Driven by Sunshine

A supercharged messenger of change, Leilani Munter is the first green race car driver

By Mike Savicki


It was during the 1996 race season when California transplant and ARCA driver, Leilani Munter, first caught wind of a multi-page Internet discussion thread focused solely on her. It caught her by surprise. Checking site statistics, she noticed the thread was driving a high level of traffic to a recently added section of her website where she shared ideas and beliefs on activism, alternative energy and global eco-issues.


Wondering why a race forum would drive traffic to an environmental section of her site, she followed the links back to the source. Reading through page after page of comments, Munter was surprised to see the discussion, which initially questioned both her qualifications as a female driver and her diehard commitment to a certain type of non-traditional sponsor, had, in fact, shifted to a debate on something entirely different, namely her views on solar, wind and electric cars, plus her review of the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”


Munter, who is also a UCSD trained biologist concentrating in ecology, behavior and evolution, turned to her then boyfriend (now husband), New Zealander, Craig Davidson, and shared the news that she had long hoped would happen — race fans were actually debating the very issues she held close to her heart. One reader, she shared, even posted a graph of the levels in parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.


Leilani Munter calls it her light bulb moment in life.


“For me, when I saw that thread, the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I got a smile on my face,” Leilani Munter recalls. “That was the moment when it all made sense, the degree in biology, the career in racing, and I said to myself ‘if I can educate the seventy five million fans who make NASCAR the largest spectator sport in the country week in and week out, and help to make changes like increasing their recycling, switching to energy efficient lighting, and even cutting out plastic bags, then I can create a movement where the small changes made by small groups of people build momentum. We can move society towards a tipping point where we begin questioning traditional habits and look at alternative practices aimed at preserving the environment’.”


From that moment forward, Leilani Munter began living in a higher gear. Her voice became the bridge between activism and racing.


She began connecting with environmental groups. In 2007, she became an ambassador for the rainforest and began adopting acrage. A year later she became the first Ambassador of the National Wildlife Federation. She spoke on the National Mall for Earth Day 2012 and has been a guest at The White House three times. And last month she addressed the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe in Geneva, Switzerland.


The media caught wind of her message, too. Glamour Magazine named her “An Eco Hero” in 2009. Discovery’s Green Planet named her “The #1 Eco-Athlete in the World” in 2010. And she regularly appears on CNN, MSNBC and CBS News to debate environmental awareness.


But her reception on the track was initially not as warm. Munter felt pushback at first from the race community who felt she was “pushing green” and driving the sport away from its roots. In sports marketing circles, she learned, “Fortune 500” companies sponsor NASCAR more than any other sport. Of all sports enthusiasts, race fans show the highest level of brand loyalty and awareness. But because she had committed to endorsing only those sponsors who fit a very specific set of personally defined criteria, Munter fell short of securing enough funding to make full season competition possible.


She understands her reasoning and justifies it through her mission, but remains positive and hopeful as she is seeing new categories of sponsors move toward motorsports.


“Yes, maybe I have been on the track less because I did walk away from some bigger sponsors, but when I am on the track, I am racing for those super cool companies that I believe in,” she says, adding, “And that means something to me because I want it to be perfect. I feel truly, personally, passionately vested in the companies on my car because I want them to succeed. They are changing the world in the way I want it to change, too.”


Despite the limited schedule, she is proud of her cars. In starts dating to 2006, her racecars have carried messages about solar power, wind turbines, recycled products, LED lighting, and veterans for renewable energy as well as the documentaries “Blackfish” and “The Cove.”


Fast forward to 2015 and Leilani Munter is operating under full power and has no plans to slow down. In her first ARCA race of the 2015 season, her car promoted Energy Freedom and the movement to Go 100% Renewable. On the big screen, she is making yet another statement. In the new documentary and eco-thriller “Racing Extinction,” made with the Oceanic Preservation Society and the Academy Award winning filmmakers behind “The Cove,” Munter drives a James Bond like version of a Tesla Model S. The film recently premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival where it received standing ovations. She is now accompanying it on an international film festival tour.


And when she is at home in Cornelius, Leilani Munter practices what she preaches. Her home was only the fourteenth of Energy United’s 120,000 local residential accounts to operate with solar power. She utilizes a 540-gallon rainwater collection tank, maintains a vegetable garden, and composts all her scraps. And when she looks in her garage, Munter smiles knowing her all-electric Tesla has “two hundred sixty-five miles of initial charge on it every day from the electrons of the sun that land on my roof.”


Her passion for racing remains glowing, too.


“Racing gives me my voice and it allows me to talk to a huge demographic of people who need to hear these issues and messages,” she says. “Remember that Internet forum from 2006? Well, people are still talking, but now it’s because they see the changes coming, they are hungry for them and they want to learn. That’s what makes race fans great – they are curious and agree it’s just a matter of time now.”


This article was originally published in the May 2015 edition of Currents Magazine.