Perhaps environmental and activism are not the first two words that come to mind when you consider NASCAR, one of heartland America’s most symbolically important and immediately evocative pursuits.
It was only in 2007 that a sport that involves races of 400 miles in length—500 in the case of the Daytona 500—banned the use of lead additives in its fuel.
National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing vehicles burn fuel to the unhappy tune of five miles per gallon. And they are not covered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), so there’s no need for catalytic converters.
The result? Beasts belching round an oval, splurging out toxic fumes and greenhouse gas contributors—a symbol of blitheness about the state of the environment.
So what’s a self-described “vegan hippie chick” doing in one of the world’s dirtiest sports apart from providing one confusing contradiction in terms?
“From a very young age, growing up in Minnesota, I was interested in nature and animals,” explains Leilani Munter, said vegan hippie chick and stock car driver. “I was always an environmentalist and an activist.”
Munter, 42, took a biology degree from the University of California, San Diego, specializing in ecology, behavior and evolution. So far, so typically eco-activist. “I remember arguing with people, trying to get them to recycle, when I was really young and so that side of me has always been there, the environmental and the scientific,” she tells Newsweek.
But humankind would be boring without a tendency towards the capricious and unexpected, and for all her interest in science, she had an urge not yet scratched.
“In high school I had started a bucket list, one of the things on it was to drive a race car,” she explains, matter-of-factly. “Years later when I was in college, I signed up for a racing school.”
If motor racing has a bad reputation for polluting the atmosphere, it has also been poor at incorporating women into its professional set-up.
“I was the only woman out of about 40 drivers at the track participating that day. I was also the fastest car out there,” Munter says. “That day at the track, a regional race team owner came over to me and said, ‘What are you doing, are you interested in racing here?’ And he encouraged me to go into racing, explaining how fast I was, that there’s very few women in the sport so that makes me a little bit different from most of the drivers. He encouraged me to try to find a sponsor; that because I was different from the others, I might have a chance at sponsorship.”
Munter is certainly… different. Since 2001, when she began racing for money at $1,500 a pop on Friday nights, under lights on small tracks, she has progressed to the point of driving the big, romantic courses like Daytona, the beautiful, sprawling pile of tarmac and concrete on Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Not without ethical difficulties, of course. “I only race when I find partners that I believe in,” Munter explains. That means, since 2007, benefiting from no sponsors involved in racing before, and only using those involved in the business of renewable energy.
Still, she’s burning fossil fuels, right?
“I don’t race that often, but when I do, since 2007 I have adopted an acre of rainforest for every time I sit in the car,” she explains. “So there’s nothing I can do about the fuel. I’m going to burn 30 gallons of gas when I’m on the track; I can’t show up and be like, ‘I’m going to burn biofuel or something different; everyone has to burn the same thing. So that’s what I do to offset the carbon footprint of the fuel I burn.”
Preaching to the converted is axiomatically pointless—who are you trying to convince but your own sense of self-worth? Racing began as an exciting hobby for Munter, but somewhere along the way, it has evolved into a way for her to reach out to those least likely to be convinced by her message of kindliness towards the environment.
“When I got to a NASCAR race or a car race then I’m truly talking to an audience of people that maybe hasn’t been exposed to these issues. I feel that’s when I’m making the biggest difference because I’m winning over new people. And if you want to change anything that is the first step to creating change.”
So she drives her Tesla Model S to races, “so that race fans could come see my electric car up close and ask me questions.
“One of the myths I think that electric cars have faced is the theory they can’t do long-range journeys; that’s no longer true,” she says. “These road trips show to the fans you can do long-range trips, that there is a long range network in place, not some pie in the sky thing 10 years down the road; this is happening now.”
Munter’s lifelong obsession with protecting the environment is what got her involved, and starring, in Racing Extinction, the documentary released in 2015 that aims to promote awareness of species lost in the world’s natural habitats.
It seems pertinent to ask, then, whether motor racing might go the way of so many of the world’s rarest species if it doesn’t move with the changing times.
“Racing has to evolve,” she says. “Human beings having to change the way we’re living on the planet, and start living in a way that is sustainable and does not destroy the world around us. And that means we have to evolve, in many ways, and whether that’s reducing meat in your diet and dairy products or getting an electric car or putting solar panels on your roof, those solutions excite me. I feel there’s a lot of momentum around them. But everything we do has to evolve and change, and that includes racing.
“But the good thing is there’s a lot of amazing engineers and a lot of innovation that can take place within racing. We can get those brilliant minds that are working on getting one mile per hour extra out of an engine, those people could be working on incredible electric race cars. There’s all kinds of innovation. They could be a part of that could make the transition exciting.”
Munter’s story, unusually, perhaps, for an activist, is not one of extremes but of pragmatism. She’s working within the world to change it, and perhaps NASCAR, too, is showing the potential for change.
It boasts of using a biofuel, Sunoco E15, made from corn, in its race cars, and now lists a range of environmental projects on its website, including the planting of more than 400,000 trees across the United States that it claims has reset the carbon emissions generated by its races for the past six years, and will continue to do so for the next 40.
Window-dressing? Possibly, but the very existence of environmental initiatives in the sport is a sign of progress. If you can change NASCAR — well, you might very well be able to change the world.