Sundance: Leilani Munter is racing for the green — the eco-version, that is

First Published      Last Updated Jan 24 2015 06:13 pm

Sundance » Race-car driver makes appearance in the documentary “Racing Extinction.”

Leilani Münter's motto is "Never underestimate a vegan hippie chick with a race car."

Especially when she is given a platform as large as the Sundance Film Festival.

Münter, a driver with perhaps the most interesting bio in the world — biologist, body double for Catherine Zeta-Jones, onetime ambassador of National Wildlife Federation, proud owner of a worm composting farm — will be roaring into Utah this weekend for Sundance.

Deemed the No. 1 Eco Athlete in the World in 2010 by Discovery's Planet Green, Münter is featured in "Racing Extinction," a film directed by Louie Psihoyos ("The Cove," U.S. Audience Award Sundance 2009 winner) that highlights the mass extinction of species.

She is also the keynote speaker at Tuesday's Better Future event at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City, a gathering of political and environmental leaders who will discuss clean air, clean water and clean energy solutions.

In the film and in her speech, Münter plans to deliver the same message — the world needs to act before it's too late, or the race to extinction will be lost for countless species.

"We have to learn and adapt to this world that we live in to protect it, but so far we are doing a pretty bad job of that," Münter said. "There are 7 billion people and everybody wants a cellphone and have all these things but there is a finite amount of land on this planet and finite resources."

Münter, who earned a biology degree from the University of California at San Diego and funded her racing school expenses by standing in for Zeta-Jones, obviously isn't your typical race-car driver. She is just as apt to talk about the value of solar panels and adopting a vegan diet as she is V8 engines.

While her marketing advisers haven't always supported her views, fearful she would turn off many fans and sponsors in the racing community, Münter has stood steadfast. A key moment for her came several years ago when she discovered a thread in a NASCAR forum in which one fan was berating her for advertising Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth." The comments swayed from personal attacks toward her to the parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere.

"That was the moment when I smiled and said 'This is why. 'Now my whole life makes sense,' " she said. "I grew up being a biologist, then moving to North Carolina where I didn't know anyone to be a race-car driver. None of that made sense at first. But then I realized I could be the bridge between env0ironmental issues and racing. This is why I was put on the planet, to talk as much as possible about the environment and things like "Inconvenient Truth," to people who might not agree with you."

For those who still think it's odd a race-car driver would care so much about the environment, Münter fires back.

In a time when global warming, ocean die-offs and mass extinctions are occurring, how can anyone not be an activist?

"This is an issue that every single person on the planet should care about," she said. "Because I am a race-car driver, I have a voice I can use to talk to people who normally wouldn't listen. It's great to go out and race or win football games, but as athletes we have an amazing opportunity to raise consciousness and fight for something bigger. This goes so much deeper for me."

A race-car driver since 2001, she uses her vehicle as a "200 mph billboard," touting everything from "The Cove," Psihoyos' documentary that exposed the annual hunts in Taiji, Japan, in which thousands of dolphins and whales are either slaughtered or captured and sold into captivity, to her PrairieGold Solar car that promoted solar energy.

Her personal Tesla sports the license plate "EFF OIL."

"I know I could be getting out of a car, sipping on a soda and saying, 'Buy this sugar water,' and plugging whoever is cutting the check, but that isn't me," Münter said. "I love racing, but at the end of the day it's just racing, it's just a sport. I have bigger goals."

Like changing the world, which is why she jumped at the invitation from Psihoyos to participate in "Racing Extinction."

" 'The Cove' had a deep, deep effect on me as an activist," Münter said. "It took me to a new level, and that is the gift that Louie has. He inspires people to take action. I went to Taiji three times with Ric O'Barry and the Dolphin Project after seeing that movie to do what I could to stop what is happening there, and I don't know of anyone who saw 'The Cove' and wasn't inspired to do something.

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About Leilani Münter

Has nine top five and 19 top 10 finishes in 45 starts

Next race is Daytona, Feb. 14

Seventh fastest in a field of 52 in the Daytona ARCA testing

Participated in a United Nations Roundtable discussion on climate change in 2008, set to address the U.N. on April 14 about energy and the environment

Served as the first ambassador of the National Wildlife Federation in 2008

Volunteered three times in Taiji, Japan with Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project

Named the No. 1 Eco Athlete in the World by Discovery’s Planet Green in 2010

Adopts an acre of rain forest every time she races to offset carbon emissions

Fourth woman to compete in the Indy Pro Series

Holds a degree in biology

Born in Minnesota, currently lives in Charlotte, N.C.

When to see ‘Racing Extinction’

Louie Psihoyos’ documentary “Racing Extinction” screens in the U.S. Documentary competition of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, at the following times and locations:

Saturday, Jan. 24, 11:30 a.m. » The MARC, Park City

Sunday, Jan. 25, 3:30 p.m. » Peery’s Egyptian Theatre, Ogden

Monday, Jan. 26, 4 p.m. » Redstone Cinema 2, Park City

Wednesday, Jan. 28, 3 p.m. » Temple Theatre, Park City

Thursday, Jan. 29, 6 p.m. » Tower Theatre, Salt Lake City

Saturday, Jan. 31, 2:30 p.m. » Prospector Square Theatre, Park City