THE SHORT STORY
Download Leilani's PDF to read her story with images from her journey.
Leilani Münter is a biology graduate, professional race car driver and environmental activist. Discovery's Planet Green named her the #1 eco athlete in the world, ELLE Magazine awarded her their Genius Award and Sports Illustrated named her one of the top ten female race car drivers in the world. Leilani is an advocate for solar power, electric cars, plant-based diet and animal rights. Leilani is active in lobbying for these causes in Washington, DC and beyond. She has been a guest at The White House and the United Nations in Geneva.
Since 2007, Leilani has been adopting an acre of rainforest for every race she runs. She uses her race car to get environmental message in front of the 75 million race fans in the USA. Her race cars have carried messages about renewable energy from wind and solar power in addition to clean energy legislation. Leilani has also been active in the effort to end cetacean captivity and has run the documentaries The Cove and Blackfish on her race cars. She has raced both open wheel cars (Indy Pro Series) and stock cars (NASCAR, ARCA). Leilani has recorded 9 top five and 21 top ten finishes in 57 starts.
Leilani is on the board of the Oceanic Preservation Society, a non-profit that creates film, photography and media, inspiring people to save the oceans. They won the Academy Award for their first documentary The Cove and Leilani is featured in their 2015 documentary Racing Extinction. Leilani is also an Ambassador for Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project, and organization she has been volunteering for since 2010. She also sits on the board of advisors of The Solutions Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to accelerating the transition to 100% renewable energy.
Leilani is vegan. Her personal car is an electric Tesla Model S. Her home features solar panels, a 550 gallon rainwater collection system, solar and LED lighting, and a vegetable garden.
Leilani’s motto is: Never underestimate a vegan hippie chick with a race car.
THE WHOLE STORY
Early Years and Education
Leilani was born on February 18, 1974 in Rochester, Minnesota. Her mother, a nurse, was born in Hawaii and her father, a doctor, was born in Germany. She has three older sisters - Svenja, Nicolette, and Natascha. Natascha is married to Grateful Dead guitarist and singer Bob Weir, so Grateful Dead shows were a constant in Leilani's life from a young age.
Leilani excelled in science and earned a Presidential Academic Fitness Award in high school, graduating with a 4.0 GPA. While still in high school, she became a PADI certified scuba diver, a hobby she continues to this day. Leilani earned her degree in biology from the University of California in San Diego She specialized in ecology, behavior and evolution. She was also a teacher assistant in cellular and developmental biology.
While earning her degree in biology, she worked as a volunteer at a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center. An animal rights activist, Leilani has been a vegetarian for most of her life and became vegan in 2011. After college, Leilani worked as a photo and stunt double for actress Catherine Zeta-Jones. She used the money she made from working on the movies Traffic and America's Sweethearts to put herself through racing school and the rest, as they say, is history...
In the summer of 2001, Leilani ran her first race in Southern California where she fought for the lead for several laps and finished fourth. She has raced from shorts tracks to superspeedways, in both open wheel and stock cars. The series include Allison Legacy, NASCAR Weekly Racing, ROMCO Super Late Models, USRA Super Late Models, ASA, NASCAR Elite Division, the ARCA Racing Series, and the Indy Pro Series. Leilani has 9 top five, 21 top tens and 36 top fifteen finishes in 57 starts.
In 2002 Leilani moved from Southern California to North Carolina to pursue her racing career. In 2003 she had her first start in the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series at South Boston Speedway, she impressed many with her debut by finishing 9th. In 2004 the racing world took notice when she made her first speedway start at Texas Motor Speedway, setting a new record by qualifying 4th, the highest qualifying effort for a female driver at the track. She impressed in the race as well, finishing 7th. In 2005 Leilani began working as an instructor for Andy Hillenburg's Fast Track High Performance Driving School, giving ride-alongs and instructing at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Nashville Speedway, Kentucky Speedway, and Atlanta Motor Speedway - giving her valuable seat time behind the wheel on 1.5 mile speedways.
In 2006 she turned heads in Texas again when she finished 4th, the highest finish for a female stock car driver in the history of the 1.5 mile speedway. The record still stands. That same year Leilani became the first woman to qualify in the 45 year history of the Bettenhausen Classic at Illiana Speedway in Indiana. At the All Star late model race, only Leilani's second start at Madison International Speedway, her best lap time of 18.843 was only 0.358 of a second off of the best lap time of two time NASCAR Nextel Cup Champion Tony Stewart's best time. Leilani was the only female driver to make the field. Later that year, Leilani was running second in a late model race at Madison International Speedway in 2006 when, on the last lap, she was bumped by the car racing her for second place; she finished fifth. Her best finish in 2006 was third place, which also came in Madison. In December 2006, Leilani passed her rookie test at Daytona International Speedway and became licensed to race at the most famous track on the NASCAR circuit. She was 24th quick of 59 race cars testing in her very first laps at Daytona.
In 2007 Leilani became the fourth woman in history to race in the Indy Pro Series, the developmental league of IndyCar. She impressed IndyCar veterans across the board when she qualified 5th and turned in the 5th-fastest lap of the race with a speed of 192.399 mph. She had trouble on a restart and dropped back to 13th but dazzled the crowd by racing her way back up to the front of the field. With 20 laps to go, Leilani was about to pass for 4th place when she was collected in a multi-car accident when another car cut a tire. Four-time Indy 500 champion Rick Mears, IndyCar driver Jaques Lazier, and many others in the IndyCar community spoke very highly of Leilani after her debut. Leilani's next race in open wheel was at a track she had never been to before - Chicagoland Speedway. In her first laps at Chicagoland, Leilani was 5th quick in practice session for the Indy Pro Series Chicagoland 100 with a speed of 191.894 mph. She finished 13th in the race in what was to be her last open wheel start - due to lack of open wheel sponsorship, Leilani moved back to stock car racing, a more popular form of motorsports in the USA.
In 2010 after three successful tests at Daytona where Leilani showed speed and consistency, Leilani raised enough sponsorship to make her Daytona debut, driving the first ever 100% eco sponsored race car with 6 environmental companies teaming up to get her car on the track. Leilani was one of only three women to qualify for the 2010 race on speed alongside Danica Patrick and Alli Owens. Leilani was 2/10 of a seconds faster than the leaders and had just turned the fastest lap of the race up when she was caught up in "The Big One" after a veteran driver spun and collected 10 race cars, including Leilani.
Leilani returned to Daytona in 2012, this time she was driving the first ever ocean awareness race car to hit the high banks of Daytona International Speedway when she carried the colors of The Cove on her race car. Leilani drove the #12 The Cove entry for Mark Gibson Racing in her second ARCA race at Daytona, the car was crowd funded by donations from individuals and organizations all over the world that were touched by the documentary. Leilani was 25th of 52 cars in practice with a speed of 181.873 mph, she qualified 26th of 54 cars for the race. On lap 13, Leilani's left rear tire's inner liner blew out coming out of turn two and she finished 36th. Later in the year, Leilani returned to ARCA for her first race at Kansas Speedway. She was 16th quick when she tested Kansas Speedway for the first time, but when Leilani returned to race her engine overheated after just 5 laps.
In December 2013 after over a year passed without sitting in a race car, Leilani got behind the wheel of the #55 entry of Venturini Motorsports for the ARCA series pre-season testing at Daytona. She was fast right out of the box, posting the 6th quickest time of 78 race cars testing with a speed of 183.303 mph. Leilani was the fastest female driver at Daytona testing. She ran a tribute to Nikola Tesla on her race car at the Daytona test.
Leilani returned for the Daytona ARCA race in February 2014 behind the wheel of the #55 Go 100% Renewable! race car promoting 100% renewable energy from the sun, wind, and water in a collaboration with The Solutions Project. Leilani was 5th quick of 43 race cars in drafting practice at Daytona and 2nd quickest in single car runs. She qualified 7th of 43 cars but after ARCA tech reported a spring was sitting incorrectly, she started the race 33rd. Leilani raced her way from 33rd all the way up to 9th place in just 22 laps just to get taken out by a spinning car.
In April 2014, Leilani took her first laps at Talladega Superspeedway, the largest oval in the world. She was fast right out of the box posting the 4th quickest time of 20 race cars testing with a speed of 183.367 mph on the 2.66 mile super speedway. She returned to race in May driving a race car painted like an orca to promote the CNN documentary Blackfish. The Blackfish car was sponsored in a large part by co-creator of The Simpsons, Sam Simon, who attended the race. She had a strong debut race at Talladega Superspeedway, qualifying 8th of 37 race cars with a speed of 180.976 mph. She ran as high as 4th and stayed in the top 8 cars the entire race until the final restart with 13 laps to go, when she was bumped from behind and was shuffled back for a 14th place finish.
Leilani's next race was in July 2014 in the #66 PrairieGold solar car at Chicagoland Speedway. Leilani had an impressive run at Chicagoland, qualifying 16th and finishing 12th on the lead lap in her first start on a 1.5 mile track in over four years. She followed up Chicagoland with another 12th place finish at Kansas Speedway in a renewable energy themed car, the #66 Energy Freedom entry for Venturini Motorsports. Leilani participated in ARCA pre-season testing at Daytona where at one point Leilani was the top of the leaderboard in all three test sessions she participated in. She ended up 7th of 52 cars overall in the two day test.
Leilani returned to race at Daytona in the #66 Energy Freedom entry for Venturini Motorsports. She qualified 10th of 49 race cars with a speed of 186. 587 mph, her highest qualifying effort for Daytona. Leilani ran in the top ten for much of the race, running as high as 7th. She came out of pit stops on lap 38 in 12th place. On lap 53, Leilani was running 15th when going three wide into turn 3 she and the car to her outside touched and wrecked. It was discovered after the wreck that Leilani had severe carbon monoxide poisoning and she was immediately put on oxygen for several hours before the doctors would release her from Daytona's infield care center. Münter stated later that the doctor told her the wreck may have saved her life: had she finished the race, her doctor told her she may have gone to sleep in her hotel and never woken up the next morning because there are no symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, you simply get tired and fall asleep.
In February 2017, Leilani made her return to the ARCA Racing Series at Daytona International Speedway in the No. 15 Vegan Powered race car for Venturini Motorsports. She ran an incredible race, racing her way all the way into the 4th place position with just 25 laps to go. On the backstretch the race car behind Leilani made heavy contact with her rear bumper, causing a multi-car accident. Münter was praised widely by the racing community and Fox Sports television commentators for her performance.
In 2007, Leilani became the world's first carbon neutral race car driver when she made the commitment to adopt an acre of rainforest for every race she runs to offset the carbon footprint of her race car. She has continued this commitment ever since. In 2008, Leilani became an Ambassador of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and became politically active, making several trips to Capitol Hill to speak with members of Congress on behalf of clean energy legislation alongside NWF's climate change scientists. She has spoken on the steps of Capitol Hill alongside Senators Barbara Boxer and John Kerry. After meeting with her, Senator Elizabeth Dole called Leilani "a woman on a mission."
In 2010, Leilani was one of the first activists to visit the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, eventually making two trips to areas of Louisiana devastated by the oil spill and appearing on a live interview with MSNBC from the spill. She returned to the oil spill a second time just before BP was able to cap the well. In September 2010 Leilani made her first trip to Taiji, Japan to document the dolphin trade and slaughter as a volunteer for Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project, for whom she is now an Ambassador. Leilani would return two more times to Japan in 2010 and 2011, spending several weeks in the small town of Taiji documenting the dolphin slaughter depicted in the Academy Award winning documentary The Cove. In 2011, Leilani and Ric O'Barry were in Taiji during the devastating Typhoon Talas, which killed 73 people - 20 more people were never found. In the aftermath of the storm, Leilani lived without access to water for five days, an experience she credits to helping her more deeply understand the clean water crisis facing over 1 billion people on our planet.
In December of 2010 Leilani organized for the Empire State Building to be lit up red, in honor of the memory of the thousands of dolphins whose lives have been lost in the cove. She flipped the switch alongside director of "The Cove" Louie Psihoyos, world renowned dolphin activist Ric O'Barry, and actor John Leguizamo. She later took her dolphin activism to the race track when she drove "The Cove" race car to Daytona and gave away 1000 DVDs of the film to race fans. The car was funded completely by donations from fans of dolphins, Leilani and the film.
In February 2012 Leilani began filming with the Oceanic Preservation Society, makers of the Oscar winning film The Cove, on their next film Racing Extinction. The documentary film is about the sixth mass extinction, or Anthropocene extinction which we are currently living through. Leilani drives a very special Tesla Model S in the film, which will be released in fall of 2015.
In 2013 Leilani took her lobbying skills from Washington, DC to the state of North Carolina, whose state legislature was attempting to ban the sale of Tesla Motors electric cars in the state. Leilani wrote the article 'Why We Need to Fight for Tesla" about the bill for The Huffington Post, lobbied in the state capitol, and delivered a speech to the joint legislative women's caucus at the state capitol, speaking out in support of Tesla Motors. She wrote a follow up article for Huffington Post "It's On: Oil vs Electric" about the battle between the old fossil fuel based oil and gas industry and the new renewable energy and electric car industry.
Leilani joined the Board of Advisors for The Solutions Project in 2013, a group composed of leading scientists, business leaders and cultural influencers to use powerful combination of science + business + culture to accelerate the transition to 100% clean, renewable energy. The group was founded by actor and activist Mark Ruffalo, Stanford professor Mark Jacobson, and Marco Krapels. The group's backers include the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and The Elon Musk Foundation.
In February 2014, The Solutions Project and Leilani partnered to bring the clean energy message to race fans at Daytona International Speedway when Leilani raced the #55 Go 100% Renewable race car. Leilani's next car raised awareness about the documentary Blackfish and the captive orca industry. In the summer of 2014 Leilani became the first stock car driver to get to a race oil free by driving her Tesla Model S in an "Electric Route to the Racetrack," where she used the Tesla supercharger network and invited race fans and electric car enthusiasts to meet her at the superchargers on her way from her home in North Carolina to Chicagoland Speedway. The road trip was documented by Fusion TV and a feature aired on "America with Jorge Ramos." Leilani also made history at Chicagoland when her race team became the first to power their pit box with 100% solar power, using a system made by ZeroBase Energy for the US military. Her race car at Chicagoland Speedway was promoting PrairieGold Solar and 100.org, a campaign by The Solutions Project. Leilani ran at Kansas Speedway in Oct 2014 and Daytona International Speedway in February 2015 Leilani drove the #66 Energy Freedom race car which highlighted the battle between electric utilities and the right American citizens have to own and produce their own power if they choose. Leilani made a short film about Greensburg, Kansas - a small town knocked down by a F5 tornado that rebuilt and is now powered by 100% renewable energy from wind. She ran the same Energy Freedom car at Daytona in February 2015 and a national television commercial featuring Leilani and the #66 Energy Freedom race car aired throughout the live Daytona race broadcast on Fox Sports 1.
In 2015, Leilani joined the Board of Oceanic Preservation Society, founded by Academy Award winning director Louie Psihoyos. Leilani worked with Oceanic Preservation Society for three and a half years on their second film Racing Extinction, which was released in select theaters in the USA on September 18, 2015. On December 2nd, 2015, the worldwide television release of Racing Extinction aired on the Discovery Channel in 220 countries and territories around the world.
Leilani currently lives in Charlotte, NC with her husband Craig, an engineer from New Zealand. They were married by Leilani's brother-in-law Bob Weir at Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel Peninsula of New Zealand in March of 2009. Their home has a Tesla Model S electric car in the garage, solar panels on the roof, a 550 gallon rainwater collection system, LED and solar lighting, and a vegetable garden. They are child free by choice and share their eco friendly home with their three rescue cats: Tim, Ric O'Barry and Kathy, the latter two were named after dolphin activist Ric O'Barry and the dolphin that changed his life. (Watch the Oscar winning film The Cove if you are not familiar with his story). Leilani is left handed. She is small, but tough. Her motto is: Never underestimate a vegan hippie chick with a race car.
Awards and Honors
Vegan Athlete of the Year Award - 2016
Cool the Earth and Captain Planet Foundation's "Superhero of the Earth" Award - 2015
White House meeting with Vice President Joe Biden with team from The Solutions Project on renewable energy and electric cars - 2014
Sustainatopia Honors Award in Miami - 2013
ELLE Magazine's Genius Award - 2012
Guest at the White House, briefing on the Greening of Sports - 2012
Origin Magazine "Leaders Shifting the Planet" - 2012
Front page of MSN Causes being honored for Earth Day - 2012
Guest at the White House, briefing on Women and the Environment - 2012
Delivered Earth Day Speech on the National Mall in Washington DC- 2012
The Huffington Post "Creative Minds: People We Expect Great Things From" - 2011
Featured in United Nations book "Champions For Change: Athletes Making a World of Difference" - 2010
#1 Eco Athlete in the World by Discovery's Planet Green - 2010
Front page of CNN: "She's Racing To Save the Environment" - 2010
Coco Eco Magazine, "One of the Most Influential Women in Green" - 2010
Glamour Magazine named Leilani "An Eco Hero" - 2009
National ad campaign for Lucky Brand Jeans, her ad appeared in Vogue, Vanity Fair, In Style, W Magazine and Lucky Brand Stores across USA - 2008 & 2009
Guest, United Nations roundtable discussion on climate change - 2008
First Ambassador of the National Wildlife Federation - 2008
Sports Illustrated named her one of the top ten female race car drivers in the world - 2007