Model, activist, race car driver

Leilani Munter is ready for a pit stop. If only she had the time.

First there was the big inaugural ball in Washington, where she danced with her friends in the Grateful Dead. Then it was on to Daytona for talks with potential sponsors. Next up: a pair of speaking gigs in southern California and a pre-Oscar party in L.A. co-hosted by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Two days later she was climbing the core of a 252-foot wind turbine in Abilene Texas, no easy feat for an acrophobic, especially when her harness gets snagged and she looks down and tries not to panic.

Then in March, it was back to D.C. for a panel discussion on the environment alongside actress Darryl Hannah and speeches in Malaysia and Hawaii. Oh, and then there was her St. Patrick's Day wedding on a beach on New Zealand's Coromandel Peninsula.

And she still hopes to zip a stock car around the track at Talladega Superspeedway this month.

Munter, 33, is a driven driver, a girl on a mission.

In a sport of barbecue-loving good 'ol boys, she's a self-described “vegetarian hippie-chick race car driver.” A resident of Cornelius, she’s an eco-activist and computer geek who maintains her two Web sites, including one called For every race, she buys an acre of rain forest through the National Wildlife Federation to offset her carbon emissions.

“I’m just as passionate about the environment as I am about racing,” she says.

A slender 5-foot-3, Munter looks like a model. And she is. Her ads for Lucky Jeans have landed her in the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair. One men’s magazine called her the hottest woman in stock car racing. She looks enough like actress Catherine Zeta-Jones that she played her photo double in the Oscar-winning “Traffic.”

With her petite build and long dark hair, she also resembles Indy driver Danica Patrick, racing’s most recognized female driver. Once, the two found themselves together at Texas Motor Speedway. Fans walked up to Munter and asked if she would pose for a picture with them.

“Oh thanks, Danica!” they said.

“Actually," Munter replied, “I’m not Danica. I’m running in a stock car race.”

Patrick, who won her first race last year, has enjoyed a level of success that has so far eluded Munter, who has labored in the minor leagues of both Indy and stock car racing. But Munter’s goal isn’t just to win races - it's also to win fans for the environment. For her, the two go hand-in-hand.

“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,” she says. “The only way I have their attention is because I have a racing suit on and race car underneath me.”

From hippie to sportswoman

A native of Rochester, Minn., Munter went off to the West Coast for college. At the University of California at San Diego, she majored in biology, specializing in Ecology, Behavior and Evolution. She dreamed of being a marine biologist. “I wanted to get paid to be on boats,” she says.

Her sister married Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, and Munter fancied the easy-going lifestyle the band represented.

“I was definitely raised not to be a race car driver,” she says. “The hippie stuff, the ecology stuff, fit me much more as a person."

In college Munter worked as a wildlife rescue volunteer and Hollywood stunt and photo double. On a whim, she went to a nearby racing school and climbed into a stock car. A NASCAR team owner who happened to be there went up to her.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I’m a starving biology student that saved up the extra money I had to come to this racing school,” she replied.

The team owner encouraged her to find a sports marketing agent. Munter did, and began racing in 2001.

She ran tracks in California and in 2004 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 December 2006, she ran an ARCA car at Daytona International Speedway. In 2007 she was invited to join an IndyCar team and became the fourth woman in history to race in the Indy Pro Series, a developmental league.

With its screeching tires and gulping fuel tanks, auto racing hasn’t exactly been a best friend to the environment. But it’s getting greener.

NASCAR recently hired the first director for its new “Green Initiative.” And energy-saving features will make Charlotte’s new Hall of Fame a certified “green building.” Sponsors of Bobby Labonte’s No. 96 car just announced plans to offset his carbon emissions by investments in solar energy and wind farms. IndyCar last year switched all its racers to ethanol-based fuel. And even four-time Cup-level driver Jeff Gordon sometimes drives a hybrid Chevy Tahoe off the track.

Of course, NASCAR hasn’t always been so eco-friendly.

Munter once saw this posted about her on a NASCAR Web site: “I’m going to burn all the oil in my yard to make up for the acre of forest she is buying,” it said.

When Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” debuted in 2006, she found that a mention of it on her Web site brought a flurry of comments, pro and con.

“I saw that I had created a dialogue,” she says, “and that’s how you create change. I sat back and said, ‘That’s exactly why I’m here.’ ”

Working her way up

A big hurdle for Munter – and all drivers – is money.

Sprint Cup rides cost up to $5 million a season. ARCA cars, the kind Munter has driven, cost about $25,000 a race, says H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, former president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway. There’s a reason drivers have ads plastered all over their uniforms.

Munter has given herself another hurdle – she’s picky about sponsors. Hers must be eco-friendly. Her ideal car would have sponsors’ names on the sides and an environmental message – maybe, “Use Canvas Bags” – on the hood.

“There’s been a couple sponsors that I’ve not worked with because of their environmental practices,” she says. “And it’s hard because I’m a race car driver too. There’s a drive inside of me that I really want to win races and I want to become the first female driver to win a major stock car race. Sometimes … I’m walking away from an opportunity to further my career as a driver.

“So that was a hard choice for me to make. Maybe I did hurt my career. Maybe that sponsor I walked away from was the last time I was going to get offered a decent sponsor that could take me to the next level. But I would have felt like a real sell-out.”

With no standing sponsors, Munter can never be entirely sure of her race schedule. She hopes to race in at least eight ARCA or a half-dozen Indy Light races – or both – this year. She’s got teams in both divisions ready to field cars for her.

Women have a short history in racing. Since Janet Guthrie became the first woman to compete in a Winston Cup superspeedway race when she finished 15th in the 1976 World 600 Race at Lowe's, only a handful of women have raced professionally.

Wheeler says Munter, like other women drivers, just needs a few breaks. “It’s just the normal process of trying to go up the ladder,” he says. “That’s (Munter’s) biggest foe.”

Munter knows the odds. She also knows why she straps on a helmet and hops behind the wheel. It’s not unlike oilman T. Boone Pickens promoting wind energy.

“It drives home the point that much more,” she says, “that here’s a race car driver, somebody whose livelihood is based around an internal combustion engine. And even she can see that we have to get over our addiction to fossil fuels.”

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC