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Fast and curious: meet the NASCAR-driving, anti-carbon crusading vegetarian from Rochester

Leilani Münter has faced blowback for her environmental activism. From environmentalists.

Leilani Münter is one of the best female racecar drivers in the world, trading paint at Talladega and Daytona with guys named Bo and Buster.
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The first time Leilani Münter drove a Tesla Model S, the car’s inventor, Elon Musk, was riding shotgun. He seemed nervous, peering out at the night as Münter swung the gleaming black electric car around the factory environs near San Francisco. The car was beeping.

“Ah,” Musk said, looking at Münter’s feet. “You’re pressing both pedals at the same time.”

“It’s a racecar driver thing,” Münter told him. “Any way I can override that?”

In the back seat was Louie Psihoyos, the director of “The Cove,” a film about Japan’s annual dolphin slaughter that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2010. When Münter finished test-driving the Tesla, Psihoyos ordered one. He and Münter arranged for an electroluminescent paint job that can be turned on and off like camouflage, and installed a hidden projector, an infrared camera, and a license plate cover that turns opaque at the push of a button. 

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For the next few years, Münter was a getaway driver. She projected images of whales and tigers and animal extinction statistics onto an oil refinery and other high-profile targets. Psihoyos went undercover in Hong Kong, filming rooftops full of shark fins and storerooms stacked with seahorses. When the police or goons arrived, Münter got them the hell out.

Münter is one of the best female racecar drivers in the world, trading paint at Talladega and Daytona with guys named Bo and Buster. She races in a NASCAR feeder series, and in 2007 became just the fourth woman to compete in the Indy Pro Series (a level just below IndyCar, the people who run in the Indianapolis 500). She is the only racecar driver, of any sex, to have been a body double for Catherine Zeta-Jones, a guest at the White House, and a speaker at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

About nine years ago, while other drivers raced for DuPont and Dow, she began accepting only environmentally friendly sponsors. At Daytona in 2012, her car advertised “The Cove.” At Talladega in 2014, where she ran as high as fourth, her car was decked out in black and white for the Sea World exposé “Blackfish.” 

These sponsors were always hard to come by. She hasn’t landed any since “Racing Extinction,” the movie she made with Psihoyos about the accelerating loss of species, debuted on the Discovery Channel in December. She missed Daytona this winter for the first time in years, traveling instead to Hawaii, where, among other things, she worked with surfer-songwriter Jack Johnson on a short documentary about food waste.

“I miss going 200 miles per hour,” she says. “But mostly I miss the eyeballs [on these issues]. You can’t just preach to the choir. You have to talk to the people who don’t believe in the same things you do.”

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Münter was born in Rochester, where her parents worked at the Mayo Clinic, her father as a neurologist, her mother as a hypertension nurse. In the hills outside town, she rode horses as fast and hard as she could. She was fearless, like her three older sisters — one snuck backstage at a Grateful Dead concert at the St. Paul Civic Center when she was 15, met the guitarist Bob Weir, and married him 17 years later.

She was a teenager when her mother had a riding accident, severely injuring her brain. Leilani moved to Arizona, where her father had become the head of neurology at the new Mayo Clinic satellite in Scottsdale. She wrote a bucket list and immediately began crossing things off.

“I learned to scuba dive, jumped out of airplanes, jumped off bridges,” she says. “Those are things that make you feel alive. I’m not one to sit on the sidelines and watch.” In May, when she’s slated to speak in South Africa, she hopes to cage-dive with great white sharks. 

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Racing was on the bucket list. While studying biology at the University of California San Diego, she began modeling, which led to gigs as a stand-in and photo double for Catherine Zeta-Jones in “Traffic” and “America’s Sweetheart.” She used the money to go to racing school. Of the 40 students there, she was the only woman — and the fastest. 

She had her first pro race in 2001 and within a year had moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, the heart of NASCAR. “I was such an oddball,” she says. “I’d come from California. I was a woman. I’d studied biology. I was a vegetarian. I was just trying to be accepted.” After qualifying fourth and finishing seventh at Texas Motor Speedway in 2004, the good ol’ boys — who once joked that she was “checking her makeup” when she worked under her car — began to tip their hats.

Then she saw “An Inconvenient Truth,” linking fossil fuels to climate change — and she wanted to race even more. She loves animals. She’s been a vegetarian since childhood. She no longer wanted to keep this from her fans. “A lot of environmentalists write off NASCAR, thinking these fans obviously don’t care,” she says. “But there are 75 million racing fans — you can’t write off practically a third of the U.S. population.”

She began adopting an acre of preserved rainforest before every race, to offset the 30 gallons of gas she burns, and went looking for new sponsors. None of them had sponsored a racecar before.

She became an ambassador for the National Wildlife Federation and activist Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, joined the boards of the Oceanic Preservation Society and the Solutions Project, a clean-energy advocacy group founded by actor Mark Ruffalo, who has come to her races. She walked with Ruffalo and Leo DiCaprio in the People’s Climate March in New York, in 2014, and when they both won Oscars this year she was likely the only racecar driver tweeting kudos.

The blowback was immediate, and follows her still. It’s not from her fans, by and large, who took “The Cove” DVDs she handed out with autographs and talk of adopting some rainforest themselves. It’s from other environmentalists, the ones who wouldn’t be caught dead at Talladega. 

***

Münter was driving across Charlotte recently when she noticed someone in the car behind her aiming a cell phone camera in her direction. It happens all the time. Not because she looks like Zeta-Jones. It’s her license plate: EFF OIL.

She’s had the plate since she bought her own Tesla Model S in 2013 (she first applied for FU OIL and was denied). She and her husband put solar panels on their home, providing electricity to charge the car. She’s driven it to races — where, for just a few hours a year, she gets into a gas-guzzler.

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That’s where some other environmentalists disconnect. “They tell me I should be riding a bicycle,” she says. “They miss the point. If I were riding a bicycle, no one would be paying attention. I wouldn’t be reaching 100,000 people at Daytona.”

Of course, she wasn’t at Daytona this year. It costs a lot of money to race, and she has to find her own sponsors. “Honestly, I find the environmental activism I’ve done this past year really rewarding,” she says, “and that’s taking up the time I used to spend looking for sponsors.” 

“I don’t know when I’ll be back on the track,” she says. “The act of going in circles really fast doesn’t carry as much meaning anymore. But I do still want to race, because I know my activism amplifies when I’m out there. If a sponsor came about, and I didn’t have to chase them….”

Since Daytona, she’s been back to Hawaii for a “Racing Extinction” screening and to advocate for an endangered species trafficking law. She’s been to the State Department for World Wildlife Day and to Nevada to testify against public-utility decisions thwarting solar power.

“Politics moves too slowly, it’s very hard for me,” she says, which only spurs her to do more of it, makes it tough to take her foot off the gas. “As a race-car driver, I’m not super-patient.”

Minnesota at Large is an occasional series featuring Minnesotans making an impact outside the state.