Leilani Münter: I grew up riding horses in Minnesota, being outdoors. I remember being concerned about recycling and the planet in junior high and high school, I guess I was just slowly coming to terms with our human impact on the planet. I then attended the University of California for my biology degree and it was during those years that I really went to the next level of environmentalism as I learned more about biodiversity, the pollution of our oceans, overpopulation, the deforestation of our rainforest, etc. Once you start to pay attention, it was natural for me to become an activist.
D: How do you reconcile being an environmentalist and an activist working in the auto racing industry, which has not traditionally embraced conservation or the green movement?
LM: It is through my voice as a driver that I am able to bring environmental awareness to mainstream America. If I was just a biology graduate talking to people about these issues, not nearly as many people would hear my message. It’s the exact opposite of preaching to the choir. If we only speak to those people who already agree with us, who is going to change the minds of those who don’t?
D: What is the most wasteful or inefficient practice that you currently see in the racing world, and what can or should be done about it?
LM: I would like to see all the race cars using alternative fuels. The United States currently spends $1 billion per day on foreign oil. I ran a race car a couple years ago with a group called Operation Free, a group of veterans fighting for clean energy in DC. We had a four star General and a bunch of veterans talking to the race fans about it. The veterans message was, “Every time you put a gallon of gas in your car, a portion of that money is going to put bullets in guns being shot at me and my buddies.” and the reaction from the race fans was so positive and supportive. We are funding both sides of the war.
In addition, I think that all of the facilities and racetracks could be producing more renewable energy. Pocono International Raceway is the largest solar powered sports facility in the world. They produce 3 MW of power. The racetrack only uses one, so the other two go back into the grid. There is no reason all the tracks couldn’t start implementing solar and wind projects. It is good for the planet, and it would be good for the sport as well. Evolution.
D: In your personal life, what element of being green or working toward sustainability do you have the most passion for?
LM: Definitely plant based diet is a personal passion. Meat has a huge impact on our world in many ways: animal cruelty, human health, and our environment. A United Nations study showed that 40% more greenhouse gas emissions come from raising animals for food than all the planes, trains, cars, SUVs, ships, and race cars in the world combined. And if you don’t care about the environment, how about world hunger? If Americans alone reduced their meat consumption by just 10%, it would free up enough land to grow 12 million tons of grain – enough to save the six million children under the age of 5 that die every year as a result of hunger. One acre of land can produce 165 pounds of beef OR 20,000 pounds of potatoes. An inconvenient truth for meat eaters, indeed.
D: I understand that you adopt an acre of rainforest for every race you run, in order to offset the carbon footprint of the race itself, but what other things do you do in your daily life to protect or save or advocate for the environment?
LM: Besides not consuming animal products in my diet, I have a worm farm to compost my food scraps, a veggie garden, a rainwater collection system, I use solar lighting and am planning on installing solar PV and solar thermal, I recycle everything even at the racetrack when there are no recycle bins I have a bin that I bring to the track and put next to my car so I can bring the recycling home. I always buy products from companies who are doing the right thing for the environment in terms of recycled materials and packaging. As environmentalists, we can speak very loudly with our purchasing decisions.
I have become more of an activist than a driver: I started lobbying for clean energy on Capitol Hill in 2008 as an Ambassador for the National Wildlife Federation, I have traveled twice to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and so far I have made three trips to Taiji, Japan, spending several weeks recording the horrific dolphin slaughter exposed in the Oscar winning documentary The Cove.
I work only with green sponsors and at Daytona in 2010 had a solar company, a wind power company, an LED lighting company, a green jobs training program, and an energy efficiency company on my car. Earlier this year I ran the first ever ocean awareness race car, carrying the colors of the Academy Award winning film The Cove on my race car and giving away 1000 DVDs of the film at the track. I have also walked away from big sponsorship dollars that would have come from environmentally destructive companies.
If I stopped racing, I would not take a race car off the grid. I would just be replaced by another driver. Likely one that doesn’t go out of their way to take care of the environment, is not offsetting their carbon footprint with rainforest, and is not promoting green technologies at the racetrack. I would simply lose my ability to talk to 75 million race fans about green living and hopefully win some of them over.
As for the emissions I can do nothing to stop, like my race car, since 2007 I have been adopting an acre of rainforest for every race I enter. Which, by the way, I only had one race last year (Daytona) not by my choice. If it was my choice, I would be adopting acres of rainforest this year!
D: What methods have you found to be effective in convincing others to see the “green light”?
LM: I spoke a little bit about this earlier but I will expand on it. One of the campaigns where I saw a big impact was my “Race to Energy Independence” race car with Operation Free, a group of veterans fighting for clean energy and climate change reform on Capitol Hill. The veterans at Operation Free are educating Americans that our billion dollar per day habit on foreign oil is a national security threat to our country. We went to a race in 2010 in Kansas together and we had 30,000 NASCAR fans come by our display over the race weekend to talk about clean energy. I heard veterans say to the race fans, “Every time you buy a gallon of gasoline a portion of that money is going to put bullets in guns that are being fired at my buddies and I.” It had a huge impact on the fans when they realized that we are funding both sides of the war. I could see the minds of the race fans opening up to alternative fuels right in front of my eyes.
D: Are there some aspects of going green in modern life that you see as being incredibly difficult for people to change? What do you think might help them the most?
LM: Personal transportation is going to take some time because we need infrastructure in place to support electric cars and alternative fuels. Also, people don’t buy new cars very often so getting new vehicles on the streets will take some time as well. The change has already started to take place, but this is one that will take some time. I try to encourage people to start with the small, inexpensive things that everyone can do: composting, cutting back on meat, purchasing products that use recycled materials, etc.
D: Is there a specific aspect of the environment that you want most to save or improve?
LM: The ocean. The oxygen in two out of every three breaths you take has been produced by marine plants – mostly phytoplankton – in our oceans. Our burning of fossil fuels is not only warming the planet, but it is also acidifying our oceans. We are losing the phytoplankton blooms and that is a huge issue that I don’t feel is being talked about enough. We need more awareness around ocean issues. Very few non profits on the planet are working on ocean issues, even though it covers 70% of our planet.
D: Where do you think the future of green racing is headed? More electric cars and races? Adoption of cleaner fuels and more efficient engines?
LM: I think both will be included. IndyCar, American Le Mans, and NASCAR are already using biofuels. There is a new electric formula series starting up as well, it’s called Formula E. Racing will evolve, like everything else. It has to, or it will go extinct.
D: What can you tell us about your “vegan” race car?
LM: The Powered by Plants race car is an outreach program to show that not only can strong athletes be powered by plants, but that a plant based diet is a win-win for everyone – animals, humans, and our planet. The goal is to have a race car on track for a major ARCA race in 2013, which will be televised on SPEED Channel available in 80 million homes in North America. We also plan to have a display with a vegan chef cooking and giving away vegan food to the race fans during the race weekend. There are three goals of the car: 1) show that healthy, strong individuals eat plant based diets – even race car drivers! 2) show that factory farming is not only cruel to animals, but is a huge polluter of our planet 3) show that eating a plant based diet does not mean you are eating lettuce for the rest of your life, we plan to give the race fans tasty vegan food to eat and see for themselves!