Leilani Münter, ’99, chases her dreams at speeds close to 200 mph, riding 450 horsepower toward a checkered flag of Big League motorsports.
Oh, and she’s also racing to save the planet.
Since packing her Volkswagen and leaving southern California in 2002, Münter has followed her passion to the short tracks of rural North Carolina and super-speedways such as Daytona. She drives stock cars and open-wheeled racers in the minor leagues of NASCAR and IndyCar. One of a handful of women drivers in a sport dominated by men, she’s still scratching for sponsors and breakout success.
But Münter, who graduated from the Uni versity of California, San Diego with a degree in cellular biology, has another passion: making professional racing a little greener.
In a sport that burns fuel and rubber like a California wildfire, the woman who calls herself “Carbon Free Girl” is on a mission. She wants to raise environmental awareness in auto racing and among its legions of fans. She makes sure her track pits have recycling containers. Her souvenir T-shirts are made partly of recycled plastic bottles.
From her base near Charlotte, N.C., she has spoken about the environment to groups across the country and as far away as Malaysia. In March 2008, she lobbied Congress on behalf of climate protection and promoted sustainability. After speaking with Münter, Senator Elizabeth Dole called her “a woman on a mission.”
To offset her carbon emissions, Münter buys an acre of rain forest through the National Wildlife Federation every time she races, and more recently began adopting an acre of coral reef through The Nature Conservancy. She even climbed 252 feet to the hub of wind turbine #133 outside of Abilene, west Texas, and signed one of the giant turbines, “Carbon Free Girl Leilani Münter.”
With long dark hair, bright eyes and slender figure, the daughter of a Japanese-born mother and a German father has been mistaken for driver Danica Patrick. She looks enough like actress Catherine Zeta-Jones that she played her photo double, standing in during scenes in two movies, including the Oscar-winning Traffic.
In 2002, Esquire magazine named her “A Woman We Love.” A men’s journal called her “America’s Sexiest Race Car Driver.” And the Sporting News just included her in the top 10 of the “50 Most Beautiful People in NASCAR.” She’s been on the covers of a half-dozen magazines and her glamorous ads as a model for Lucky Jeans have appeared in the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair.
But a lot of the attention has come less from her looks than the paradox of a green racecar driver. That’s why Reader’s Digest last year featured her in a story called “10 Reasons to Love Our Country.”
“If I were another biology graduate from California, a composting, recycling, tree- hugging, very hippie chick trying to change their light bulb, they wouldn’t give me the time of day,” Münter says. “The only way I have their attention is because I have a racing suit on and race car underneath me.”
And yet it isn’t the life she envisioned.
A native of Rochester, Minn., Münter reveled in nature, both in the classroom and outdoors. At UCSD she loved to scuba dive in the Pacific and snowboard on Big Bear Mountain. She studied cellular and developmental biology with professors like Ian Trowbridge, Ph.D., whom she calls a big influence. At the time, Münter planned a career in marine biology. “Plan A was to find a job swimming with dolphins and get paid for it,” she says. “That was my dream.”
Then on a lark she went to a car club race in San Diego. She got hooked, and began going to racing schools after class. “When you are in a race car at speed,” she says, “the focus is so intense that the entire world disappears and it’s just you and the race car and the race track. It’s an incredible feeling, and it was that thrill of speed and competition that hooked me.”
Then one day she bumped into a racing team owner who happened to be at the track. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I’m a starving biology student who saved up the extra money I had to come to this racing school,” she replied.
He encouraged her to find a marketing agent. And by the time she graduated in 1999, she knew the dolphins could wait. She wanted to race. After training at racing schools, she realized if she wanted to be taken seriously as a driver she had to move to the hub of stock car racing, North Carolina.
After running some short tracks (those less than a mile long), Münter moved on to bigger venues. In 2004 she finished seventh in a Super Late Model Series stock car race at Texas Motor Speedway. Two years later, she came in fourth, the highest finish for a female driver at the track. In 2006, she ran an ARCA stock car race at Daytona. In 2007, she joined an IndyCar team and became the fourth woman in history to race in the Indy Pro Series, a developmental league now known as Indy Lights. Unlike stock cars, which resemble standard sedans, Indy cars are sleek, open-wheeled racers that can go even faster.
Münter’s sister is married to Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, and she identifies with the band’s free-wheeling lifestyle. She likes to call herself a “vegetarian hippie chick racer” and still dreams of the potato burritos at Don Carlos Taco Shop in La Jolla. Last year on St. Patrick’s Day, a barefoot Münter, her wedding dress caked with sand, married Craig Davidson on the beach of the picturesque Coromandel Peninsula in his native New Zealand.
She’s a free spirit, but a determined one. “Life is short. Race hard. Live Green.” That’s the slogan on her Web site, but trying to be a green racer isn’t easy. There is a reason racecars and drivers are tattooed with corporate logos. It costs around $1 million to field either an ARCA stock car or an Indy Lights racer. That’s less than NASCAR or Indy but still a challenge. Münter has had a hard time finding sponsors, in part because she insists they be eco-friendly.
“There have been a couple sponsors that I’ve not worked with because of their environmental practices,” she says. “Maybe that sponsor I walked away from … could take me to the next level. But I would have felt like a real sell-out.”
For at least one race last year, her sponsors included the maker of an herbal dietary supplement, an LED lighting manufacturer and an eco-friendly T-shirt maker.
Steve Sudler, co-owner of Team 3G, Münter’s IndyLights team, says she helps them appeal to non-traditional sponsors. “It’s actually been a great complement,” Sudler says. “It’s allowed us to use that passion to reach out to eco-companies.”
And environmentalists are also glad to have her on their team. “I love that she’s just pushing the envelope—trying to find that line between saying ‘I love fast cars but I want to also stop our deterioration of the atmosphere’,” says Lisa Renstrom, a former national president of the Sierra Club.
Münter’s passions came together last spring when she zipped around the rocky fjords of Norway in the 460-mile Viking Rally, an international competition for electric and alternative-fuel cars. The Carbon Free Girl drove a Ford Focus with a hydrogen fuel cell, and even sipped clean water from the exhaust pipe.
She has no doubt that electric and alternative fuel cars will eventually be on race tracks. In the meantime, Münter plans to keep running stock cars and open-wheel racers. Sudler, her team owner, hopes to get her to the Indy 500 in two or three years. It’s not a career in marine biology, but in some ways not that different.
“I am using my degree in a different way,” Münter says. “Having my biology degree gives me credibility when I speak about our environmental issues that I would not have without my education.”
She’s already planning to make her commitment eternal. When she dies, she wants her remains put in a concrete “reef ball” and dropped into the ocean.
“Someday, instead of just diving among the coral reefs, I’m going to be part of the coral reef,” she says. “It’s kind of a cool way to go out.”