To some, Dr. Jack Miller was the symbol of much that was wrong with the formative years of the Indy Racing League: a kind of mid-’90s Milka Duno who could also take care of a root canal. Asked about the League at the time, Mario Andretti reportedly replied, “Well, they’ve got a dentist …”
Miller was well into his 30s when, 20 years ago this May, he realized his life-long ambition of competing in the Indianapolis 500. Despite robust concern over whether his skills on the Speedway matched his clear talent for securing sponsorship, Miller contested two full-seasons of the IRL, and qualified for the 500 three times from four attempts.
He also acquired a peculiar cult status. Known at the time for throwing tubes of toothpaste into the crowd and for the mobile dental clinic that travelled with him to races, he says that he still receives autograph requests in the mail to this day, despite a career best finish of ninth (Charlotte, 1998) and 20th at the Brickyard (in 1997).
Nowadays, Miller continues to practice dentistry in addition to his numerous other business interests, and remains involved in the sport via Miller Vintanieri Leguizamon Moitorsports, a Formula 4 team that he co-owns with Colts star Adam Vintanieri, and which includes his son Jack among its driver line-up.
Two decades on from his first trip across the bricks, the “Racing Dentist” offers his own assessment of his career.
Q: I saw a photo of your office, with the car on the ceiling (pictured, image courtesy of Dr. Jack Miller) and the memorabilia everywhere. I’m guessing that’s a pretty effective distraction for your patients?
DR JACK MILLER: You’d be amazed … people have sometimes been coming to us for years, and all of a sudden they’ll say, “When did you put the racecar on the ceiling?”. It keeps us humble that patients do get nervous when going to the dentist. They’re not even looking up and seeing the car.
It’s pretty neat. Patients do like it. We’re getting ready to open our fifth office, so we’re going to need to get four more cars. It was quite a feat getting it up there, but it was worth it.
Q: What’s your background with the Speedway? Did you grow up going to the 500?
JM: I grew up in Indianapolis, and my parents would take us for practice, and qualifying, and the race, when we were kids. I knew early on that’s what I wanted to do, but there were five kids in the family, and while we never thought about money growing up, they didn’t have the funds to fund a racing career. And I wouldn’t have asked them to do it anyway.
So I worked, and did odd jobs, so that I could have some sort of career if the racing career didn’t work out, because I didn’t start karting when I was a child. I didn’t do anything until I was 26 years old, when I went to an SCCA weekend. They let me use the car on Saturday for the school, and then I did very well on the Sunday. And it just kind of took off – every penny I made, I put into racing. One day I sat down and watched TV, and I wrote down the companies that did a lot of advertising, but the majority of the commercials during the day were for health care of some sort – shampoo, makeup, and a lot of oral health care.
I loved medicine and science of all types, and I was either going to go to medical school or dental school. And it hit me that if I was a dentist, I could probably get a toothpaste company to sponsor me.
So my long-term plan worked out, and it gave me an opportunity to raise the millions of dollars I needed to do Indy Lights and then IndyCars.
Q: When did you get serious about the 500? Did the timing of The Split and the opportunity that might have presented to a driver in your position play a part?
JM: No. I wanted the Indy 500, and to be quite honest I wasn’t happy about The Split, because the years that I did Indy Lights I loved doing the ovals and road and street courses. I was bummed out when The Split happened and the IRL was going to be a strictly oval series. But my goal was the Indy 500. We had enough money from Proctor & Gamble that we could have gone and run a full season of CART, but when The Split happened, I chose the IRL because of Indy. I wished at the time that we could have driven at venues other than ovals.
I’ve never blamed anything or anyone for my career. I wish I’d done better, but I realize now what I didn’t know then. It’s kind of like the old adage – you wish you could go back to high school knowing what you know now.
I did everything myself. I had to find the sponsorship, deal with the sponsors, deal with the team, race the car, and it was a lot of work. I wish I could have had a bit smoother path, but I’m very proud of what I did, and very happy, even though I didn’t win an IndyCar race. I loved being there, and loved driving fast cars.
Q: Do you think you bit off too much at once by going to Indy when you did?
JM: No, it was the only way I could have done it. I worked 24/7, 365 days a year, trying to find sponsorship. I remember sitting at my desk on Christmas Day, typing up proposals. In the beginning it was extremely hard to find sponsors, and then one day I asked myself, “If I ran that company, would I give Jack Miller money to go racing?”. And if I couldn’t answer yes very easily, then I thought, “They’re not going to say yes.” So I had to modify my approach to finding sponsorship.
I’d say at the beginning it was less than one percent [success rate], and towards the end it was over 90 percent. I pretty much knew that if I approached a company, I had a plan in place and they were going to sponsor me. I learned what it took to find millions and millions of dollars by trial and error, and the bottom line was that it had to make sense to the company beyond just putting the name on the car. We put together some great programs.
I look back and I wish I’d had somebody coach me. I’d charge the corners on the road courses too much, and then I couldn’t come out of the corners as quick. I was self-taught. And a lot of drivers were self-taught, so I’m not saying that I was the only one, but technology was getting better, there were guys with driving coaches, and if I look back, I’d have done a few things differently. But my goal was to make the Indy 500, and I did it multiple times. When I qualified for my first Indy 500, that by far was the happiest day of my life.
There’s the Van Halen song that says, “I’m on top of the world, for just a little while.” That’s what I felt like that day. All the hard work and perseverance over the years paid off, and it was worth it to me.”
Q: When you first turned up, a lot of the era’s stars had gone with CART, but you’d still have looked up and down pitlane and seen Arie Luyendyk, Tony Stewart, Eddie Cheever and guys like that. Given your relative lack of experience, were you intimidated?
JM: Yeah, absolutely. I respected those drivers a lot, and it is a little intimidating when you’re out there with them, I have to admit. But after the first few races, that kind of went away and they were just somebody else out there that I was competing with. Somebody like Arie Luyendyk… I’d watched him over the years, and he was a great racer, and I had a lot of respect for him. I had a lot of respect for all those guys.
I never felt like they were looking down on me. If they were coming up to lap me, I showed them respect. And I think they all liked that at the end.
Q: You weathered a lot of criticism while you were racing. What was your take on it?
JM: Obviously it hurt. But I owe everything to my parents; they are great people, and they taught all of their children that if you are going to do something in life, do it as best as you can. And don’t let anybody discourage you from doing what you want to do in life.
If I had given up over catching some heat from the media, I think it would have killed my parents emotionally, [knowing] that we gave up. But no, I didn’t like it. But I think sometimes it pushed me even harder. I’m always a positive person in life, and I know that these guys were doing their jobs. Of course you’d love to be the underdog and get a little praise: “Here’s this guy that had a dream, he worked his tail off and did it all by himself.” You’d like to hear those stories, rather than, “What’s a dentist doing in the Indy 500?”.
But 20 years later, I’m still getting people sending me pictures of the Crest car and wanting me to sign them. And that makes you feel good. So maybe some of the bad publicity made people realize who I am, and made them remember the Racing Dentist. Good, bad or indifferent, they know who I am. And it certainly helped me in life. It opened a tremendous amount of doors that I don’t think would have been opened for me if I didn’t have that publicity, good or bad. But I’m human.
Anger is an easier emotion than being sad. So it made me angry, but when I really stopped to analyze it, nobody could take away my experiences. That was what I really wanted to do in life. And I couldn’t be distracted by any negative stories, because I was so happy racing. I absolutely love it. Would I have loved to win? Absolutely. But I had so much fun when I was out there that it didn’t make any difference.
Q: You ran full-time in 1997 and then 1998, and then started to scale back in 1999. Was that due to funding, or were you getting busier with your business?
JM: Kind of both. It was trying to find the right team and put the right program together. I wanted to make sure that I had the proper funding.
I knew with Crest I had a three-year program – Proctor & Gamble typically does things in threes. And I wanted to make a change from the engine program that we were with, and Tony Stewart and Larry Curry said, “Hey, come with us,” I was basically scaling back; I was getting older. So I said, “What the heck, let’s put something together.” I had a few sponsors but I needed the big one, and then I landed Olympus cameras. We did a multi-year deal, and then I got hurt in 2001 in the big Atlanta crash. I didn’t have children earlier on in case I got killed racing, but by then I did have a six-month-old daughter.
That three-year deal with Olympus was going to be a very well-funded program, and when that crash happened I said, “I probably need to start raising my daughter.” I talked at length with Olympus and let them out of the contract, and they let me out of the contract. I walked away from quite a bit of money that I could have kept, but that’s not my personality. And I said, “I think we’re done at this point.”
Q: Were you ever tempted to stay in the sport as an owner? You were obviously good as building commercial connections.
JM: I didn’t have the passion. The timing wasn’t right for me to be a team owner. You have to have so much passion because the time and effort that you have to spend on finding sponsors … it’s grueling. I wasn’t ready to do that. And for the next 10 years, every [Indy 500] race weekend I would go down to my house in Florida and go fishing and listen to the race on the radio, because deep down, I still wanted to race. But I’d made my decision. It was almost too painful to go to the Speedway and watch.
But when my son was born, it gave me a new life, and I absolutely love this new [F4] program that we’ve put together.
Q: Will you be at the Speedway this year?
JM: Oh, yeah. We love it. I don’t have a particular favorite, but Gabby Chaves has done a lot of work with my son, and gone testing with us. So I think we’re a little partial to Gabby winning the 500 this year. And I’m also friends with Dale Coyne, so I’d like to see a Dale Coyne car win. But we have a lot of people that we’d like to see win, so it’s a lot of fun for us.