Leilani Munter and her PrairieGold Solar car. Photo by Kari Lydersen
Leilani Munter and her PrairieGold Solar car. Photo by Kari Lydersen
Leilani Munter and her PrairieGold Solar car. Photo by Kari Lydersen

The air smells of burning rubber, and the sound of roaring engines is deafening. Homages to petroleum are everywhere: rows of semi-trucks and trailers, stacks of thick smooth tires and the stars of the show – bright sleek race cars emblazoned with the names of sponsors like Rope, Soap ‘N Dope, an oilfield supply company. Just outside the Chicagoland Speedway, thousands of automobiles are parked amongst bales of hay on grassy fields.

This is the arena where lifelong environmentalist Leilani Munter preaches her gospel of renewable energy and the goal of a carbon-free economy.

Munter is considered one of the world’s top female race car drivers and a successful competitor in the ARCA circuit, often described as the minor leagues for NASCAR. Billing herself as a “hippie vegan chick who drives a race car,” Munter uses her celebrity to generate enthusiasm for the concept of renewable energy among a crowd not traditionally known as environmentalists.

Munter’s race car burns high octane gasoline, but she drove to Chicago from her home in Charlotte, N.C. in her electric Tesla Model S sedan, which she nicknamed “Phoenix.” On the way to the Chicagoland race July 19, she made stops to talk with fans and car enthusiasts in several cities. ARCA said her trip was the first time a competitor had arrived at a race without burning oil.

Munter pays to protect an acre of rainforest every time she races to compensate for the carbon emissions of her race car. Hence, Carbon Free Girl is the name of a website that features her appearances, and she blogs for Huffington Post on environmental and energy issues.

Munter’s car is sponsored by PrairieGold Solar, a New York-based solar investment company, and the Solutions Project, a California-based nonprofit advocating a 100 percent renewable energy economy.

Taking on a male-dominated industry and zooming around crowded racetracks at 200 miles per hour is one thing. Talking about renewable energy in that context is another challenge altogether, but Munter is doing that too.

“The NASCAR crowd is a different audience, and Leilani has been able to get in a conversation with those fans about renewable energy,” said Brandon Hurlbut, co-founder of PrairieGold Solar and former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Energy, at a meet-and-greet Munter held at the Illinois Institute of Technology a few days before her Chicagoland race.

An epiphany

As a kid growing up in Rochester, Minn., Munter, now 40,  says she was “always the one telling the other kids to recycle.” She got a degree in biology from the University of California San Diego and is active in various environmental crusades, a major focus being the slaughter of dolphins in Japan. Munter wears a whale tale necklace and ring when she races.

Munter was hooked as soon as she tried race car driving.

“People told me I couldn’t do it,” as a woman, she said. “But it’s a steering wheel and a few pedals.”

Munter didn’t immediately make the connection to carbon emissions and climate change. After seeing the 2006 movie “An Inconvenient Truth,”  however, she started a sustainability section on her website and began speaking out.

At first, some negative comments accused her of being “brainwashed by Al Gore.” However, other commenters weighed in with support for the movie’s message. Soon the online conversation shifted from bashing Munter and Gore to debating specific climate change effects.

“I got a big smile on my face, that people were talking about [carbon] parts per million on a NASCAR forum,” she said. “It was an epiphany that I can be a bridge between these two groups of people, to get them to actually talk to each other.”

Munter began viewing her car as “a 200 mile per hour billboard not for products but for shifts in our behavior.”

Promoting electric vehicles

It might seem inherently contradictory that Munter is dedicated to a pursuit that involves driving and burning gasoline purely for sport.

Munter doesn’t deny that she simply loves racing, but she also sees it as the best way for her to have a real impact.

“If I didn’t have my race car and just worked on environmental issues, my voice would be much more muted,” she said. “I always feel like I’m making the most difference on the race track. I’m talking to people where when I say carbon footprint they don’t even know what I’m talking about. But now I’m getting NASCAR fans asking about how to adopt rainforest.”

Jeff Navin, former acting chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Energy and another co-founder of PrairieGold Solar, was among the crowd of clean energy proponents gathered at the race track to cheer for Munter. He said that auto racing is actually greener than many people realize.

For example, Formula E, an all-electric international car racing series, will launch in September, Navin said. He also noted that Formula One cars now have hybrid engines, and that NASCAR cars burn biofuel blends.

“There’s a tradition of race cars being technology drivers,” said Navin. “Technology in race cars trickles down to other cars. They’re building electric vehicles designed to go fast and handle well under extreme conditions.”

Munter’s own Tesla was on display in the pit at the Chicagoland race, drawing many admirers.

“She’s exposing people who like cars to electric vehicle technology,” said Navin. “A lot of people here are interested in great cars, and the Tesla is a great car, not just something that’s good for the environment.”

Speaking at the Illinois Institute of Technology two days before the race, Munter acknowledged the common perception that electric vehicles aren’t suited for road trips. She said her cross country tour was easy, thanks to Tesla’s Supercharger network, which directed her to high-powered charging stations along the way. However, that network is available only for the specific Tesla models, and even the owner of older Tesla Roadsters can’t use it.

Roadster owner Sam Carnavacciolo described the challenge of long trips, often calling ahead to RV parks to convince them to let him charge for a few hours, or unplugging motel air conditioners and running an extension cord out the window to his car.

“They used to say, ‘You’ll blow up my RV park,’” he said, although attitudes are changing. “Now there is a big difference. People understand it.”

Culture shift

Actor Mark Ruffalo flew to Chicago from a film set in London for Munter’s race. Ruffalo co-founded the Solutions Project with a group that included Stanford University envinronmental engineering professor Mark Jacobson, investment banker Marco Krapels, and anti-fracking filmmaker Josh Fox.

While some might be won over by a Hollywood personality like himself, others would question “the credibility of some actor, what the hell does he know,” noted Ruffalo. Scientists might convince some people, but others view scientists as “hippie eggheads, you don’t know anything about the economy. So then we bring in a banker.”

Among clean energy proponents gathered in a suite above the racetrack, Ruffalo described Munter as part of a multi-pronged cultural shift needed to build support for renewable energy.

“We have to have business, science and culture together to surmount all of the negative beliefs about solar and renewable energy,” said Ruffalo before the race.

Most of the local energy and environmental experts in the suite – “green weenies,” in Ruffalo’s words – had never been to the Chicagoland Speedway before.

“It’s definitely a culture clash,” said Amy Francetic, executive director of the Chicago-based Clean Energy Trust. “Folks had to come from California [home of the Solutions Project] to get us to go to this place right here in Chicago. We’re the nerd crowd.”

Munter sped around the 1.5 mile track 100 times, skimming frighteningly close to other vehicles and ultimately finishing 12th in an otherwise all-male field, averaging more than 100 miles per hour.

As the sun set afterward behind the coal-fired power plant just west of the racetrack, its rays cast a dreamy glow over the rows and rows of cars and fluttering American, Confederate and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags erected by tailgaters.

Joining Ruffalo and  others in the suite, Munter got teary-eyed as she talked about the day and what she felt she had accomplished. Most important to Munter – and her crowd of supporters – was traveling to the race carbon-free and spreading the message about clean energy.

“We did something no one has ever done,” she said.

Editor’s note – an earlier version of this story misstated Munter’s nickname for her Tesla.

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.

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