To say that Leilani Münter has accomplished a lot in her young life is something of an understatement. An environmentalist and former photo double to one of the greatest actresses of all-time, this graduate of the University of California in San Diego found her true calling in life as a racer (and a pretty damn good one too).
No matter if it's the open wheel vehicles of the Indy Pro ranks or the closed wheel stock cars of the ARCA Re/Max Series, the 33-year-old Münter adapts quickly, often qualifying toward the front of the field and finishing amongst the leaders by race's end.
Witness: In her first time racing late models in 2004 at the Texas Motor Speedway, she qualified fourth and finished seventh. Additionally, she competed in an Indy Pro event three years later at Kentucky, qualifying fifth and raced amongst the front pack until a late-race crash.
At the racetrack, Münter is a well respected and popular driver amongst her peers in the garage area as well as fans across the nation for her determination and tremendous talent despite her relatively short time-frame behind the wheel.
Off the track, she is a diligent and passionate environmentalist, advocating the need to preserve our world for its natural wonder and beauty. Her passion for the environment was prevalent during her years in college, when she graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Biology, which specialized in Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution.
Whether it's finding the ultimate line around a high-banked racing facility or climbing to the top of a wind turbine in Albeline, Texas, rest assured, Münter gives her absolute attention and focus to achieving maximum results in her many facets of life.
Following her sensational test session last month at Daytona, I got the chance to interview Münter, who will be piloting the No. 59 Mark Gibson Racing car for the 2010 ARCA Re/Max series opener at Daytona. As I observed from her days back at NASCAR.com as a reporter, I found that she was very genuine and sincere.
It wasn't just Münter the racer talking, but the happily married young woman who loves her family and her life. When you read about her experiences in racing and her previous works, you'll find that she's very content and appreciative of the people she's encountered along the way.
Special thanks to fellow motorsports journalist Becca Gladden for making this interview possible, as well as photographer Craig Davidson for the picture in this article.
Sit back and enjoy getting to know more about Leilani Münter, driver of the No. 59 NextEra Energy Dodge!
Rob Tiongson: For the B/R Creatures who may not know about you, describe how you "cut your teeth" in racing. I understand that you got into racing about nine years ago racing in the Allison Legacy Series.
Leilani Munter: I started racing on the short tracks of southern California in the Allison Legacy Series, then moved to late models, and then super late models. I did my first Daytona test in ARCA back in 2006. Then in 2007, I had the opportunity to move to the Indy Pro Series.
I ran a couple open wheel races at Kentucky Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway and have done some additional testing in Indy Lights cars since then. Now it looks like my future for 2010 is back in stock car racing in the ARCA Series and possibly some NASCAR series races in 2011.
RT: What were some of the things you did prior to taking up a racing career in 2001? I read somewhere that you were once Catherine Zeta-Jones' photo double.
LM: I earned a degree in biology from the University of California in San Diego so my background is science, but I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie.
I have been scuba diving since high school and recently enjoyed a few skydiving jumps. While I was in California studying, I earned my SAG card which ended up landing me a job as a photo double for Catherine Zeta-Jones. I worked with her on Steven Soderbergh's movie "Traffic" and then again on "America's Sweethearts."
I had worked as a stand in on another Soderbergh film called "Ocean's Eleven" and was asked to work for Catherine again when she was cast in "Ocean's Twelve," but I was already living in North Carolina and concentrating on my racing career full time so I kind of had to leave the movie stuff behind me when I left California.
I had a lot of fun working in the movies while it lasted. I got to work with some amazing people—Julia Roberts, Christopher Walken, John Cusack, Billy Crystal, George Clooney and Brad Pitt to name a few—who wouldn't enjoy that? But all I really wanted to do was to race, so my heart took me to North Carolina to pursue my dream.
RT: Whether it's been the open wheel Indy Pro Series or the NASCAR and ARCA stock cars, you just have the ability to adapt quickly to the cars. Is it a matter of comfort in driving these cars or is it a lot harder than it looks?
LM: I think if you're a race driver, you are a race driver regardless of the vehicle. Obviously race cars can be very different and it takes some time to adapt to the handling of each car.
The adaptation has always come very natural to me and that may be a result of the fact that as I have been working my way up the racing ladder over the past nine years, I have constantly had to jump in different cars with different teams in order to get seat time I needed.
I took any opportunity to get in a car of any kind, so I didn't have the consistency of the same car and team every weekend. That may have forced me to learn how to adapt quickly to different cars, teams, and tracks.
RT: You placed an outstanding seventh in ARCA testing at Daytona. Looks like you and the Mark Gibson Racing team found a lot of speed in that No. 59 Dodge. What's it like to be working alongside one of the most formidable teams in that series?
LM: It obviously gives me a lot of confidence to be driving a car for a winning team with such a long history in the ARCA Series. I knew that Mark was going to give me a great car and knew that they knew what they were doing in terms of set up for the car. It's been a long road to get to this point, and it feels great to have a good shot at being very competitive and getting some wins.
RT: Some fans may remember you from your days at NASCAR.com, especially with your Leilani Reports clips. What was one of your more fonder moments when you worked with them? Any funny or hilarious memories?
LM: It's hard to pick just one moment, there were a lot of good times! We wanted to make a tape of all the bloopers we had caught on camera (there were a lot of them), but it never happened.
I wish I could look at all that old footage and make that tape, there were some very funny moments. I had a great time with the people I worked with there and I still keep in touch with a few of them.
It's fun to be back in the garage again and see some of the media people I worked with, but this time I have my race car with me instead of a microphone. As I always hoped I would be.
RT: Just as you are passionate with racing, you are very much involved with environmentalism. What was your drive to get the word out there about informing legislators and the public about the issues regarding our environment and climate issues?
LM: I grew up in Minnesota spending a lot of time outdoors, so I always had an appreciation for nature and protecting it and Earth's creatures. My degree is in biology from the University of California San Diego, and while I was earning my degree I was a volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center.
I've been vegetarian for many years and have been a scuba diver since I was in high school. Once I realized that I could use my voice in the sport to bring attention to environmental issues, I went with my instincts and launched an environmental section on my website.
That was back in 2006 and being green wasn't quite as popular back then so I know I ruffled a few feathers in the garage. Then in 2007, I made the commitment to adopt an acre of rainforest for every race I run to offset the carbon footprint of my race car. None of us are perfect, obviously we all have an impact on the environment. It's about doing what you can and I am just trying to do my small part.
RT: I realize it's asked a lot but when you go out there to race, do you get tired of hearing how racing is supposedly just a man's sport? Cause the last time I checked, racing is a sport open to anyone with skills , not just gender. (And I am very certain that you have skills as a driver!)
LM: I have become accustomed to questions like, "Do you race against the guys?" and funny questions like that. When I first started racing I used to get upset when people would make sexist remarks, but it doesn't bother me anymore.
I think all female drivers develop a pretty thick skin when they come into the sport, because you have to in order to survive. There will always be people out there that will not accept me or other female racers, but I don't spend any time worrying about that. I am a race car driver and I just focus on my job and doing well on the racetrack.
RT: In your relatively young racing career, what has been your most memorable event thus far?
LM: I have been racing for nine years now so I have quite a few. My first race in the Indy Pro Series was a good one. I qualified fifth and was looking at a top five finish when I got caught up in wreck that happened in front of me.
Rick Mears said some really nice things about my driving after that race so that was quite an honor. After finishing fourth at Texas Motor Speedway in 2006, on my last lap returning to the garage all the safety workers came up to the wall and were congratulating me and waving and cheering me on and that was a really special moment for me. It meant a lot to me to know many people were pulling for me to do well.
RT: Who, among the racing community, are you closest to? Are there drivers in the garage area who you talk to and exchange ideas with you on and off the track?
LM: Andy Hillenburg has been a mentor to me, I used to work for his racing school Fast Track. Justin Marks and Alli Owens are friends of mine in the ARCA garage.
Shawna Robinson has been very supportive of my career and I have so much respect for what she has done for women in our sport. She was breaking down barriers for us back in the 80s and 90s and I hope that every female driver out there today will never forget about Shawna, Lyn St James, Janet Guthrie and all the other women who came before us - they were true female pioneers of our sport.
RT: Free Association time for you, Leilani. Hope you are game for this! Tell me the first thing that pops into your head with the following:
Wide open racing.
RT: Alternative energy sources.
LM: Wind, sun, water.
RT: Favorite race track.
LM: Texas, I've had some great runs there.
LM: No fun.
LM: What doesn't kill me only makes me stronger!
LM: My family and my husband.
RT: Favorite music.
LM: My brother-in-law is Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, so of course I love their music. And Jack Johnson.
LM: Spiders scare me. I still catch them with a glass and take them outside, but they scare me.
LM: To be the change I wish to see in the world.
RT: What are your plans for the upcoming 2010 season? Are you looking at a full-time campaign in the ARCA Series or venturing into both that division and the Indy Pro cars?
LM: Right now, the plan is to run 10 ARCA races starting with Daytona, but the schedule will depend on how much sponsorship I am able to put together. I will definitely be at Daytona in February and the next race on my schedule is Texas followed by Talladega.
RT: Now I understand that you have a unique sponsor that's aiding your efforts with the No. 59 team. Tell us about NextEra Energy and what they do.
LM: NextEra Energy Resources sponsored my test at Daytona. They are the largest renewable energy company in the United States. I am proud to represent a company that I really believe in; they are bringing clean renewable energy using the wind and the sun. This is about energy independence for America.
Through my relationship with NextEra I have visited the largest wind farm in the world where I climbed to the top of one and autographed the blade.
I also visited the largest solar thermal farm in the world in the Mojave Desert which makes enough energy to power 250,000 homes. They are doing some amazing things and I am proud to carry their colors on my race car.
In addition to NextEra Energy Resources, I am also working with a company called GREENandSAVE which is bringing energy efficiency to corporate America through LED lighting.
GREENandSAVE will be my partner throughout the 2010 racing season and any company that wants to go green and save money can do it by signing up for our lighting upgrades with LED lights that reduce electricity demand by up to 80 percent. This program allows companies to reduce energy costs immediately without spending a dime.
Also, GREENandSAVE has created the ground breaking "Savings Share" program that gives the property owners and managers a $0 start up cost advantage since they only pay for the cost of the retrofit from a portion of the actual money saved each month.
The program is cash flow positive for companies from the start. As an additional benefit, companies that initiate the LED lighting retrofits will receive sponsorship exposure through my race program.