PRUETT: There was nobody like Robin Miller

Michael Levitt

PRUETT: There was nobody like Robin Miller

IndyCar

PRUETT: There was nobody like Robin Miller

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His voice was the loudest in any press room, his personality the biggest in any paddock. He was more famous and more revered than half the drivers he covered. His stories started more conversations, stressed more friendships, and did more to champion IndyCar racing than any person or sanctioning body. His heart was IndyCar’s heart.

Robin Lee Miller, a man who was loved or loathed with intense passion by drivers, team owners, and fans alike, died this morning at the age of 71 after a prolonged fight against cancer and leukemia. Even though we’ve known it was coming, it’s still hard to process. Through open-wheel’s best and worst times, Miller was always there, reporting, fanning the flames of fires he often set, driven by a need to make people care about the sport he loved, to ensure it survived.

I can’t imagine motor racing without him.

To his readers, Miller was a writer, reporter, author, and broadcaster. That was only one version of the larger-than-life character. To the tenured men and women in the IndyCar paddock, he was one of their own, a hapless and unkempt kid who grew up on pit lane at the Indy 500 ‘stooging’ — serving as the lowest member on a pit crew — for his hero, renowned Indy entrant and driver Jim ‘Herk’ Hurtubise. To their amazement, Miller eventually made something of himself.

He added another wrinkle by donning a driving suit and spending the better part of a decade trying to kill himself in midgets, sprint cars, and Formula Fords. His friends gasped with relief when Miller decided it was time to stop the crash-laden experiment. Sporadic bursts of talent were shown, though, and from the wisdom earned in the cockpit, more respect was gained from the IndyCar drivers he chronicled.

They took pride in all he became in his new media career. With the role came trust and sources that would serve his calling until his final days. And to their surprise, he was actually more dangerous with a keyboard than with a wrench or steering wheel in his hand.

Despite uttering the phrase “I’m a mechanical moron” a few thousand times over the years, Miller’s lack of knowledge about the cars of Indy never mattered. His innate curiosity and willingness to ask extremely basic questions was warmly received. There was an authenticity born from that innocence and ignorance. Most of all, Miller understood people and their motivations.

Where he put this talent to use was in celebration of the day’s biggest names—many of whom carried an air of mystique—and made them human, relatable. As often as Miller’s been praised for extolling the unvarnished truth, his reach inside the paddock and connection with IndyCar’s most heralded characters is where he changed our game. The A.J. Foyts, Dan Gurneys, Roger Penskes, and other mythic figures opened up to Miller in ways that were personal, unguarded.

He brought IndyCar’s new stars to the Indiana State Fair, forced them to eat fried monstrosities, and made sure to film and write about it for our amusement. He always found ways to help his legion of readers form bonds with the kids who were about to take the reins. We know the pillars of our sport, old and young, in deeper ways because of Miller.

Miller, James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan test-drive some treats at the Indiana State Fair. Image by Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

His oxygen came from conversations, often held in full view of the public, occasionally reserved for the deep recesses of a garage or transporter, where he’d gather the latest scoops and scandals. Miller loved the hunt, chasing the next story, and had an army of guides pointing him in the right direction.

And he had a knack for pulling strings.

We’ll never know how many decisions made by USAC, CART, Champ Car and IndyCar Series bosses came as a result of Miller’s private emails, phone calls, and impassioned pleadings. It never mattered if they wanted to hear what he had to say; Miller was IndyCar’s self-appointed consigliere. Yes, his name was on thousands of story bylines, but his influence was just as great as an uncredited co-captain trying to keep open-wheel’s ship from running aground.

Miller’s shotgun laugh, a loud cackle that disrupted everything within earshot, was a thing of beauty. It was a featured part of his most prized contributions to our world: The stories. Oh, sweet father, the stories.

Miller’s steel-trap mind had hundreds of them at the ready to tell in an instant. Picture the average scene in an NFL or NBA locker room where throngs of reporters surround a Tom Brady or LeBron James and hang on everything they say. Then turn that scenario around and imagine a reporter at the center of the scrum, enveloped by the Bradys and LeBrons, the head coaches, and staff members who we’re enraptured by every curse-filled sentence he had to offer.

That’s been IndyCar’s reality for decades as the paddock was drawn to Miller and his ability to breathe life into years and eras that preceded their own. He was our village elder, keeping the memories of his heroes and the unsung aloft. With Miller, the past was always kept present and fresh, delivered as oral documentaries.

Miller was IndyCar’s generational rallying point, connecting the greats who made the sport what it is with the fans who loved and revered all they witnessed back in the day at Trenton, Milwaukee, and other woebegone haunts his mailbag readers mentioned every week. He was also the bridge between generations, taking modern fans to times and tracks that pre-dated the internet.

The ‘RACER row’ in the IMS press room, a few hours after the checkered flag for the 2016 Indy 500 (left-right: Marshall Pruett, Mark Glendenning, Robin Miller). While it was all business when there were stories to file, Miller’s desk was one of the Speedway’s main social hubs in the days leading up to the race. Image by Paul Pfanner

And he brought his heroes together with your heroes. Ask a Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, or Josef Newgarden how many legends of the sport they met through Miller because he knew their predecessors, a Dan Gurney, or a Parnelli Jones, were kindred spirits.

Being a member of Miller’s inner circle came with an invitation to a group that includes every living Indy 500 winner, the power brokers who’ve ruled the sport, and an oddball assembly of mechanics, journalists, engineers, PR reps, and childhood pals.

One of the greatest joys in my life took place each May in the media center at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Seated to his right on our sprawling row, separated by his diabetes-size assembly of candy, bags of plain potato chips, boxes of Long’s donuts, cold fried chicken, and warm bottles of his beloved Pepsi, the world’s oldest teenager was the hottest ticket in town.

Uncle Bobby — Bobby Unser — would get his motor home parked after the long drive from New Mexico, make a beeline for the fourth floor of the media center and emerge from the elevator with his hands raised and waving — like the three-time Indy 500 winner was surrendering and begging Miller not to shoot. Unser would proceed to sit between us and from there, no work would be done as they spent hours spinning yarns at the top of their lungs.

Whomever was the CEO of IndyCar or president of IMS at the time would stop by to pay their annual tribute to the man who both eased and complicated their lives. And the receiving line continued each May. The Mario Andrettis, Johnny Rutherfords, Tom Snevas and other titans of the Speedway all came to cajole Miller in his natural habitat.

Even Carlos Huertas, a one-time race winner and proverbial blip on IndyCar’s radar, couldn’t avoid pulling up a chair and experiencing media-center Miller for a few hours.

In typical fashion, and Miller spared none of his guests, he gave the Colombian a heavy ration of **** from the moment he sat down. Some might’ve expected the journeyman to hold his tongue, and he did take Miller’s best verbal jabs, but Huertas was using Muhammad Ali’s old rope-a-dope trick and let the old crank wear himself out.

Once Miller’s accosting began to wane, Huertas pounced, spending the rest of the afternoon landing haymaker after haymaker. From taking Miller to task for his clothes, diet, and reporting skills, Huertas carved up the dean of IndyCar without mercy. I’ve never heard Miller laugh harder. The po-faced driver we nicknamed ‘Grumpy Cat’ became one of Miller’s new favorites that day, all because Huertas understood the man lived for jousting, insults, and mischief.

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