Robin Miller remembered: A life worth celebrating at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
INDIANAPOLIS – It’s been said the true measure of a person’s life is how many friends they made – and in that case, the life of Robin Miller is immeasurable.
Earlier this month, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted the “Robin Miller Celebration of Life” at one of the Brickyard Chalets. The invitation-only gathering was limited to 400 of Miller’s friends and was organized by Miller’s sister, Diane Zachary, and his longtime friend Steve Shunck.
This wasn’t a wake. It wasn’t even a funeral. Far from it.
This was a more of a roast where friends, family and associates remembered the amazing life of one of the most unique media members any city ever could have.
It just so happened Miller’s city was Indianapolis, the “Crossroads of America” and the “Mainstreet of the Midwest.”
Most appropriately, though, Indianapolis is the home of the famed “500-Mile Race” – the greatest race in the world.
From his days as a youngster who climbed through a fence with his father, Bob, to watch the first 30 to 40 laps of the Indianapolis 500 in the late 1950s, to becoming among the most influential media members to cover the race, Miller was as much a part of Indianapolis as the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at Monument Circle.
This was no wake. It wasn’t a memorial service.
Suits, sport coats and ties were discouraged.
The appropriate attire was known as “Robin Wear” – one of his goofy T-shirts or sweatshirts that had caricatures of Miller’s racing heroes and sweatpants. That’s what Miller most often wore to the racetrack, though when he began working for NBC Sports, he had to at least wear the NBC Sports polo with a cap for his grid walks and other on-air appearances.
Upon entering the chalet, guests were offered Miller’s favorite prerace breakfast, a hot, glazed, yeast donut from Long’s Bakery down 16th Street. Miller used to bring them into the media center by the dozens and pass them out to his media buddies and others who flocked to him like he was IndyCar’s “Pied Piper.”
As the crowds arrived, seemingly hundreds of conversations simultaneously took place as those who paid respects also renewed acquaintances.
One of the power conversations included IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske talking with Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles, former IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard and former IndyCar president Derrick Walker. It was like a living flowchart of IndyCar management over the past decade.
Racing legend Mario Andretti proudly wore his Miller T-shirt and sought out his old public relations man during his Newman-Haas Racing days, the inimitable Michael Knight. Though he recently underwent serious back surgery, Knight flew in from his home in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt was there and would serve as the host of the VIP Party at the Foyt Wine Vault after the service. Tony Kanaan and his wife, Lauren, were there as well as members of the Indianapolis Colts organization.
Former members of the old Indiana Pacers of the American Basketball Association were there. Billy Shepherd, Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball” in 1968 from Carmel, Indiana was there along with his brother, Dave Shepherd, another Indiana High School “Hoosier Hysteria” legend.
Indy 500 drivers from the past were part of the gathering as well as IndyCar drivers of the present, such as Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Conor Daly and Kanaan, just to name a few.
Even the girls from “The Workingman’s Friend,” one of Miller’s favorite places for lunch, closed early so they could attend the event.
At the front of the room was a large videoboard that displayed photos of Miller throughout his life. In front was one of Jim Hurtubise’s old STP front-engine Novi race cars. The driver known as “Herk” was Miller’s favorite driver and even hired him as an unpaid “Stooge” in 1968.
Behind the Novi was a Jim Beam Whiskey decanter designed like the 1967 STP Turbine that the legendary Parnelli Jones drove for car owner Andy Granatelli in that’s year’s 500.
Inside the decanter lie the remains of Robin Miller, the ashes from his cremation following his death from multiple myeloma in the early morning hours of Aug. 25 – an irony because Miller never drank. But the STP Turbine is much more appropriate for Miller than a nondescript urn.
“That is what I chose to put Robin in,” said Diane Miller Zachary, Miller’s sister. “I thought it was the most appropriate because it was the STP Turbine, it was Parnelli Jones, and Robin loved both.
“Robin has topped off the car and he’s ready for his last lap.”
Andretti was the first to pay tribute to Miller.
“All of us have many stories to tell about Robin Miller,” Andretti said. “I’m one of the few that remember when he had a legitimate job as a newspaperman at the Star. What I remember clearly was how annoying he was.
“Why? He wanted to dig into everything.”
Andretti realized Miller was trying to do his job.
“That’s really what it was,” Andretti said. “He was on the rev limiter from the beginning. From that standpoint, you have to appreciate someone.
“In qualifying if everything is under control then you aren’t going fast enough. The same thing with him. This was his life. He did the same thing with his job.
“He bruised a few ribs and a few nerves along the way because he was so brutally honest, he believed what he was really saying was in the best interest of the sport. He chose to take sides because he knew what was right and even that cost him his job. But he was a survivor. He knew there was a place for him in this sport and how we appreciated him. He was so much one of us.
“His entire career, his entire life, was totally dedicated to the sport he loved and to all of us. He meant so much and will always be with us as an example for so many to follow.
“We loved him. Even A.J. loved him. That’s saying something, honestly.”
Penske has known Miller since both showed up on pit lane for their first Indy 500 in an official capacity in 1969.
“This is a celebration of Robin Miller’s life,” Penske said. “He was clearly one of a kind and one of the most colorful and engaging personalities our sport has ever seen. We are all going to miss Robin’s passion, his humor, his insight and knowledge and support of IndyCar racing.
“I’ve known Robin for over 50 years. It’s hard to believe we both started here the same year in 1969. I went in one direction, and he went in another. I think of all the times I sat face to face with Robin and he had a story I wish he wouldn’t talk about, but it didn’t matter to him.
“I think he was one of the best in the business. No one covered the sport any better than he did. He loved it. He loved the people and the fans.
“The fans wanted to hear his stories. His direct style wasn’t always popular with the paddock, but he wanted to be different. Many times, I found myself on opposite sides with Robin, but he cared a lot about racing. He cared about the people and the people in the sport.
“I got to know another side to Robin Miller on the acquisition date when we bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That’s the one scoop that Robin didn’t have. But he became the anchor to me and the Speedway.
“He was my connection to the fans. He became a real key element to this track forever. There are so many things about Robin that we can remember. He was something special.
“We lost a great friend. Today will be the last lap for Robin Miller at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”
Following a tumultuous term as IndyCar’s CEO from 2010-12, Bernard stayed in touch weekly with Miller.
Bernard, who is now Garth Brooks’ manager, recalled the trips Miller would take with IndyCar drivers to the Indiana State Fair, where he would spend hundreds of dollars on State Fair food and games in the midway. Miller would always seek out a child to give away the stuffed animals and other prizes they had won playing games at the midway.
“Robin was proud to say that he flunked out of Ball State,” Bernard said. “I want to change history on this. I think he got his PHD from Ball State in motorsports and the Ph.D. stands for ‘passion, hunger and drive.’
Kanaan recalled trips to the Indiana State Fair with Miller, who “made me eat an entire grilled cheese sandwich in one bite. Robin made me do that for 10 straight years.
“Few people taught me in life what this Speedway meant,” Kanaan said. “One was my dad, who I lost early in life, and the other was Robin Miller.”
Dave Furst became IndyCar’s Vice President of Corporate Communications in August 2020 after serving as a sports anchor and director at WRTV Channel 6, the ABC affiliate. For more than 10 years, Miller was part of the extended Sunday night “Sports Xtra” on the station along with Kanaan. On any given night in May, Dario Franchitti, James Hinchcliffe, and others would stop by the studio and offer their take on what happened at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that day.
“Chances are if you are in this room, you were either at a team dinner, or breakfast or lunch at some point in your life,” said Furst, who was the master of ceremonies for the Robin Miller Celebration of Life. “Inevitably, after each one of these meals, he would walk out to the car and at some point, encapsulate what happened or the conversation and would say, ‘Man, we know some strange people.’ Look around this room – they all showed up today.
“This is a celebration of life. It’s not a pity party. Robin wouldn’t want to have it any other way. It’s OK to have fun today. If you are easily offended, this isn’t the room for you, but chances are, if you were around Robin, you weren’t easily offended.”
Furst recalled Miller riding on a golf cart to the front of the grid before the Aug. 14 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was the Miller’s last visit to the track, and he was stopped by IndyCar drivers, crew members and legends. Andretti gave him a hug.
“Miller’s life was like the movie ‘Almost Famous,’ ” Furst said. “It was important that the sport he loved so much and put so much passion into was giving it back to him when he needed it the most.
“At the end of the day, we should all be that lucky.”
When it came to colorful personalities, Miller was the Crayola Box of 64. That’s a bit ironic, considering that Miller was colorblind. But it was evident from Miller’s media experiences beyond motorsports.
When Miller was a 19-year-old kid covering the Indiana Pacers for The Indianapolis Star, some Pacers took Miller to a clothier to help him buy a brown suit. Miller tried on a suit that he liked, and the Pacers players agreed to buy him the suit.
That night, Miller strode onto the court in his new suit and noticed fans in the stands and players were pointing at him laughing.
Miller didn’t understand why they were laughing at him as he strode to his press row seat in his brown suit.
It wasn’t a brown suit at all, it was a lavender-colored, pimped-out velour suit. When someone asked him why he was wearing a lavender suit, Miller told them it was brown. When Miller realized it was actually lavender, he snuck out of the arena at halftime and changed in his car before returning for the second half.
Just a year or two after Miller began working at The Star, he discovered that he could fly up to Chicago for just $19 and get press and field passes to see the Chicago Cubs or the Chicago White Sox. Miller was sitting in the Wrigley Field dugout before a game one time wearing a red Firestone jacket.
Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs called Miller “Firestone” because of the jacket. Before one game, Miller lost track of time and was still in the dugout when the first pitch was about to be thrown. Some of the Cubs players hid “Firestone” to protect him from their fiery manager, Leo “The Lip” Durocher.
“Firestone,” Cubs outfielder Billy Williams said to Miller. “You got to get out of here. If Durocher sees you in the dugout during the game, he’s going to kill you.”
On the Southside of Chicago, Miller contacted Don Unferth, the publicity director for the Chicago White Sox to bring a few of his friends up from Indianapolis for a game at the old Comiskey Park. The likable Unferth, known as the “Good Shepherd” gave Miller and his friends passes to the old football press box in the upper deck of the third base line.
By the second inning, Miller heard his name being paged on the press box PA to contact Don Unferth.
“Hey, tell your friends they can’t eat all the food. That food is for everyone else in the press box for the entire game,” Unferth told Miller after eight of his friends had pretty much devoured the spread.
The celebration concluded with Diane Miller Zachary, Robin’s sister, and her two daughters, Emily Rose and Ashley, remembered the family side of Miller.
Miller Zachary came home to Indianapolis for the 500 in May from her family’s home in Scottsdale, Arizona. She never went back to Arizona, spending the final four months of her brother’s life living with him at his Indianapolis condominium.
“It was the most humbling and rewarding time to spend with Robin those last four months,” she recalled. “If you are in this room, then you touched Robin’s life and he loved you dearly.
“It takes a village, and you are all part of this village. I couldn’t have done this without all of you.”
They also remembered Miller’s generous side. Miller was the first to help when somebody needed help. He bought the doctors and nurses that tended to him boxes and doughnuts, cheeseburgers, and milkshakes during the long hours of transfusions and other treatment.
Miller’s sister recalled one Christmas when Robin called 45 minutes before dinner and asked if he could bring his favorite Atlantic City blackjack dealer as a guest.
“He said, ‘It’s this sweet gal, she’s supposed to be on the East Coast tonight, but she is stranded and can’t leave until tomorrow,’ ” Miller Zachary recalled. “He never wanted anybody not to have a great Christmas. He had the biggest heart of anybody I never knew. He was the nicest guy. He was a character and was a little bit of an ass. He was one of a kind and I don’t think we would want him to be any different than he truly was.”
Robin Miller was a man of great stories, but he also taught valuable lessons. To watch how Miller handled the latter years, months, weeks, and days of his life, he showed us how to face death with dignity and grace.
The man never complained, even when he was in great pain and weakness and knew the end was near. He called his last trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, “The greatest day of my life” just 10 days before he died.
He led by example and in those final days, taught us how dignity and grace can better prepare us for the end.
That should be Miller’s lasting legacy.
Editor’s note: Bruce Martin read Robin Miller in The Indianapolis Star as a high school student in Northern Indiana and got to know the colorful Miller in real life when Martin worked for the Indiana Daily Student at Indiana University in the late 1970s. Martin began covering auto racing with the 1981 Michigan 500 as the sports intern at The Blade in Toledo, Ohio. Throughout a lengthy career that included writing for NBCSports.com, Martin was often the target of Miller’s jokes, but he also was a proud recipient of Miller’s annual Indy 500 sweatshirts.”