IndyCar greats remember the incredible, outrageous and impactful life of Robin Miller
INDIANAPOLIS – Robin Miller went from being the skinny kid from the southside of Indianapolis that snuck through a hole in the fence to watch the first 50 laps of the 1958 Indianapolis 500 with his father, to becoming one of the most influential figures in the history of the famed race and IndyCar.
He went from flunking out of Ball State University in nearby Muncie, Indiana, in 1971, to reaching the pinnacle of the journalism profession, including NBC Sports.
Miller went from being an unpaid “Stooge” on Jim Hurtubise’s Indy car as an 18-year-old in 1968, to becoming the leading voice in auto racing for over 50 years.
He went from meeting his heroes, to covering his heroes at The Indianapolis Star to becoming close personal friends with those heroes over the course of a half-century.
Miller even tried driving a race car himself in the United States Auto Club (USAC) Midget Series in the 1970s, which gave him an innate understanding of the sport that he covered so well.
Though Miller gained his fame beginning with a typewriter, continuing with a computer at The Indianapolis Star, ESPN, SPEED TV, Racer Magazine and finally behind the microphone for NBC Sports, the legends bestowed another title on the colorful character from Southport, Indiana.
Robin Miller was a “Racer.”
That is the utmost honor that anyone can achieve from those within the paddock or behind the wheel of a race car.
“He called me ‘Racer,’ I called him ‘Racer.’ We never called each other by name,” the legendary Mario Andretti told NBCSports.com after Miller’s passing.
The life of “Robin the Racer” took the checkered flag on the morning of Aug. 25, 2021, after a lengthy battle with multiple Myeloma that was first diagnosed in early October 2017.
The greatest journalistic voice in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 has been silenced.
What’s left behind is a lifetime of memories, anecdotes, jaw-dropping opinions, and colorful stories that made Miller a truly unique individual.
“He was larger than life, wasn’t he?” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and four-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti told NBCSports.com.
Larger than life, but one-of-a-kind, Miller deserves the same accolades as the greats who ever competed in the Indianapolis 500 and the NTT IndyCar Series.
“There is only one Robin,” four-time Indianapolis 500 winning driver Rick Mears told NBCSports.com. “There has only been one Robin, period. He was a unique individual in his own right in everything that he did. He had that kind of conviction.
“He loved what he did. He loved what he was writing about. He loved motorsports and he cared for it. That overrode anything else. If he felt something was right or wrong, because of his love for the industry and the sport, he did what he thought was necessary. That was the conviction he had to his craft.
“He and I got along great. We didn’t always agree on everything, nobody ever does, but we got along well.
“He loved this industry. It was his life. He cared for it, and he did what he felt was best to take care of it.”
In a career that began at The Indianapolis Star in 1968 when he answered the telephone taking sports scores with future Star columnist Bill Benner, Miller became the beat writer covering the Indiana Pacers of the recently created American Basketball Association when he was just 19.
Miller forged close friendships with some of the Pacers’ all-time greats including Mel Daniels, Roger Brown, Bob Netolicky and Billy Shepherd.
For decades, Miller was as well known for his coverage of the Pacers as he was the Indianapolis 500.
But racing was Miller’s true love. In fact, he decided to give it a try for himself as a United States Auto Club (USAC) Midget and racer. He bought a Formula Ford from Andy Granatelli in the early 1970s. Two years later, he purchased a midget from Gary Bettenhausen.
For the next 10 years, Miller was a USAC midget racer in addition to covering auto racing at The Star.
“I’m writing 52 columns a year about USAC Racing because at that time, USAC was on top,” Miller recalled. “I flunked out of Ball State in 1971 and that is hard to do. It’s hard to flunk out of Ball State. You have to try.
“It’s sad that my Mom and Dad didn’t get to go to college, and I threw mine away.”
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 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.
Miller was a man who had no fear as he reported on the sport. If he truly believed in a cause, he would take on anybody without fear of reprisal or his own personal safety.
“He was brutally honest in his own way; what he believed in,” Andretti said. “I think he touched a lot of raw nerves along the way. He did that, and he didn’t care because he cared about the sport. He reported what he felt in his own way were the facts and he backed them up. What more can you say about somebody?”
Miller would be elevated to one of the columnists at The Star. He was never afraid to voice his opinion, which quickly put him at odds with the likes of fiery Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight.
He wrote a column calling AJ Foyt a cheater and the next day, Foyt punched him on pit lane in front of 30,000 fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He had famous feuds with Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jeff George in the 1990s and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George in the same decade.
By that time, Miller had established himself as one of the leading and most colorful journalists in the country. He would call out anyone if he believed it were justified and didn’t worry about the consequences.
Foyt and Miller worked through their disagreement and became great friends. In fact, the day before Miller was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame at a special ceremony at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Aug. 13, Miller, Foyt and longtime Miller friend Tim Coffeen had lunch at Foyt’s winery in Speedway, Indiana.
They laughed, they joked, they told stories. At the end of the day, Miller called it the “best day of my life.”
At that time, Miller knew his days were numbered.
“They broke the mold when they made Robin Miller,” Foyt said. “A lot of people didn’t understand Robin, and 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. 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.”
The day after having lunch with Foyt, Miller’s induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame was part of the IndyCar-NASCAR Tripleheader at the Brickyard Weekend. When Miller spoke to those in attendance, he broke down at the end and said, “If I don’t wake up tomorrow, I’ve had a great life.”
Roger Penske and others posed with Miller, whose body was frail -- sapped from the cancer and leukemia treatments that he has endured for nearly four full years.
The smile on Miller’s face was a man who was not only deeply honored but also at peace with his ultimate fate.
“I can’t remember the first time I met Robin Miller, but he’s been a friend of mine and a foe of mine for many years,” Penske told NBCSports.com. “Sometimes, I hate what he wrote about us.
“Great guy. To see him hold that Hall of Fame trophy was important. He is a Hall of Famer, no question. We are thinking about him and love him. He’s the best.”
In the entire history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Miller is without a doubt the most important, most influential, and widest read media member that has ever been part of that facility and the Indianapolis 500. The only other media member that comes close is the late Chris Economaki, the longtime editor of National Speed Sport News and later a key part of the television broadcast with ABC Sports.
“Robin is on the top and Chris Economaki and so many other people,” Penske said. “But Robin was so special to everybody in this decade and so many decades before.”
Consider that Miller worked at The Indianapolis Star, a newspaper that covered USAC, CART and IndyCar on a regular basis. His career began in the 1960s, when innovation was rapid and often outpaced safety. Many of Miller’s racing heroes were killed during that era, including the likable Art Pollard and Swede Savage, both in 1973.
Back in those days and entering all the way into the beginning of the current century, the greatest names in sports writing filled the cramped infield media center at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Legends such as Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, Shav Glick of the Los Angeles Times, Cooper Rollow of the Chicago Tribune, Gary Long of the Miami Herald, Michael Knight of the Philadelphia Daily News, Dave Kindred of The Atlanta Journal, just to name a few. There were other journalists, used to covering traditional, mainstream sports, that were assigned to cover the Indy 500.
The star of the room, however, worked for The Star, and it was Robin Miller. Everyone wanted to read what Miller had to say about the race and the sport.
Even those who disagreed with what Miller had to say, respected what he had to say.
“He would express his opinion no matter what and you had to respect him for that because in his own way, he just wanted what was best for the sport,” Andretti said. “Sometimes, we didn’t always agree but in general, I personally did. We might have had some slight disagreements here and there, but we always agreed to disagree.
“As soon as he had that job to report the sport, he took that job very seriously. To me, that meant something, and he got the right time of the day from me. Because of that, our friendship was forever.
“He was there. He lived it. He understood it very well. There were periods where there was a lot of pain in all of us for what was happening as we all know. He was front and center in trying to express his own opinions in that 99.9 percent were correct.
“I got to really know Robin when he started actually represented The Indianapolis Star when he was front and center and very aggressive. I’ve seen the beginning of the career of several journalist who have become very powerful at the start of their sport. Robin was one of them that was very aggressive. Michael Knight was another one when he was working at the Philadelphia paper. They were trying hard to be relevant. When you gave them the time of the day you could tell they were very happy.
“He was one because he really wanted to be there. It was easy to detect that.”
Miller loved what he did, and he loved every aspect of being a “newspaperman.” His career began when being a “newspaperman” was the truest form of journalism, when reporters were able to dig into a story and tell every detail instead of boiling it down to a 20-second sound-byte of a 145-character “Tweet.”
Today’s world of technology and journalism used to baffle Miller. Whenever he was given a new computer or cell phone, something as simple as powering it up, or saving a Word document would leave Miller perplexed, often asking for my help.
Once Miller’s computer was powered up, however, what he inputted into it was often highly charged with news and controversy.
Through Miller’s prose and personality, he helped make the Indianapolis 500 into what it is today. It was already the world’s largest single-day sporting event when he snuck through the fence with his father in 1957, but Miller’s coverage that encompassed parts of seven different decades solidified its reputation for the ages.
“His memory of detail that he could pull out of his hat on anything was incredible, which helps him tell the stories, but he has the experience and involvement that created the stories,” Mears said. “He was out there in the middle of it getting involved.
“He was always in the middle of it.
“His attitude and willingness to deal with all of this has been incredible and that has been a big part of all of it. His attitude and being at peace with it have been outstanding.
“He had a great run. He really did.”
Bobby Rahal’s first memory of Robin Miller came when Rahal was a rookie in 1982. Rahal would win the Indianapolis 500 as a driver in 1986 and later as a team owner in 2004 with driver Buddy Rice and 2020 with driver Takuma Sato.
“Robin was so passionate about the 500 and the Speedway and Indy cars,” Rahal recollected. “He called it like he saw it. He didn’t sugarcoat stuff. You had to respect that. Some people didn’t like that. He didn’t say bad things, just to say bad things or criticize just to criticize. His commentary was genuine, it was there to make a point.
“It’s a shame. He was a good guy.
“He was a Racer. He was a Racer who became a journalist, not the other way around.
“Robin told me if it ended up the way it did, he had no regrets. He had been on the inside, he saw it, that’s really all that he wanted. He just wanted to be a great journalist talking about the sport that he loved.”
One of Miller’s closest friends the past 25 years or so is Steve Shunck, a noted racing publicist. Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and four-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti would call this duo “Batman and Robin.”
Franchitti was a regular at the famed “Tuesday Night Dinners” that Miller and Shunck would organize, often at La Margarita in Fountain Square in Indianapolis. When Mario Andretti was in town, the dinner would shift to Iaria’s – an Italian restaurant and Tavern on College Avenue.
“We had some cracking dinners, we really did,” Franchitti recalled. “It was him and Shunck – Batman and Robin – and then we’d get a real cast of characters who would show up. Sometimes, you’d get Foyt there and Bobby Unser, not the same time as AJ, but Foyt would be there. Johnny Rutherford, who never picked up a check. Parnelli Jones.
“You never knew who was going to show up. That was part of the fun. Sometimes, it was just me and Robin and Shunck, and that was fun.
“Those dinners were so special.
An evening with “Batman and Robin” were filled with laughs, jokes, tales and even disagreements.
“He was opinionated, and he wasn’t easily swayed from that opinion,” Franchitti said. “God, did he love IndyCar racing and the Speedway. It was the love of his life, wasn’t it?
“I texted him the day that he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and said, ‘Just over 10 years ago, you would have gotten thrown out of there. Look at you now, you’re getting a standing ovation.’
“He was unbelievably proud of being recognized by the Speedway. There isn’t a person in the paddock who wouldn’t pick up a call that came from Robin Miller.
“He was really respected. I feel very fortunate to have had him as a friend.”
There was also the generous side of Miller, the man who would pick up the dinner tab for no reason at all or reach into his pocket and give a cohort short of cash a hundred-dollar bill, or two. He kept the IMS Media Center well-stocked with piping hot Long’s Doughnuts from a small bakery just down 16thStreet from Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
There were also, the sweatshirts and T-shirts that Miller and Shunck often spent hundreds, if not thousands of dollars featuring a caricature of a racing hero such as Foyt, Andretti, Bobby Unser, or Parnelli Jones. Someone who made the “friends list” would get one of these prized possessions to remember their “Month of May.”
There was also Miller’s annual trip to the Indiana State Fair when “Batman and Robin” were the “Pied Pipers” leading a collection of IndyCar drivers down the midway of the fair. They would indulge on all the deep-fried foods from the vendors and Miller had stacks of amusement ride tickets for anyone in the group to take all the rides they wanted.
“We had the State Fair, we made shirts, he talked to me when I got fired so it was a hard day yesterday because you don’t want to lose people like that,” longtime friend 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2004 IndyCar Champion Tony Kanaan told NBCSports.com. “Robin was an awesome human being.
“Our State Fair encounters, we used to shoot basketballs because he knows my wife is a badass basketball shooter and we would get stuffed animals and give them to kids on the spot. Robin would pay for that all.
“We were close. We saw how Robin’s passing touched so many people on so many different levels.
“I lost a good friend. We lost one of the most special guys our sport has ever had. It didn’t matter what Robin had to say; people would listen or read it. It’s really hard to put into words what he meant to the sport.
“Motor racing has a big hole to fill right now.”
In the end, it was Miller’s friend from the many Tuesday night dinners at La Margarita or Iaria’s that summed it up best.
“I’m going to miss him,” Franchitti said. “I’m going to miss my pal, Robin.
“I was so fortunate to have Robin as a friend over those decades, and I will miss him.”