Leilani Munter isn’t your average Nascar driver. She is doing more than just revving up the fans for one of America’s favorite pastimes. She is is driving change (see what we did there?) for the environment at a time when focus on climate change and renewable energy is becoming a well-discussed topic.
Her story began back in California during her college days. Leilani studied biology but was also interested in race car driving. She went to a few amateur events, and at one of these a local race team owner encouraged her to pursue a career as a driver after seeing how fast she was. She told Feministing.com in 2015 it was that short conversation with a complete stranger which changed the course of her life forever.
Leilani made her racing career debut in 2001, after funding her racing school years by working as a stunt double for Catherine Zeta Jones in Hollywood. In 2006 she saw the critically-acclaimed environmental documentary starring former Vice President Al Gore, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ which sparked her environmentalist heart which was starting to stir. After seeing this film, Leilani realized she needed to do more. Her growing profile in the racing world became a perfect opportunity for Leilani to use that platform to push for a change in attitude toward renewable energy.
Being a woman in a male-dominated sport, she already had the spotlight on her, and Leilani is definitely of the mindset “go big or go home”. The 42 year old plans to win at the Daytona 500 one day, and she says she will take her victory lap in a renewable energy car, but understands the pressures on her are much different to the men in the sport.
“There are so few women in our sport that you are usually the odd person out. There are automatically a lot of eyes on you, so if you do well you will get a lot of praise. But if you make a mistake, it’s that much more obvious. So on top of that, I’m vegetarian, I had a science background, a college degree, so I was different, very different,” she said.
Recognizing what a uniquely-positioned role mode she is for younger girls who see so few women on the Nascar track, Leilani told the Guardian in an interview that at her first race, the announcer had to change the “Gentleman, start your engines” call-out to include her in the well known phrase. She also describes is at “weird” receiving trophies from scantily-clad women, but saw this as an opportunity to inspire girls watching to know that they belong on the race track too, not just the side lines as a trophy girl.
“It’s good for little girls watching to see me standing alongside [the girls giving out trophies] in a racing suit; hopefully it plants a little seed in their head,” she said.
A self-proclaimed “vegan, hippie chick”, Leilani often writes about her environmental activism in her personal website, and as she started gaining more attention in the racing world, this side of her angered a number of fans to the point that she had to hire security at a race where someone who had made a death threat toward her was said to be present.
Online, she noticed that along with the backlash toward her environmentalism and posts about being conscious about renewable energy, people started to reply to haters with graphs, data and statistics, and talk about this issue in more depth. That’s when Leilani saw the power of being a well-known figure advocating for an important issue and enabling more people to talk about it.
“I began to post news about wind power and climate legislation on my personal website. I noticed that I started getting an unusually high amount of online traffic from a NASCAR forum. Someone there was not happy that I was posting articles about environmental activism. They were saying that I was brainwashed, that it was inappropriate to bring my activism into the sport,” she explained.
But it did not deter her, or the many Nascar fans from engaging in this issue online in the most unlikely of forums.
“That was a huge moment for me because I got them to talk about carbon dioxide on a NASCAR website. When I saw that I was able to start a conversation about the environment, I realized that as a driver I have an unique ability to bring these issues to a group that, typically, are not really talking about it,” she said.
Given that Nascar is one of the most popular sports in the United States, with nothing but die-hard fans, Leilani finally found the way to bridge her racing career with her passion for the environment. Being a vegan, she has been able to share with members of her pit crew why foregoing meat helps reduce your carbon footprint on the earth, as well as talking about fossil fuels and the effect on the environment. While that means she doesn’t have a plethora of sponsors to choose from (many people warned her speaking out about climate change would ruin her career) Leilani has the big picture in mind which keeps her going.
“I have walked away from big sponsor deals, and in some ways it has hurt my racing career because I haven’t been in a car as much as I could have,” she said.
But she has been supported by the teams behind major environmental documentaries ‘Blackfish’ and ‘The Cove’, as well as Tesla. She says being in the spotlight for her activism in an industry where it is not common allows her to have conversations that could lead to change. Leilani has no interest in “preaching to the choir”, instead she is willing to have those “uncomfortable conversations” as she is living proof of the impact a 15 minute conversation can have to change the course of one’s life.
“If you really want to have an impact you have to have the uncomfortable conversations with the people who may not be on our side yet,” she said.
“If you really want to make change, you have to get out and talk to the people who don’t agree with you. It’s all good and well for me to go to renewable energy events where I am around people who agree with me, but I really don’t feel like I am making that much of a difference by mingling with people who get it. When I want to make a difference, I feel like I am doing that at the race track, where I am having conversations with people who don’t know that much about electric cars, renewable energy, or veganism. My voice as an environmentalist is amplified because I have a race car,” she told feministing.
The issue of environmental damage and climate change is not going away anytime soon, and we certainly need more bold, passionate spokespeople like Leilani to confront the attitudes which deny the existence of our impact on the planet. With celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio who use their elevated platform to raise awareness, urge legislators and powerful influencers to do their part, we are thrilled to see someone like Leilani Munter venture into a world, a sacred sport if you will, which if changed could play a major role in society’s involvement with renewable energy.
This vegan hippie chick with a race car’s mission is clear: “If I was just a biology graduate running around telling people to buy electric cars and give up eating meat and dairy, not many people would listen to me…With 7.3 billion people on the planet, we have to change the way we’re living and I think people are waking up to that – it’s something we have to confront,” she said.