In the very worst-case scenario, it’s much better. Not to mention that the power grid in the United States is getting cleaner and cleaner, as every two-and-a-half minutes, a solar system goes up on a home or business. So the environmental impact for electric will continue to go down.

From a performance point of view, isn’t the 0 to 60 through the roof?

Mine is a Model S P85+, so I do 0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds. The new one, the dual motor, is 0 to 60 in 2.9. That’s as fast as a McLaren Formula 1 race car. In my view, when I drove the Tesla Model S for the first time, every other car on the road instantly became an antique. Its technology is far superior. No gasoline car can compare with this. Cars are going to be electric in the same way people used to smoke in restaurants, and now it is unusual. It used to be that smoking was very common, but now it’s like, “Huh? People still do that?” We’ll all be driving electric and then see the internal combustion engine car and say, “Wow, remember those?” I love being on the front lines of transition.

Do you foresee an electric car race circuit?

There is one called Formula-E already. It’s open-wheel cars. It’s sanctioned by FIA, which does Formula One. It’s not ready for NASCAR yet; I don’t think NASCAR is ready for that yet either. But it’s coming, and I think it’s coming fast.

You must be tickled by what’s happening too in Detroit; they’re making giant strides to come out with electric-only vehicles. Ford was showing theirs at the Green Festival here recently.

Yes, for sure. I think it’s great, but I don’t think other car companies would have been doing any of this without Tesla’s surprise success. It woke everybody up. It’s like that Gandhi quote, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” They were counting down the days before the Tesla startup folded shop.

Why veganism?

There are three reasons why people go vegan or vegetarian. One is animal rights, one is the environment, and one is health. For me, health is the least; I made the decision long before I knew how bad meat is for your body. It is based on animal rights first and the environment second. It’s horrible how cruelly animals are treated; I don’t want to be a part of that. Polls have asked people whether they would still eat a hamburger if they had to slaughter the animal, and 95% responded that they would not be able to. People buy cellophanewrapped chicken at the store but don’t think about all the cruelty and horror that went into getting it there. Out of sight, out of mind.

As far as the planet is concerned, everybody associates carbon footprint with the car they drive, but you are better off driving a Hummer and being vegan than driving a Prius and eating meat. Grazing animals produce methane, which is 23 times more heat trapping than CO2. A UN study found that more greenhouse gas emissions come from raising animals for food than all the world’s cars, SUVs, planes, trains, ships, and all other forms of transportation.

One acre of land can produce 165 pounds of beef or 20,000 pounds of potatoes. It takes 23 gallons of water to produce a pound of tomatoes but over 5,000 gallons to produce the equivalent pound of beef. Regrettably, people
don’t think about the environmental implications of the food on their plates. I know everyone isn’t going vegan, but I encourage Meatless Mondays as a start. Hopefully, meatless will spill over to other days of the week. Do it for the environment, for animal cruelty, and for world hunger. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”

Was there anything in your family background that would have predicted this path for you?

I grew up in Minnesota in nature riding horses, which is where I got my first thrill for speed. My father was a neurologist, and my mother was a hypertension nurse, so science was a part of our family. I have three sisters. When Natasha married Bobby [Weir], he had an influence on me because he is a big environmentalist. He showed me what he was doing with Rainforest Action Network. He used his celebrity with the Grateful Dead to shine a light on good work being done for the planet—and that planted a seed. When I started racing and had a platform, even if nothing like the Grateful Dead’s, I thought, Gosh, I could use this to do something good.

Do you think you have influenced Bob and Natasha?

I influenced Natasha to get a Tesla, and I’m sure she influenced Bobby to get one. He’s a bit of a car nut, so he probably would’ve gone in that direction anyway. They have come to a bunch of my races and support my work.

Will you attend the 50th anniversary Dead shows?

Oh yeah, all three in Chicago. You promote some important movies, notably The Cove and Racing Extinction. I saw The Cove and quickly went to Japan to volunteer for Richard O’Barry, the main activist. It’s a stunning film about the mistreatment of dolphins and won the Academy Award. Louie Psihoyos, who directed his second film, Racing Extinction, is about the sixth mass extinction, this one instigated by humans. This will change the way we understand issues of endangered species. I’ve been working on it for the last three years and drive a special James Bond version of the Tesla Model S. It’s the first car in the world that has electroluminescent panels so the car can change colors. It has a 15,000-lumen projection screen or projector that comes up the back so I can project onto mountains and skyscrapers. It has a special FLIR camera in the front with a special filter that makes carbon dioxide and methane visible to the human eye. It’s become an activist vehicle that we took to Boulder and Sundance film festivals. Racing Extinction is a very cool film that will air on the Discovery Channel in over 220 countries later this year.

You’re part of The Solutions Project, which has attracted high-profile celebrities to promote the adoption of renewable energy.

They have a cool, diverse group of people including actors like Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio. The goal is to help America transition as quickly as possible toward renewable energy. Everybody has their own little skill that they bring. Mark Jacobson is an important Stanford professor. Marco Krapels is a finance guy. We had a meeting at the White House. The Solutions Project very focused on solutions, which I like because otherwise the environment can be a tough, depressing subject.

I know. Every time we do this Green issue, it’s a challenge to stay optimistic. You seem to have an unstoppable quality about you—a genuine racer. Do you ever feel like you’re on a mission from God or something?

I’m not religious; I’m a total scientist so wouldn’t use the word God. But I’m definitely on a mission for earth and science and the betterment of our species. I like Charles Darwin’s quote: “It’s not the strongest of the species that will survive, nor the most intelligent; it is the most adaptable to change.” I feel this generation has been called upon to help us adapt and change the way we live on this planet for future generations. This is unsustainable. Take the oceans, for example—50% of all of the oxygen on the planet comes from the phytoplankton in the ocean. Every other breath that you and I are taking right now is coming from the phytoplankton in the ocean. Ever since the industrial revolution, we’ve been burning fossil fuels, and those phytoplankton blooms are dropping every year. In some places, shellfish can’t even form because the oceans have acidified to the point where the shells dissolve. If we acidify the ocean by pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in this ridiculous way, we’ll take out a vast majority of the planet’s species, including our own.

There have been five major mass extinctions, and we’re going through the sixth right now; they’re calling it the Anthropocene Extinction, which translates to the “age of man.” Man is driving other species to extinction at a rate 1,000 times faster than it would normally be. We lose species before we can even record their existence. The dinosaurs went extinct because of an asteroid or meteor hitting the earth, but this time we’re the asteroid. So my mission is saving humanity and all these beautiful, amazing species. How sad to not share the world with elephants or tigers or coral reefs. As a scuba diver, that makes me cry. I am tired of the bullshitters acting like this is going to be reversed and go away. At this rate we’re going to lose the coral reefs in the next 40 years. I often wonder why I am going this hard, solitary path, but this gets me up in the morning. I believe in science.

I’m impressed by your capacity to swim in two distinct worlds. You’re a leadingedge progressive that fits right into the so-called San Francisco values bubble, but you live in Charlotte and strut your stuff in traditional red states where NASCAR fans in pick-up trucks with rifle racks are the norm.

I feel like I’m making the most difference at the racetrack, not when I’m at a renewable energy event. Racing is the No. 1 spectator sport in America. More people tune in to racing than basketball, hockey, and baseball combined. I can come to Northern California and be in that tree-hugging bubble, but then I’m always going back to my activism in the heart of North Carolina, talking to people at the opposite extreme. I know how people think in both those worlds, so it’s cool to be able to balance that. There are environmentalists who are unable to accept me because I race cars, and there are NASCAR fans who can’t accept me because I am a woman environmentalist. I like to be able to tell each side what is happening on the other side. I will continue to race as long as I can get sponsors that promote green activism.

Hopefully, some of the natural products advertisers that endorse Common Ground will also support you.

That would be great.

What misconceptions might people have about you?

I am not sure, but I know that whenever you’re waving the flag for something, especially being a driver, people can be very defensive and think, Oh, she has this big agenda that she’s pushing in my face. I try hard to lead by example. I don’t want people to feel like I’m shaking my hand in their face trying to take away their barbecue and their big V8. When you do that, you lose people immediately because they feel I’m criticizing or attacking them. I struggle with how to do that because I’m not judging. I realize people have to get to work every day and can’t flip their habits upside-down overnight. I wish I could snap my fingers tomorrow, and everybody would become a vegan, drive an electric car, and put solar panels on their home, but it’s not realistic. I just want people to know there are other options. Not everyone can be on the front lines as early adopters. I understand people can get very defensive—even volatile—because what you eat and what you drive are such personal things.

I am excited that more people in the Bay Area will learn about you. To be a vegan hippie chick with a race car and a green mission takes a mountain of courage.

Thank you. In racing you learn to not be afraid of speed and to push the car to its ultimate limit—but not lose control. It’s been a long, strange trip.

Rob Sidon is publisher and editor-in-chief of Common Ground.

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