Robin Miller was many things. Strong-minded, passionate, generous, self-deprecating, intense, tough, bullheaded. He lived life exactly on his terms, even when that put him in conflict with the rest of the world. He was an old-school journalist with the courage to direct his darts at the strongest and most intimidating targets.
Miller died on August 25 after a long battle with cancer. He was 71.
Robin rose to prominence as a sportswriter and columnist with the Indianapolis Star, where he covered motorsports for nearly three decades. He joined the paper in 1968 at age 18, answering the phone in the sports department. By the time he left the Star in 2001 he was considered one of the most influential motorsports journalists in modern history.
Robin then found a new and wider audience with his reporting on television with SPEED and NBC. He joined Dave Despain as co-host of the acclaimed SPEED program Wind Tunnel. He also penned columns and race reports for RACER Magazine.
Those are the facts, the dry descriptions of what Robin did. It is far more interesting, particularly in light of his passing, to talk about who he was.
You aren’t going to find another one like Robin.
At his core, he was fiercely independent. He approached life with his own set of rules, believed in his own worldview, and followed his own path.
Clothing? He preferred baggy sweatpants and sweatshirts, so that’s what he wore. Every day.
Food? He liked burgers and donuts, so that’s what he ate.
Friends? He was intensely loyal to those he befriended, immediately willing to help those down on their luck and struggling.
Principles? He had a stern view of things, and if he perceived you as honest and a straight shooter, he liked you. But if he believed you were doing something manipulative or dishonest, he took great pleasure in putting a pin in your balloon. And he was brave enough to do it, even if someone was a foot bigger than him in every direction.
Most of all, he was old-school. He came of age among a tough generation of racers who developed a dark humor to help them deal with burying too many young friends. When it came to jokes or needling, nothing was out of bounds. He could tell an off-color, outrageous story with the best of ‘em, laughing uproariously
at a sensitive or inappropriate subject.
He loved racing, and it was motorsports that dictated the direction and content of his life. In his earlier years he covered a lot of basketball, and he loved betting on various sporting events, but it was racing that inspired his greatest passion.
He bought a midget and went racing with USAC in the late 1970s, and had several good runs over the next few seasons. But he eventually sold the car and focused on his journalism work.
He was an excellent writer, but he didn’t think so (one of Robin’s strongest traits was a tendency to make fun of himself). But today his writing has stood the test of time: his work was entertaining, it was informative, and Robin always made the reader his top priority.
His primary beat was Indy car racing, but he also loved sprint cars and midgets. Throughout his life he never stopped following both, by reading this magazine and by maintaining many close contacts with short track racers.
A couple of episodes during his career tell us a lot about what made Robin tick.
At Indianapolis in the late 1970s and early ‘80s there was an ongoing suspicion that racers had figured out how to cheat the pop-off valve, a device designed to limit turbocharger pressure. In May 1981 Robin casually mentioned in his newspaper column that during practice runs A.J. Foyt’s straightaway speeds were significantly higher than everyone else. Hmmmm…
When the column appeared the next morning, Foyt was pissed. That afternoon he spotted Miller walking along the pit area, and in classic Foyt fashion charged up and slapped Miller in the back of the head. He then threatened to kick Miller’s ass, right there on pit road in front of God and everybody.
So, what did Robin do? He drove right uptown to his office at the Indianapolis Star and wrote a column for the next day’s edition saying that A.J. Foyt was a habitual cheater.
Now that’s fearless.
Foyt sued the Star – and won – and for a while he and Miller were hardly speaking. But one day some years later Foyt took Miller aside and said it was time for them both to forget about what happened and be friends again.