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Robin Miller: He Covered It All In Racing

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 26 2021

Robin Miller, center, interviews Dan Gurney, left, and A.J. Foyt. (Photo courtesy of Anne Fornoro)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

We shook hands for what turned out to be the last time at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Carb Day, the only place to be in the motorsports universe on a Friday morning in May before any Indianapolis 500.

Robin Miller, longtime Indianapolis-based media personality, had just delivered an emotional tribute to colleague Bob Jenkins, 2021 recipient of the Robin Miller Award honoring a lifetime of “passion and unrelenting work ethic” to the sport.

Seated in a wheelchair and visibly weak, Jenkins’ short acceptance speech on May 28 was capped by a round of applause and standing ovation from a crowd that included open-wheel icon Mario Andretti, IMS Chairman Roger Penske, national media colleagues and family assembled on the Fourth Floor DEX Imaging Media Center. Jenkins, retired radio/television broadcaster and a former “Voice of the 500,” died Monday, Aug. 9, after a long fight with brain cancer. The Indiana native was 73-years-old.

Approaching Miller at the dais, Robin extended his hand and said, “Big John! Good to see you here.”

“Always good to be here,” I replied, “and great to see you again.” Before I could inquire about his health issues, Robin had been pulled away for a series of photos with Jenkins and his well-wishers. I don’t recall seeing Robin in his usual seat in the media center on Race Day for the 105th Indy 500, the 52nd of his career.

Robin L. Miller, a lifelong motorsports fan who became one of the sport’s most recognized and influential media personalities, died Aug. 25 in Indianapolis after a four-year battle with bone cancer. He was 71.

“Racing has lost one of its most well-respected journalists and most beloved personalities,” Penske said in a statement on Wednesday. “Robin Miller achieved his dream as his lifelong passion for motorsports led him on a path to becoming the premier reporter in open-wheel racing. For more than 50 years, Robin covered the sport he loved with a fierce drive, a great sense of humor and uncompromising honesty.

“I know that Robin was truly touched by the support he received across the motorsports community over these last few months as he battled his illness. As many of Robin’s friends honored him and his legacy earlier this month when he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame during Brickyard weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was a fitting tribute to his life’s work at the place that meant the world to him.”

Robin was lead writer for The Indianapolis Star, and the authority on
open-wheel racing, when I covered my first Indy 500 for the Fort Worth
Star-Telegram in 1980. The IMS Media Center then was a long,
cement-block building run by Bill York, who assigned seats and
barked-out announcements among an esteemed group that included Chris
Economaki of National Speed Sport News, Mike Harris of The Associated
Press, Shav Glick of the Los Angeles Times, Cooper Rollow of the
Chicago Tribune, Gary Long of the Miami Herald and Miller
and Star colleague Curt Cavin. But Robin clearly “owned the room”
whenever he strode through it.

Indeed, The Star’s morning Sports and special sections were “must-reads” for any visiting journalist then because Robin was plugged-into the back stories developing in Gasoline Alley. Miller was, in fact, one of the few reporters who could walk into any team’s closed garage without fear of being summarily booted out by the likes of, say, A.J. Foyt Jr.

“A lot of people didn’t understand Robin,” Foyt said in a statement on Wednesday. “I didn’t either when I first met him and then I come to find out, he knew what the hell he was doing. Robin was one of the best writers there was, and he really called a spade a spade, and that’s what I respected about him.

“I got to know him quite well and I’m glad I did. He was a great friend. I don’t think there was another guy that loved racing as much as he did. The fact that he drove Midgets and he knew what a race car was like, I think helped him be a great writer, too. He knew what it took.

“I’m awful glad I went to Indy to see him (earlier this month). We had lunch together and I stayed for the race, but I mainly went up there to see him. We had a good time talking about the old days. I know he suffered pretty hard the last two years, but man, he was tough. He’s better off now but I sure will miss him.”

Miller’s passion for open-wheel racing was unquestioned. Robin begrudgingly covered NASCAR’s Cup Series when it joined the IMS schedule in 1994, labelling the stock cars as “taxi cabs.”

Miller regularly staffed open-wheel events at Texas Motor Speedway once the Fort Worth facility was added to Tony George’s fledgling Indy Racing League schedule for the 1997 season. Miller also was in Cowtown on April 29, 2001, when the rival Championship Auto Racing Teams attempted to stage its first race _ the Firestone Firehawk 600 _ at “The Great American Speedway.”

However, the turbocharged CART cars had easily cranked out speeds in excess of 230 mph in practice around the high-banked/1.5-mile oval, creating excessive G-forces that left a number of drivers dizzy after a few laps and disoriented upon exit of their cars. Hard-charging series regular Paul Tracy described a single lap around TMS as “one long, left-hand turn.”

On the Saturday evening before the race, me and my Star-Telegram colleagues were wrapping up our advance stories after qualifying amid rumors that some drivers were considering boycotting the race. Miller confirmed the severity of the rumors when he walked over to our work space and announced, “Big John, this race ain’t happening!”

TMS owner O. Bruton Smith sought to downplay the rumors during an unannounced visit to the Infield Media Center moments later. But Miller’s prediction became official the next morning, when TMS General Manager Eddie Gossage and CART President Joe Heitzler confirmed the race had been cancelled _ hours before its scheduled start _ during a news conference featuring star drivers Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta. 

A native of Southport, Ind., Miller rose to prominence as a 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 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. A master story-teller, he also hosted shows on Indianapolis radio stations for several years.

Miller first visited Indianapolis Motor Speedway with his father, Bob, in 1957, attending his first “500” two years later. In 1968, at age 18, Robin began working for his racing hero, hard-luck driver Jim Hurtubise, running the pit board and assigned to various non-mechanical jobs. That stint was short-lived once Miller ruined part of the paint on Hurtubise’s Roadster.

Miller was 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 to staff the still-fledgling professional Indiana Pacers of the American Basketball Association. Fiery coach Bobby Leonard took a liking to Miller, allowing the skinny 19-year-old access to the team that would be unheard of for today’s writers. 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 driving race cars in the early 1970s, buying a Formula Ford from Andy Granatelli. Two years later, Miller purchased a Midget from Gary Bettenhausen, launching a 10-year run as a U.S. Auto Club 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 enjoyed telling stories of his racing naivety. He once 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 a more serious incident, Miller suffered a head injury during hot laps at a 1975 Midget race in Hinsdale, Ill., when he flipped the car into a concrete wall, tearing the roll cage off.

However, that 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.

Robin was particularly close with Indy 500 drivers Foyt, Andretti, Tom Sneva, Parnelli Jones, Dan Gurney, Bobby and Al Unser, Tony Bettenhausen, Johnny Rutherford, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan, as well as late-night TV icon and NTT IndyCar Series team co-owner David Letterman of Indiana.

For years, Miller also served as animated emcee of the “Last Row Party,” an Indiana Press Club Foundation event which traditionally skewered the slowest three qualifiers of each Indy 500. He particularly enjoyed the event when it included Gordon Johncock, Steve Chassey and Pancho Carter, all close friends.

In 2019, as Miller covered his 50th Indy 500 amid declining health, Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced 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 the sport.

After three decades at The Star, Miller was fired in 2001. According to his obituary in the paper, Miller was dismissed for violating the company’s electronic messaging policy with abusive e-mails to readers and defamatory e-mails about newsmakers and Star staff members. Miller also accepted money from a race car driver whom he covered, violating the company’s ethics policy. Those issues did not tarnish Miller’s standing in the racing community.

“My friendship with Robin and appreciation for his talent and work began during his days at The Indianapolis Star,” Mark Miles, president and CEO, Penske Entertainment Corp., said in a statement. “However, our relationship truly grew as I entered the motorsports world and immediately discovered his unmatched passion and energy for our sport and his tremendous dedication to our entire community.

“Robin was both a true friend and trusted confidant who never shied away from giving his honest opinion and blunt, but often invaluable, advice. Nobody loved racing more, and he was a true joy to work with who left an unforgettable and absolutely unique mark on both INDYCAR and ‘The Racing Capital of the World.’ We extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends, along with his loyal and sizable legion of readers across the world. There simply won’t be another Robin Miller, and he will always hold a place in our hearts.”

Miller disclosed in 2017 that he was fighting bone cancer and undergoing chemo. On July 31, Miller wrote a farewell to the readers of Racer.com. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m at peace with whatever happens, be it a year or six months or six weeks or six hours,” Miller wrote. “I never dreamed that a guy who writes stories about race drivers could impact people’s lives and instill so much passion. I’ve had the greatest life anyone can imagine, and I’ve been lucky enough to share it with the fans.”

A lifelong bachelor, Miller truly was married to his career and all-things open-wheel. He is survived by a sister, Diane, and nieces Emily and Ashley.

(Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1997) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was the inaugural recipient of the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame Media Award (2010). His list of freelance clients has included Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, NASCAR Wire Service and Ford Racing).

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 26 2021
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