Racecar Driver Leilani Munter is an Unlikely Spokesperson for a Green Tomorrow

The professional stock-car racer refuses to slow down until she’s taken fans across the finish line—to a sustainable future.

Photo Credit: NZCowboy13/Creative Commons

This article was originally published by OnEarth magazine.

The custom license plate on Leilani Munter’s silver Tesla reads: EFF OIL.

Note that it does not read: EFF SPEED. Munter and I are taking a drive near her home, just north of Charlotte, North Carolina, when she turns onto a wide-open back road and absolutely floors it. I begin silently mouthing a few panicked variations on the EFF word myself.

Let’s just go ahead and end any silly debates about whether you can be greenand be a badass right here and now. Leilani Munter happens to be an electric-car-owning, rainwater-collecting, backyard-composting vegan who also used to be a stunt double for Catherine Zeta-Jones and who currently makes her living as a professional race-car driver. As a woman who has found success in a highly competitive, male-dominated sport, she’s in a relatively small category to begin with. But as an outspoken environmentalist who leverages her racing-world celebrity to promote wildlife conservation, habitat protection, and—yes—even fossil fuel reduction, she’s in a category of one.

Munter, 40, originally planned to become a scientist;  she majored in biology at the University of California, San Diego. But after college she decided to take some of the money she had made as Zeta-Jones’s stunt double and enroll in racing school “just as a bucket-list sort of thing,” she says. She blew the other students right off the track. A racing-team owner noticed, and soon Munter was competing in real races—and frequently finishing near the top. Since 2001, she has worked her way up her sport’s professional ladder to the super speedways, where she has raced both in stock cars and in open-wheel, Indy-style cars. (At the moment, she competes mainly on the ARCA stock-car circuit.)

Along the way, she has forged an identity for herself as racing’s greenest speed demon. In 2007, the same year she became only the fourth woman ever to race in the elite Indy Pro series, Munter announced that she would be adopting one acre of rainforest for every race in which she participated, in hopes of becoming professional racing’s first “carbon neutral” driver. The following year saw her in Washington, D.C., speaking about the Climate Security Act with a number of legislators, including senators Joe Lieberman, John Kerry,  and Barbara Boxer.

Last year, Munter joined the board of advisers for the Solutions Project, a 50-state plan for hastening the country’s switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, cofounded by a Stanford University scientist and the actor and activist Mark Ruffalo. In February, Ruffalo and Munter held a press conference about the project at Florida’s Daytona International Speedway, an event coinciding with Munter’s appearance at the 62nd ARCA season opener.

If environmentalists and racing fans aren’t categories known for their demographic overlap, that’s the point. “I know race fans probably aren’t going to be at an environmental conference in Aspen,” Munter says. “But they are going to be at Daytona. That’s the only way to move the needle. You have to reach out and talk to the people who don’t necessarily agree with you.” (For its part, NASCAR, working closely with NRDC, has implemented a number of impressive sustainability initiatives under its five-year-old NASCAR Green program.)

Munter’s race car has twice been themed to promote environmental documentaries, and her film-world connections ultimately led to a role for her in 6, the soon-to-be-released documentary about the potential for mass extinction. One evening this past March, as part of a guerrilla-marketing campaign for the film, a Tesla outfitted with a projector pulled up alongside New York’s Guggenheim Museum and beamed giant images of critically endangered wildlife onto the side of the building—until a phalanx of New York’s Finest ran off the film crew.

The car’s driver—who looked a little like Catherine Zeta-Jones—slipped off into the New York night.

Tommy Tomlinson is an award-winning journalist and teacher who writes for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Forbes, Reader’s Digest, Southern Living, Garden & Gun, Our State magazine, and many others. He spent 23 years as a reporter and local columnist for the Charlotte Observer.