Robin Miller, journalist who captivated race fans with unfiltered takes, dies at 71

·11 min read

INDIANAPOLIS — Robin Miller was brash, unfiltered, no nonsense, self deprecating and the first to call himself a moron. He was also the man with a pen who captivated race fans with his unmatched knowledge of auto sports and who, under the radar, did good deeds for people and was fiercely loyal to friends.

Miller died Wednesday after a four-year battle with cancer. He was 71.

Miller, a member of the 2021 Motorsports Hall of Fame class, was a self-proclaimed nonathlete who wore baggy pants and sweatshirts with faces of drivers adorning the fronts. He lived on a diet of burgers from The Workingman’s Friend, Long's Bakery doughnuts and candy.

He was a college dropout who got a break answering phones at the city's biggest newspaper when he was 18. He was a volunteer for his racing idol, Jim Hurtubise, and then promptly got fired after botching a paint job.

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Miller later went on to have his own racing career, driving in the USAC midget series in the 1970s, though he soon found that he was better behind the typewriter than behind the wheel.

He eventually was promoted to his dream job at the Indianapolis Star, covering auto sports for three decades; but was fired in 2001 for violating the company's ethics policy.

None of that stopped Miller, who went on for two more decades reporting on racing and drawing a diehard following of readers and viewers at ESPN, Speed, RACER and NBC Sports.

A clip of Robin Miller's column in the Indianapolis Star when he reported on motorsports.
A clip of Robin Miller's column in the Indianapolis Star when he reported on motorsports.

He was the writer who could infuriate the likes of Tony George, the IMS leader during the open-wheel split in the mid 1990s. "I Hate Robin Miller" T-shirts were sold near the track.

But Miller could also call Al or Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti or A.J. Foyt at 3:30 in the morning and they would answer within two rings. And gladly do so.

In a modern day media era, Miller was the throwback to old-time journalism, closer to sources than he should have been — but also the first to rip them apart.

"Robin wasn't afraid to say what Robin believed. He just never held back," said Doug Boles, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "That created sort of a love-hate with Robin. But everybody read him whether you loved him or hated him."

His racing authority spread far beyond Indianapolis; he was known nationally as a go-to source. But Indy was his beloved home stomping ground.

"Robin Miller is undoubtedly, he is a franchise in this town," said Jake Query, a turn announcer for IndyCar and an Indianapolis sports broadcaster. "Without Robin Miller, this town is losing an immeasurable and irreplaceable element of its sports culture and its sports history.

"There is literally nobody else like him."

'I was fired by my hero'

Miller's career evolved organically, a young boy who grew up on the south side of Indianapolis enchanted by the speedway. His first visit to the track came in 1957 in grade school when he fibbed to a teacher and said he wasn't allowed to go on a field trip to Chicago. The kids left behind got a day at the track.

"I was hooked after that," Miller said in an interview with Mark Montieth in 2011.

A couple of years later, his dad found a way to park behind the track, walk across the golf course and get right up to the outside of the backstretch fence. He watched his first Indianapolis 500 from there, in awe as the cars whizzed around lap after lap.

In 1964, his dad bought tickets to the Indy 500. Miller was 14 years old. A fiery seven-car crash happened right in front of Miller's seats. Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald died. Miller was still hooked.

After that, he began cutting school each May to go to the track. The addiction became real. And his favorite driver was Hurtubise, the 1960 Rookie of the Year.

Miller would go to Terre Haute to watch him race sprint cars. One day, Miller saw Hurtubise drinking a beer and he got an idea to catch his hero's attention. Miller went around and stole beer out of fans' coolers during races then gave them to Hurtubise.

"I bugged him so many times," Miller said in the 2011 interview.

Robin Miller had his own racing career in USAC during the 1970s.
Robin Miller had his own racing career in USAC during the 1970s.

It worked. Miller got to be a "stooge" -- an assistant doing the grunt work -- for Hurtubise in 1968 when he was 18 years old. Just one problem: the age was 21 to get into the pits or Gasoline Alley. Hurtubise got Miller a Goodyear jacket, "stuffed a rag in my back pocket and told me to keep my head down and my mouth shut," Miller said in 2011.

"I went to work for him as free help," he said. "He fired me before the month was over because I was a mechanical moron."

It was a botched paint job. Miller was putting the bodywork on a car with a little wrench and that wrench went right through the paint.

"He said, 'I got to let you go,'" Miller said. "I mean I was devastated. I was free help and I was fired by my hero."

'How did you know how to write?'

Meanwhile, Miller landed a job in 1968 at the Indianapolis Star answering phones. One night, some guys in the newsroom went out, got a little drunk and didn't come back.

The phones were ringing off the hook, Miller was answering them and taking box scores and then writing, because no one else was there to do it.

A staff photo of Robin Miller in September 2000 when he was a columnist for the Indianapolis Star.
A staff photo of Robin Miller in September 2000 when he was a columnist for the Indianapolis Star.

"How did you know how to write?" an editor asked him, impressed with what he saw. You're not answering phones anymore, the editor told him. Miller was promoted to work in the sports department full time.

Miller made $143 a week when he started in 1969 as a writer. By 1972, he was helping to cover auto racing.

About that time, Miller persuaded Art Pollard to help him buy a Formula Ford from Andy Granatelli so that he could start racing. He soon became friends with Bill Finley, a chief mechanic. Finley put cars in the Indianapolis 500 through the 1960s and 70s. Miller got a job on his IndyCar pit crews.

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He would hold the pit boards, help fuel cars during pit stops, make hamburger runs and push cars. And Miller raced USAC.

"I got to cover what I loved and I got to race and I still got to work for the paper," Miller said in 2011. "I mean, you couldn't have asked for a better deal than I had."

'Hell of a newspaper man'

It was in his heyday at the IndyStar that Miller became a household name. He was the racing authority during IndyCar's peak in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

"Through the split, then coming out on the other side, Robin was the definitive source. He was the one who had everybody's ear," said Bill Benner, a former sports columnist with IndyStar. "He was like the conscience of open-wheel racing for 30 years."

And Miller's gregarious personality was loved in the newsroom, said Benner.

"He was a magnet. Everybody, at least in the sports department, was drawn to him by his force of personality," he said. "He was a hell of a newspaper man."

Miller could be loud and obnoxious in the newsroom, sometimes cussing people out on the phone, said Mark Montieth, who wrote for IndyStar until 2008. More than once, the managing editor would step out and call Miller into his office.

"Robin was the class clown who sometimes got sent to the principal's office," Montieth said.

He was colorful, a loose cannon and he had fun with that, though sometimes it was at the expense of the people he was writing about, he said.

Miller didn't just cover racing in his days as a reporter. At one time, he helped cover the Colts, the Pacers and IU.

"He shook up more locker rooms," said Benner. "He never bit his tongue. Ever ever."

In one column, Miller took a "cheap shot" at Pat Knight, IU coach Bob Knight's son, said Query. So he called Miller in the newsroom. He'd never talked to Miller in his life.

"I go to IU and I'm friends with Pat Knight. I have a question for you," Query recalls telling Miller. "Do you think it’s easy being Bob Knight’s son?"

Miller proceeded to ask Query his name again, then he asked what his major was. Query told him he was hoping to become a sports broadcaster.

"Would you be interested in working at the largest newspaper in the state?" Miller asked him. A week later Query had a job at IndyStar, answering phones and taking game scores.

Those nearly three years at the paper are when Query realized just how kind a person Miller was.

Miller often had steak dinners, pizza dinners, whatever dinner it was with sources. He never left those meals without coming back to the newsroom to give the leftovers to the "grunts," Query said.

Bob Jenkins holding his Robin Miller Award on Friday, May 28. From left to right: Mark Miles, Mario Andretti, Robin Miller, Bob Jenkins, Roger Penske and Jay Frye.
Bob Jenkins holding his Robin Miller Award on Friday, May 28. From left to right: Mark Miles, Mario Andretti, Robin Miller, Bob Jenkins, Roger Penske and Jay Frye.

Miller is the one who organized retirement parties for people. He was the one in the press box who always had Long's doughnuts, a bag of Dubble Bubble gum and all sorts of candy. He handed his goods out to anyone who wanted it.

He also liked to take groups of fellow journalists and friends to the Indiana State Fair. Miller would bring stacks of cash and pay for everyone to play the free throw game. Miller prided himself on winning that.

His only rule was, if someone else won a stuffed animal, they had to give it to a kid at the fair.

"All these people, from the outside, Robin had this lightning rod reputation, a flame thrower," Query said. "And in reality he is the most loyal person I've ever met."

'I'm at peace with whatever happens'

In 2001 after three decades at IndyStar, Miller was fired, according to the company, for violating the company's electronic messaging policy with abusive e-mails to readers and defamatory e-mails about newsmakers and Star staff members. Miller also accepted money from a race car driver whom he covered, which violated the company's ethics policy.

He went on to find success as he continued to cover auto sports with various news outlets. Through Miller's more than 50-year career, he became known as the racing reporter with the scoop. He nabbed exclusives with racing icons and officials who didn't grant exclusives.

Because of his own racing background, he had relationships with owners, crew chiefs, mechanics.

"He had this amazing network," said Boles. "People trusted him and because he walked alongside them, he was able to write stories not just from the reporter's eyes and fans' eyes but from somebody inside the sport."

In 2017, Miller made public that he was fighting bone cancer. He went through chemo and continued to cover auto sports as feverishly as ever.

But in early July, a message was written to readers of Racer.com, letting them know Miller's writings on the site would be on pause for the foreseeable future.

Until shortly before his death, Robin Miller answered fans' questions in his mailbag at Racer.com.
Until shortly before his death, Robin Miller answered fans' questions in his mailbag at Racer.com.

On July 31, Miller wrote his own letter, a goodbye of sorts. "I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m at peace with whatever happens, be it a year or six months or six weeks or six hours."

"I never dreamed that a guy who writes stories about race drivers could impact people’s lives and instill so much passion," he wrote. "I’ve had the greatest life anyone can imagine, and I’ve been lucky enough to share it with the fans."

Months before Miller's death, Sunday nights were quieter for Boles. Before Miller became too sick to write, he would email or call Boles at 10:30 or 11 p.m. He wanted to get answers from Boles to questions fans had written Miller about for his mailbag.

"That's the passion he had," Boles said. "I don't know of anybody that has been read more or listened to more or sought out more for his information than Robin Miller. I don't know there has been anybody that has helped our sport grow more than Robin Miller."

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Robin Miller, Motorsports Hall of Fame journalist, dies at 71