Racing on Sunshine with Leilani Münter

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Münter with her Tesla

Its National Drive Electric Week! To kick it off, we chatted with race car driver Leilani Münter about her environmental advocacy and how that fits in with her work on the racetrack. 

“Goodbye oil, hello sunshine.” Are these words you’d expect to hear from a race car driver? Maybe not, but Leilani Münter, self-proclaimed “vegan hippie chick,” is not your usual race car driver.

And these aren’t just words. Münter’s “off-track” car is a Tesla Model S powered by panels on her home. “It’s obviously the way of the future,” she told us in a recent conversation. “I charge my Tesla using sunshine.”

A big megaphone 

How does this fit with Münter’s career? She gets that question often. But to her, the two worlds are inextricably connected.

It didn’t start out that way. As a female racer, she says, she faced many detractors. Plus, she was different in having a background in science, which includes a degree in biology. “In the beginning,” she says, “I wanted to fit in and be accepted by my peers in the sport. Eventually, I realized I’m never going to fit in, so I might as well completely be myself. I became more active, and now the two worlds are intertwined. I can’t see one without the other, because it’s the racing that gives me such a voice.”

That’s the key. Racing gives Münter a megaphone she wouldn’t have without the sport — one that lets her reach 75 million people. Because of this, she notes, “It’s important for me to stay in a race car as long as I can.” 

Reaching a new audience

It’s not just about the numbers, though 75 million is a huge number. Also key is that this audience is not usually addressed.

“A lot of environmentalists go around speaking to the choir. They don’t understand reaching out to the racing audience. As long as you only talk to people who agree with you, who will change the minds of people who don’t? It’s a more uncomfortable conversation but a more important one,” says Münter.

LeilaniPGold
At the Chicagoland Speedway

She’s not one to shy away from uncomfortable situations. Münter has excelled in her sport since 2001 despite being one of a very few female drivers in the world. “You develop a pretty thick skin as a female racer,” she says. That thick skin has come in handy in her environmental work.

She also understands her audience. “Now is the time to go out and talk to people who don’t believe in climate change or don’t know solar has dropped in price or that adoption is happening quickly,” she says. “People tend to embrace it once they understand it.”

Münter emphasizes the common ground between the racing audience and environmentalists. “Everybody wants to get off of oil,” she says. “Every time you put a gallon of gas in your car, people realize that a lot of that money is going to OPEC, to bullets and guns that shot at our soldiers overseas. The reaction of the race crowd is strong to that, the national security threat, the fact that we’re giving away dollars to in some cases countries that don’t like us very much. It hits home when someone has a son overseas fighting in the war.” 

The times they are a-changin’

While there are always some naysayers, Münter says that 98% of the feedback she gets is supportive. That’s something solar advocates should heed.

The Energy Freedom car Münter will race on October 3 at the Kansas Speedway
The Energy Freedom car Munter will race on October 3 at the Kansas Speedway

When she started talking about the environment, the reception was a bit more frosty. But now, Münter says, “people are waking up. They’re seeing that the world is being damaged by having seven billion people on the planet, and that we haven’t been taking good care of it.” And they care about energy independence — another important message for solar advocates.

Münter points out that the first time she raced a car advertising clean energy, 90,000 people attended over the three-day race at the Kansas speedway. Of those, an impressive 30,000 signed up to get updates about clean energy. “Just because people like cars doesn’t mean they don’t care about clean energy and clean water. They also want the world to stay beautiful for their kids. There’s a tendency by the environmental community to stereotype these people. These people care about the planet,” Münter emphasizes.

It goes both ways. “There are plenty of environmentalists who are huge race fans. Liking fast cars and caring about the future of the planet are not mutually exclusive.”

Going green without sacrificing

In fact, Münter notes, it’s concern for the planet combined with love for high-performance cars that’s helping Tesla outsell without placing a single ad. What’s important to learn from this? That people can have the things they love in a car while being green — Münter herself being a prime example of this. 

It’s a message whose time has come for solar power. The biggest pushback she gets from racing fans, says Münter, is they can’t afford to get solar or an electric car. While that may still be true for EVs (though it could change quickly), we need to educate people about the affordability of solar. We also need more options — leases, for example, shouldn’t be available in only some states, Münter says.

Show don’t tell

Also crucial is visibility. When people read about solar and EVs online, they might think they’re reading about the future. “As it becomes more common and people see it being done,” says Münter, “it becomes more real to them.”

Solar on Münter's home
Solar on Münter’s home

She’s seen that happen firsthand at her own home — only the 16th in her Charlotte, North Carolina service area to go solar. “When our panels went up,” she says, “a lot of neighbors came to see them and asked questions. The same thing happened when my Tesla was delivered. We met more neighbors that first week than in all the prior years we lived there. People kept showing up.” 

Münter notes that her neighbors now “look out their window and see a neighbor with an electric car and solar panels, and they hear I haven’t been to a gas station since September. The solar on my roof is providing 70% of the energy for my home and my car.” In an area without much residential solar, it’s now becoming real for people.

Being the example

The solar on her home and Tesla in her driveway are just a couple ways Münter sets an example of what can be done. She recently drove from her home to the Chicagoland Speedway in her Tesla, to show you can make a long trip in an EV. At the Chicagoland race, where she was sponsored by Prairie Gold Solar, her pit box was the first to be 100% solar-powered, with the help of ZeroBase portable solar arrays.

This short feature from Fusion about Münter’s trip and her work highlights what a powerful and inspiring solar spokesperson she is:

“A lot of people don’t live in our world,” she says about her environmental efforts. “They don’t know details about it unless we show them.”

Münter is also driving a custom Tesla in the forthcoming film Racing Extinction, which highlights the mass extinctions that humans are causing. She’s gone from vegetarian to vegan and likes to remind people that the simplest way to reduce their carbon footprint is to eat less meat.

Making the connection

As Münter points out, “It doesn’t matter what your background is or where you’re from — we all can make decisions every day that are helping the planet or not.”

Most of us, she says, don’t make the connection between what we eat and where it comes from. “Once you see how animals are mistreated,” she says, “you don’t want to be part of that anymore.”

The same is true for fossil fuels. Most people aren’t thinking about all the problems natural gas causes, the devastation of oil spills, and other environmental impacts of fossil fuels. If they could associate those with filling up their car, many people might be moved to take action.

“How do we convey that?” Münter asks. “That’s one of our biggest challenges as environmentalists. Once we figure that out, we’ll go far.”