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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The people of IndyCar orbited Miller on a daily basis. It was his patented ‘Team Lunch’ events held weekly at favorite local restaurants where his buddies would meet to reminisce and tell lies over plates filled with greasy delights. It was his month of May dinners, reserved for the inner circle, where he ate and sparred with men whose faces are permanently enshrined on the Borg Warner trophy. His other guests — the mortals — spoke afterwards of feeling unworthy to have been seated at the table, gushing all the while over the honor and experience.

If you weren’t greeted with some form of insult, announced to the group he was with as a ‘Sorry sack of ****,’ or hailed as your parents’ worst mistake, Miller probably didn’t like you. And after the verbal assault, he’d flash that glossy grin and let you know he didn’t really hate you. Well, not that much.

With prose as his ammunition, Miller took delight in stringing together a symphony of curse words designed to question your faith in humanity. If you’d made it through life with virgin ears or were a devout churchgoer, prayers and passages from the bible certainly weren’t going to protect you from Miller. That man could make the Devil blush.

Getting Miller to dress like an adult was one of life’s greater challenges. It took stern words and more than a few threats from his bosses at NBC to make sure he didn’t turn up in front of the cameras looking like he stepped away from a pickup basketball game. If the Smithsonian finds itself wanting to host an exhibit with the finest collection of sweatpants and mustard-stained t-shirts that smell like pork tenderloin sandwiches, point them towards Miller’s condo in Indianapolis.

The volume of reporters who’ve expressed their gratitude to Miller is another sign of the man’s influence; he was a mentor to all who were willing to watch or listen. Half of it was on the how-to side, and the other half — and I’m being generous — was on the how-not-to side. Nonetheless, Miller offered a masterclass on how to be a sports reporter if you buckled in and went along for the ride.

Having a place at the table for one of Miller’s Month of May dinners meant being surrounded by a loud, boisterous Borg Warner Trophy. Image via Marshall Pruett

Back in 2006 or so, as a brand-new reporter at SPEED, I was assigned to assemble, edit, and post his weekly mailbag. He was the biggest name in the building, I was an entry-level nobody, and while he could have held me in my place, Miller became the greatest cheerleader and mentor I could ask for. In time, we’d become a reporting team. How surreal. I owe my career to that man, and know I’m not alone in that regard.

I’m 50 years old. I’ve worked in open-wheel racing since I was 16. And I was Miller’s colleague and reporting partner for nearly 15 years. After my wife, he was the most constant presence in my life, either in person or on the phone, since we met. And yet with Miller, despite whatever age or achievements I’d reached in life, I always felt like a five-year-old staring up at Santa Claus. Now gone, this is an emptiness that cannot be filled.

When he wasn’t hurling invectives at nuns, and to the surprise of his harshest critics, the man was inherently decent and kind. He’d hate for it to be said out loud, but there was a soft side to Robin Miller.

After one journalist got fired from a well-paying job and fell on hard financial times, Miller was quick to visit the grocery store and fill a shopping basket with steaks and other food so he and his family wouldn’t go hungry. He organized charity softball games, and was always free with his earnings. If he knew someone was struggling, a $20 bill, or maybe a $100 if he had it, was stuffed into the person’s pocket, no questions asked, no chance to decline, and no repayment allowed.

From the moment my wife got sick in 2018 to our last conversation a week ago, Miller was searching for new ways to help, offering her all manner of sympathy and encouragement. From his hospital bed, no less. Behind the scenes, he was there for friends, there for injured racers and their families, bringing cheer, lending a hand, demonstrating the best virtues.

His last grand act was one of giving, as more than $11,000 has been sent to St. Jude Children’s Hospital from the sales of his ‘Get Well Robin’ stickers. While dreadfully sick and dying over the last few weeks, all Miller wanted were updates on how much had been raised and donated to help St. Jude’s offer free care for kids fighting the same disease. That’s the Robin Miller I’ve known.

Even as his weekly contributions to RACER and NBC Sports began to decline as the ravages of cancer and leukemia took their toll, he was filled with inspiration and story ideas. Sadly, most went unfulfilled. The greatest IndyCar reporter we’ll ever have, recently enshrined in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, who casts a shadow that envelopes every journalist in the sport, would privately confide that he didn’t feel like he was keeping up his end of the bargain and feared he was letting his audience down. Hard to fathom, isn’t it?

It took a heart-to-heart conversation about a month ago to help Miller to understand that we’d received a lifetime of gifts from that brilliantly twisted mind; we were in his debt. His time as a reporter who was always on deadline was complete. He seemed to find peace in the idea of contributing if and when it was of interest. He also felt the full weight and size of appreciation he deserved on his final visit to IMS during the IndyCar/NASCAR road course event. NBC asked him to interview Jimmie Johnson, and that was like a shot of adrenaline.

Miller sat down with Jimmie Johnson at the Speedway two weeks ago for what would be his final driver interview. Barry Cantrell/Motorsport Images

Frail, and sporting another fashion ensemble found on the clothing isle at Menards, Miller was lavished with attention and love from both paddocks. Beforehand, he’d told me it would be his last trip to the Speedway, a final farewell said to the track that made him, and to his many friends, on his own terms. His heart was full; he was content. I’m so incredibly thankful he was able to die as he lived: On the throttle and in charge.

It’s both sad and funny to think that in recent weeks, after he filed his farewell letter on RACER, some people have actually been offering their services and jockeying to replace Robin. As if any living creature could fill that void.

Robin Miller was a self-professed asshole, degenerate gambler, and the High Priest of S*** Disturbers. His body of work over six decades was immensely prolific and won’t be matched. No reporter stood taller on their soapbox, or genuinely loved being themselves — flaws and all — more than Miller.

How in the hell do you talk, write, or think about one of your best friends in the past tense? It’s an adjustment many of us will have to figure out in the coming months. He spent a lifetime telling his stories to us; for once, it’s our turn to start telling stories about him.

Can you imagine the arguments he’s having right now with Uncle Bobby? Or the patience required of the Big Eagle as he attempts, for the 943rd time, to help Miller understand how the Gurney flap works? And is Herk chasing him out of the garage at the big Gasoline Alley in the sky?

I’m heartbroken at our collective loss and have tears running down my face as I write this. But I can’t stop smiling when I think about all that Robin Miller gave us to cherish about the sport we love. Godspeed, old friend.

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