25 August 2021 | Curt Cavin | Indycar
Robin L. Miller, lifelong motorsports fan who became one of the sport’s most recognized and influential media personalities, died Aug. 25 in Indianapolis. He was 71.
A native of his beloved Southport, Indiana, Miller rose to prominence as an Indianapolis Star sports writer, parlaying his love of many sports into more than 50 years of communication that defined his life.
Known predominantly as a writer and columnist covering the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR SERIES racing, Miller became a television personality first with ESPN, then SPEED and most recently NBC. He also had long stints at all of Indianapolis’ TV affiliates over the years.
Miller’s journalism career began at The Star in 1968, and he never retired from writing about auto racing. His stories and columns were featured in Autoweek, Car and Driver, Sports Illustrated and RACER, among other notable publications and websites, and for years he hosted shows on Indianapolis radio stations as he was a master storyteller.
Miller first visited Indianapolis Motor Speedway with his father, Bob, in 1957, attending his first “500” two years later. In 1968, at the age of 18, he began working for his racing hero, hard-luck driver Jim Hurtubise, running the pit board and assigned to various non-mechanical jobs. However, the stint was short-lived as Miller ruined part of the paint on Hurtubise’s car.
Miller got hired at The Star a month later and talked his way into the sports department, where his first duties included answering telephones and taking box score information alongside Jeff Smulyan, who later owned the Seattle Mariners, and future Star columnist Bill Benner.
Miller, a Ball State dropout, got his first break as a newspaper writer when The Star needed a reporter for the still-fledgling professional basketball team, the Indiana Pacers of the American Basketball Association. Fiery coach Bobby Leonard took a liking to Miller, allowing the skinny-but-frisky 19-year-old access to the team that would be unheard of for today’s sportswriters. Many of the ABA players from that era – Bob Netolicky, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and Billy Shepherd – became among Miller’s closest friends.
Miller tried his hand at driving race cars in the early 1970s, buying a Formula Ford from Andy Granatelli. Two years later, Miller purchased a midget from Gary Bettenhausen to start a 10-year run as a USAC competitor. With help from racing buddies Larry Rice, Johnny Parsons and the Bettenhausen brothers, Miller developed into a driver quick enough to qualify fifth for the 1980 Hut Hundred midget race at the Terre Haute Action Track, a prestigious dirt event featuring 33 cars lined up in 11 rows of three. However, a blown engine forced him out of the race.
Miller admittedly didn’t have a mechanical bone in his body and long enjoyed telling stories of his racing naivety. Such as, he bought a trailer too narrow for his race car – it had to be loaded in at an angle — and he survived a crash into a telephone pole in the Indiana State Fairgrounds parking lot when he started the car without buckling up. The throttle stuck, launching the powerful machine unexpectedly and dangerously forward.
In an even more serious situation, Miller suffered a head injury in hot laps at a 1975 midget race in Hinsdale, Illinois, when he flipped the car into a concrete wall, tearing the cage off his car.
However, a decade in a race car gave Miller a unique perspective on the sport and the drivers he covered. Over a span of 50 years, Miller befriended most of racing’s biggest names, regularly engaging them at lunches and dinners he organized. He was particularly close with “500” drivers Tom Sneva, Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Bobby and Al Unser, Tony Bettenhausen, Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan, and late-night TV icon and INDYCAR SERIES team owner David Letterman. Yet he seemed to know something about everyone involved in the sport, and he could hold court with the best of them.
For years, Miller was the animated emcee of the Last Row Party, the Indianapolis Press Club Foundation’s event which traditionally skewered the slowest three qualifiers of each “500.” He particularly enjoyed the event when it included Gordon Johncock, Steve Chassey and Pancho Carter, other close friends of his.
In 2019, as Miller covered his 50th “500” amid declining health, Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced the creation of the Robin Miller Award, to be given annually to an unheralded individual who has brought unbridled passion and an unrelenting work ethic to enrich the sport.
Miller, a lifelong bachelor, is survived by a sister, Diane, and nieces Emily and Ashley.
Robin Miller | September 9, 2019
Although his old buddy Paul Page will be the keynote speaker, RACER Magazine’s Robin Miller won’t be at Road America for the Formula Ford 50th Anniversary event Sept. 11-15, perhaps because the prospect of 240 FFs tearing up one of his favorite road courses would put too much stress on his heart. And he’s saving that muscle for the IndyCar finale at Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca the following weekend.
However, Formula Ford played a part in the much-loved broadcaster and sportswriter’s midwest upbringing, as Robin remembers …
In June 1972, I announced to my pal Art Pollard that, after all the years of watching races, I had decided I wanted to be a driver. He laughed and said: “OK, kid. Sell your sports car (a Lotus Europa), buy a van, and I’ll help you get a car.”
Pollard, still on crutches after breaking his leg at Indy during practice when a hub snapped going into Turn 3 in Andy Granatelli’s Lola, knew there were a couple of little “mini Indy” cars up in Andy’s shop in Chicago.
They were Formula Fords given to Granatelli by Francis McNamara, who’d designed the turd Mario Andretti had driven for Mr. STP in the 1970 Indianapolis 500.
Pollard told me to come up with $5,000 (not an easy task since I was making $158 a week as a sportswriter at The Indianapolis Star) and we’d meet at Granatelli’s shop. So I borrowed money from a banker buddy, telling him it was for a new Ford (kinda was) and we headed for Illinois.
Upon entering the massive garage, it was love at first sight. There were a couple of Novis under plastic tarps and right next to them was a DayGlo orange Formula Ford, painted just like my hero Jim Hurtubise’s Novi in 1963.
Pollard gave Vince Granatelli $3,000 (stuffing two grand back in my pocket), and that little beauty was all mine. I’d rented a U-Haul trailer to take my car home, but, unfortunately, it was three feet wide and nine feet long so we had to take the wheels off my FF and load it with a fork lift. (An early indication, perhaps, that I had no business owning a race car?)
For the McNamara’s maiden voyage, I borrowed a trailer from Paul Page (kneeling at left in photo above), a FF racer before he was the voice of the Indy 500, and headed out to Indianapolis Raceway Park with Pollard in tow. Just before we fired the engine, he leaned in and asked if I’d remembered to check the oil and water? Naturally I replied no, assuming that my brand new race cars came with those amenities.
Art had to drive over Gasoline Alley and get some Valvoline.
My first drivers school was at Nelson Ledges, Ohio, and it was fairly uneventful; but my second stop was Watkins Glen. I’d watched the movie Grand Prix four nights in a row when it came out, and I know exactly what to do when I rolled into upstate New York just as the sun came up: I had to walk the track.
Not sure what everybody else’s SCCA drivers school was like, but our instructor showed us the line and we ran behind him on Saturday. Then we had some kind of all-skate qualifying session — except nobody knew their times.
As my lone mechanic, Mad Dog Mike Roth, and I pushed our car toward the grid on Sunday morning, we asked, “Where do we line up?”
My car was No. 40 CD (for CenDiv), and the SCCA worker replied, “You’re on the pole.”
“Of the race?” (I tried to act like that’s what I expected, but it was a surprise to say the least.)
Then again, maybe it shouldn’t have been: They’d put all the Formula Fords in with the Formula A-B-C cars, and they were all behind me! Let’s just say that even though everybody was new, the talent level left something to be desired.
As per protocol, we were told there would be a practice start in which we would take the green and race up the esses until we saw a yellow flag; then we’d slow, pack up, and come around to do the real race.
On our practice start, I got it right and, by the time we got to that flagman, I was a couple hundred yards ahead of second place. My first thought was that I had to be a natural and I’d likely be in Formula 1 within two years.
Then came reality. I had been in second gear for my first flying start, but, for some unknown reason, I slipped it into third for the real thing. Obviously, my 1600cc Cortina engine bogged badly and I was fourth or fifth by the time I got to Turn 1 whereupon a Formula A car drilled me, spun me into the Armco, and tore my car in half.
As the fluids ran down the track, I clambered out and sat down next to the remains of my car in shock. I’d gone from F1 to out of business in less than two minutes.
Later, the chief steward called me up to the tower and said the accident wasn’t my fault and I’d still be granted my regional license. As we talked, I looked down and saw a bunch of people running toward the vicinity of my wrecked car. Mad Dog Roth had taken a wheel hammer and was beating a hole in the nose of the Formula A car that had speared me.
Bless his heart.
In 1973, my car rebuilt by Jack Brandt, I started out in regionals and ran decently, but it was my first National at Mid-Ohio that opened my eyes. Gordon Smiley pulled in with a double-deck trailer and a spare car, and, in qualifying and the race, he, B.J. Swanson and former Formula Vee National Champion Dave Weitzenhof were in a class by themselves.
Formula Ford was just starting to hit its stride in 1974, but I sold my McNamara and bought a midget from Gary Bettenhausen. Eating lunch every day with Johnny Parsons, Bill Vukovich, Jimmy Caruthers and Bettenhausen, I was lectured constantly that if I really wanted to learn how to race, I’d go run USAC in a midget or a sprinter.
They were right, and I’d never trade my eight years experience in USAC.
But to this day I can still remember the night I brought that bitchin’-bright-orange FF home and unloaded in my parents’ garage at midnight.
And I’ll never forget my mom saying to my dad: “Oh my god, Bob. He’s bought an Indy car! He’ll kill himself.”
(This feature first appeared in the 40th Anniversary of Formula Ford event program.)