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The Green Life: Trendsetter: The NASCAR Environmentalist

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September 15, 2009

Trendsetter: The NASCAR Environmentalist

Leilani MunterThink the term "NASCAR environmentalist" is an oxymoron? Guess again. Leilani Muenter, 33, one of Sports Illustrated's top-ten female race car drivers, is an unabashed eco-warrior. A passionate ambassador for the National Wildlife Federation, she has lobbied Congress to pass the Climate Security Act, makes frequent appearances to educate fans about going green, and buys an acre of rainforest for every race she runs. She took time out of her high-speed schedule to chat with Sierra.

Q: How do you reconcile your car-racing with your environmentalism?

A: I'm not going to apologize for liking fast cars. I have a much bigger voice because of it. If I stop racing, there'll be someone else in that seat. I wouldn't have a platform to reach 100 million people. I was in Norway at the zero-emissions Viking Rally driving a hydrogen fuel cell Ford Focus. When I got out of the car, I drank the water from my exhaust pipe to show how clean it was.

Q: As a conservationist, what are you proudest of?

A: I don't know if conservation is something that lends itself to being proud. My role is that I can speak to a large group of people. If I can highlight the small things we can do, like recycling or eating less meat, those small changes multiplied by millions of race fans could make a gigantic difference.

Q: What are you proudest of in your racing career? 

A: The fact that I’m using my voice in the sport to emphasize that are things that are important outside the car. But I am proud of my finish at Texas, and of how I did when I ran in the Indy Lite race. I qualified fifth, even though I ended up in a wreck. It earned me respect from the higher-ups in my sport.

Q: How do people in the racing world respond to environmental advocacy?

A: It's been very positive lately. When I first started talking about it, people told me I was committing career suicide, that I would push away sponsors. But if a company doesn't want to work with me because I talk about the environment, those aren't people I want on my car anyway.

Q: How did you decide to be a vegetarian?

A: When I was 6, my mom went vegetarian, and then the whole house did. I was at a Wendy’s with my mom. I didn’t realize what meat was, and then she explained it to me. It was so traumatic that I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was horrified when I found out that I was biting into the side of a cow. I don’t think it’s my right to take life. We’re in different bodies but we’re all sharing the same earth.

Now I always talk about how the meat industry emits more greenhouse gas than the whole transportation industry combined. And that methane is 21 times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide, and that it lasts in the atmosphere much longer. If Americans alone were to cut back their meat consumption 10 percent, it would free up enough land for us to grow grain for all the hungry kids in the world. All people have to do is make the connection between what’s on their plate and the environment.

Q: Do you know any other race car drivers who are vegetarian?

A: One other, who wrote to me to ask about racing shoes that weren’t made of leather. It’s a small population but they’re out there. I’ve heard of a couple others.

Q: How else do you live green? 

A: My husband and I bought an Energy Star-certified house. When we were shopping for a house, we agreed that we didn’t want to move anywhere that wasn’t energy-efficient, with solar lighting, a composter, a vegetable garden, and so on. We’re getting a solar water heater, we’re big recyclers, we unplug, we just do what we can to make our impact as little as possible.

Q: Last year you spoke to Congress about climate issues. What was that like?

A: I’d never been to Congress or really spent time in D.C. I was taking the next step with my activism, taking it to the political level to make it law, to make corporations liable. For me, it was exciting to see this whole other side of the environmental movement. That’s where a lot of the changes are going to take place – in D.C.

Q: How can auto racing – and its fans – go green? How likely do you think that is?

A: I use my race car to reach out to fans on environmental issues. My sponsor is Smart Paper. I want a light bulb on the hood of my car. When I get out of my car, I want to be able to say if each one of the 100,000 Daytona fans here today were to make the switch, this would be the impact. But I can’t do it until corporate America says yes, this makes sense. I need their support or else I can’t do it. These are 100 million people that environmentalists need to talk to in order to get movement.

There’s constant innovation happening in racing. It can be the difference between winning and losing the Daytona 500 to be fuel-efficient. It can be the difference between millions and millions of dollars. They could use it as a testing ground for new green technologies.

--interview by Avital Binshtock

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