Catie Munnings has rubbed shoulders with Mario Andretti, ridden shotgun with Prince William and raced in some of the world’s most remote and unusual locations through Extreme E.
For the Andretti United Extreme E team co-driver, the mind-bending personal experiences from competing in the inaugural season have mirrored the boundary-breaking concepts of a series that races electric SUVs to raise awareness about climate change.
“I’m just having the best time; it’s been an incredible year,” Munnings told NBC Sports in a recent interview. “I feel so lucky even to just be able to travel to a few countries. It’s so difficult at the minute with borders. If you have all the right letters and everything, it’s still so complicated, and when you make it to the race, it’s, ‘Yes, we did it!’ Then of course you have the race to think about on top of that.
“I’ve just felt so lucky to be able to experience it. There’s been a lot of pinch-me moments. I know I’ll look back on these years as some of the best years.”
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Extreme E will be holding its Arctic X Prix this weekend near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, on an open plain at the end of the Russell Glacier. The undulating terrain over the 6.68-kilometer course will feature a mixture of boulders, gravel and sand dunes that have been shaped by a harsh wind and melting water.
It’s the third of five races in Extreme E’s debut season, and the most far-flung locale yet after trips to the coast of Senegal and the desert of Saudi Arabia. Without adequate accommodations, the male and female drivers for the nine teams will be staying on the St. Helena, a retrofitted former cargo-passenger ship that delivers the cars and crews to each race as the series’ floating headquarters.
“I think you can’t prepare yourself for what you see,” Munnings, 23, said. “A lot of the championship work is around the environmental issues. And so in Senegal, we were planting mangrove trees with the local community. We were visiting schools. And then in Saudi Arabia, we were working with the scientists on sea turtles and ocean plastic and all of these things.
“When you hear it firsthand from the scientists and all of the research that they’ve dedicated their lives to, it’s actually really humbling. And then you obviously have to slap into the race mode, which is really different for us because we’ve got two sorts of missions while we’re there on site. It’s an amazing opportunity. I love traveling, and I think it’s been shocking. It’s not something I’m used to at all from racing in the past, and I think it’s the same for all of the drivers. It’s a really unique experience.”
Munnings, who hails from Kent in the United Kingdom and has raced on FIA rally championships the past five years (including a 2016 European Rally Championship Ladies’ Trophy), has had some surreal experiences away from the track since joining Extreme E.
Two months ago, she went for a spin (as driver and passenger) with Prince William in Extreme E’s rechargeable hydrogen fuel cell-powered Odyssey 21 on a rallycross track at the Knockhill Racing Circuit in Scotland.
“It was incredible,” Munnings said. “He wanted to test the car, and then I jumped in as well. We had a really cool afternoon. He was a really good driver. I was really surprised, actually. I sat next to him and was thinking he actually can be a rally driver. There’s a hidden talent in there. So it’s a shame he’s so busy because you never know.
“I think he really enjoyed it as well learning about the championship, and he said he was keen to get out to one of the races. He was excited to see obviously the environmental side merging with the pure racing. And we all know he loves cars and driving fast. So I think he had a lot of fun. He was really good and really quick, and it put a massive smile on his face. He was saying it feels so good after everyone has been going through a tough 18 months with the virus and the restrictions, so I think it felt nice for him to be able to drive and have some fun as well.”
Great to have Prince William @KensingtonRoyal in the ODYSSEY 21 this afternoon!
— Extreme E (@ExtremeELive) May 22, 2021
After starting at half-power, Munnings said the heir to the British throne eventually reached the full 450 kilowatts.
“It was pretty fast by the end,” she said. “I was just wishing that everything went OK, because the last thing you want is something to go wrong with Prince William in the car, but luckily it was all really good, and he had good driving skills, so I didn’t have to say too much.”
As part of an Extreme E team that represents an international foray for Andretti Autosport, Munnings also is affiliated with U.S. racing royalty.
Though pandemic restrictions have precluded Munnings from visiting Andretti Autosport’s U.S. base, she met Mario Andretti at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England last month.
“We were sort of wearing matching outfits, and we just bumped into each other,” Munnings said. “And I was like, ‘Ahhh! Now would be a good time to introduce myself!’ so that was really cool meeting him. I remember reading about their family history and the story of how they got into motorsport, and it’s so inspiring.
“I just feel so proud to be associated with their team now. I felt quite bad taking up his time, but I just wanted to say hello because you don’t bump into Mario Andretti every day.”
Ranked fourth in the championship standings, Munnings and Swedish teammate Timmy Hansen recently re-signed with the team for the 2022 season. In an interview with NBC Sports, Munnings described her Extreme E journey:
Q: What has it been like to race in a series that started from scratch this year?
A: “It’s been a completely new championship. The fact that you’re not just turning up and going to the same hotels that you’re used to and racing at the same tracks. We’re flying into the middle of nowhere in the desert of Saudi Arabia and everything from the accommodations, the food, and, of course, the racing is an adventure and completely new. Completely out of our comfort zones as well. There’s no phone signal. We’re going to Greenland, and it’s completely off the grid. So you’re just there in your bubble with your team, and everybody’s learning, and everybody’s trying to figure out how to be fast. So it’s a really unique championship in a sense that it’s not kind of really clinical like motorsports have kind of become over the years when a championship has been established.”
Q: Were you also attracted to the series by its environmental mission?
A: “I’ve always been passionate about the planet. Especially I wanted to be a vet growing up, so animals and that sort of thing has been a real passion of mine. And from the motorsports side, you almost feel like you’ve had a selfish career in the fact that you’re not giving something back. Especially during the pandemic when we saw people stop commuting, and then the emissions went down in cities, and we actually saw a direct impact when the world stopped. And I think then it was the right time. And that’s when I signed with the team for Extreme E.
“It was just about like everything was slotting in, and then of course there’s high-caliber racing. The best racers in the world are coming together for this championship, so we’re having a sporting side. It’s not a played-down championship. There’s a bigger message behind it. The fact that we can bring fans and sponsorship, we can bring platforms from Formula One drivers and IndyCar, we can bring that side of things forward and in front of the scientists, and then help use our platforms collectively as a sport to share their messages. It feels really powerful.
Q: The series is racing in areas that have been threatened by climate change. Have you seen any early impacts from racing there?
A: “Definitely. In Senegal, we spent a full day with local people planting trees for carbon capture, but aside from that, they also were saying during coronavirus, a lot of local people lost their jobs, and it’s literally provided an income for them to send their kids to school on that coastal region of Africa. So they were so grateful to have the championship there and so welcoming, and I think when we go to Greenland, we’re installing facilities like toilets. It sounds silly, but toilets up on the icecap where the explorers go, because they go there, but there’s no facilities, and so they’re just polluting the environment, which obviously just filters down into the oceans.
“I think step by step, we’re leaving little legacies, and they’re ongoing projects. I think some of them are five-year long projects when we’re talking about the protected areas for sea turtles in the Red Sea around Saudi Arabia. I was speaking to some people, and that will be the next five years of their life that they’re working on. I was surprised because often with these things, you can turn up and take a photo and then leave, and that’s sort of it, so it’s really nice to see there’s going to be a lasting impact there.”
Q: What is the balance like been raising awareness and competitive racing?
A: “It’s difficult. I think it’s a challenge that we haven’t faced before. Obviously, everyone is going because they want to win. The teams have come from racing backgrounds, so we’re all going with that purpose. But at the same time, when we arrived in Saudi Arabia, we did four days on the boat and in legacy projects and on the beaches doing cleanup before we even talked about racing. So we’re all staying on the ship together, and we’re all having two-hour lectures every evening from the scientists and learning and involved in workshops, and then we obviously switch to the racing for the second half of the week, and then everything is about the racing from our sides.
“It kind of switches, but it’s a funny one because there’s not so much preparation that you can do, because it’s a new car. Everybody is the same from that side. Nobody really has any testing. We also have no idea what the track will look like until we get to the track walk. So if you think of a Formula One race where you can do a lot of time in the simulator or try to learn the track, it’s a very different format from that side. It’s very much instinctive and just going with it on the day and making the most of the opportunities you have. But from the preparation side, it’s very unique and not as thorough as other championships. Which actually I like. I think it makes for more interesting and entertaining racing. It’s a lot more real.”
Q: Has it been an adjustment to have an electric powerplant instead of an internal combustion engine?
A: “It is definitely enjoyable to race with the electric car. It’s the first time I’ve raced with an electric car. It’s a massive SUV. It’s not like a small Tesla. It’s like a full-on, 2-ton SUV that looks like it could do the Dakar Rally, and it’s been designed to race on the roughest terrain. So there’s no polishing the tracks or making it safe from a track layout point of view. It’s literally turn up and race in the natural environment as it is. So it’s areas that have been sort of destroyed by the effects of climate change. The best case of that has been canceled because of COVID, but hopefully back next year is the Amazon rainforests, so we’d be racing on the areas that have had massive deforestation all over, these ruts and bumps and tree stumps, and then they’d replant the area, regenerate it, put money into the local community to bring back the trees, and leave it in a better state than we found it.
“So we’re not at all going to try to destroy the environment. It’s quite the opposite. So to actually race those cars, it’s quite special. Normally, you know you’re going to a properly prepared track, or it’s been made for racing on, where this is very different. Some times you look at it from a racing perspective, and you think, ‘Is that actually possible? How fast can you go over that?’ Because nobody knows. We’re the first ones figuring it out on the free practice. So the cars are incredibly strong and feel like a race car to drive. They’re incredibly fast and with electric cars, you have that instant torque that as soon as you accelerate, you have power there. From that side, it feels really exciting to drive and race.”
Q: You’re in a series with some high-profile names such as Sebastien Loeb, Jenson Button and Carlos Sainz as drivers and Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg as team owners. Can you benefit from that exposure and how do you think Extreme E can help with advancing your racing career?
A: “The fact that one of the main regulations that makes this championship different is each team has to have one male, one female driver, and then it’s a combined result that takes the overall. There’s no the female will be secondary to the male. The same testing, the same access to engineers. Same sort of opportunities within the team. That enables you to perform at your best and then raises your profile for other championships. It’s been really exciting to see that. Because we haven’t seen that at the top of a motorsports tier before. So I’m hoping that filters into other areas of motorsport, just to raise awareness, because I speak to so many young girls still, and they say to me that they had no idea you could be a racing driver if you were a female, especially when you get to Formula One where there’s not a female starting on the grid. They just say, ‘Oh, I thought that was only open for men to enter.’ It’s just cool to be showing that on mainstream TV that the opportunities are there if someone wants to take it up.
“A year ago, this championship didn’t exist. I think it’s exciting that the motorsports world is going through a bit of a transition period where we’re having that crossover into electric at the minute. I think Extreme E is a really cool place to be, and I’m excited to carry on with my career from that side and journey, but I’d love to come over to America and I’ve got my eye on Nitro Rallycross, I’d love to have a go at that. So I think there’s lot of different areas that I’d love to jump in in cars, and I started in the world rally championship last year, and that’s always been something that I followed since I was a kid. I’m sure the future’s bright, I’m still quite young, so hopefully I’ll have a few opportunities to get a lot more experience in the sport.”
Q: You finished second overall in the opener in Saudi Arabia; how has the season been so far?
A: “I think it’s been awesome so far. We’ve only done two races, but I feel like we’ve already got such a great team coming from their experience in Formula E with electric vehicles and electric racing. I’m learning so much from them. And of course from the United Autosport side and their experience from Le Mans and the endurance side and WEC. It’s really cool to lean on that. And of course that’s kind of co-owned by Zak Brown. There’s so many different areas of experience that are coming into this team, and just having conversations with people opened so many doors, and I think it’s just about being like a sponge and taking as much information as you can onboard.
YESSSSS! They’ve done it!
Our Andretti United drivers have won the “crazy race” and are in today’s final which means a guaranteed podium at the first ever @ExtremeELive race! Incredible work from our #AUXE drivers 👏🏻#ExtremeE @catierallye1 @Timmy_Hansen pic.twitter.com/r6SwGqVpK4
— Andretti United Extreme E (@andrettiunited) April 4, 2021
“Getting off the sand is exciting. Timmy and I have never raced on sand before. The beginning was really for those sand specialists, the guys who had done Baja rallying and Dakar. The guys from America have so many playgrounds like that, so now we’re going to the gravel and rock side, it’s a lot more suited to Timmy and I, so hopefully we’ll be a bit more at home, and Greenland will be a better race for us. I’d love to get us back on the podium by the end of the year. That’s the goal.”
Q: With Zak Brown recently announcing McLaren will enter the series next year, will he also remain involved in the Andretti United Extreme E team?
A: “I think Andretti United is sticking in the series. I think Zak is just having two teams because why not, it’s a cool team to be involved with, so it’s a cool championship story. He’s feeling passionate about that, and has got McLaren in, which is awesome for the sport because of course to bring manufacturers into the championship is really important for the future. We’re promoting electric vehicles, so that’s amazing. But yeah, I think Andretti United will be there in full strength.”
Q: How well did you know Timmy Hansen before being paired with him?
A: “I didn’t know it was him when I signed with the team, and he didn’t know I was the female. I had a fan photo with him in 2018. I went to one of his rallycross races and had a selfie with him, and I showed it to him, ‘Oh do you remember this?’ That was not me playing it cool. I wish I hadn’t done that now.
“But it’s so fun being part of the team I’m with because Timmy Hansen is exactly the same as me. He’s there absolutely loving every minute. He’s really interested in our environment and planet, so to share that with somebody that’s on a similar kind of vibe, and just wants to absolutely absorb it all in the same way I do is really cool.”
Q: Have you seen the itinerary for getting to and staying in Greenland, and it is a little stressful to be traveling to such unusual places in unusual times?
A: “I think it’s pretty complicated. Where we’re racing, I don’t think there’s any accommodations, so we’re basically staying on the ship, the St. Helena, which is our floating paddock that’s got the cars on it. So all of the drivers will be bunking up in there, so that’ll be interesting. You never really get that before. Sharing with your team is one thing, but they have the girls sharing with girls and guys sharing with guys, and you end up sharing a room with your competitor with your game face on after you’ve been together all day. So it’s really unique from that side.
“Getting there, there’s no tracks to get to the race site, so we’re in off-road vehicles from the moment we get onto the land to try to make our way to where we’re racing near the icecap. It’s all been an adventure. When we went to Senegal, we were going an hour through the kind of rural areas, seeing all the markets and the fresh meat and vegetables every day and how the local people lived and then integrating into the community when we did some visits. It’s all been very eye-opening. I think our bus broke down on the way to the airport as well on the way back. So yeah, it’s been a big adventure the whole way through really.”