The most powerful voice for IndyCar racing passed this week after a long battle with cancer.
Some of us on the Attesa team knew Robin Miller from our days at Phoenix International Raceway. We had no idea that when we last saw him at the PRI show in Indianapolis years ago, it would indeed be our final time to listen and laugh with him.
Toward the end of his journey, Miller penned a column on racer.com explaining his status. After his death, Marshall Pruett and Mark Glendenning wrote wonderful tribute pieces. Bruce Martin, another racing journalist, also shared some memories.
Feel free to click on any of those articles. And then, read what writer Zak Keefer from the Athletic wrote last year about Robin Miller. The Athletic is a pay site but yesterday they turned off the paywall after learning of Miller’s death. We copied it and are posting it here because it’s more than worth the read.
By Zak Keefer
Editor’s Note: Robin Miller, longtime journalist, columnist, and one-of-a-kind racing scribe, died Aug. 25, 2021 at the age of 71, after years of multiple myeloma and leukemia. In May 2021, Miller returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for his 52nd consecutive Indianapolis 500, and during the IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader earlier this month, a special ceremony was held on site to honor him as a member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America Class of 2021 and present him with his plaque. Robin is survived by his sister, Diane, and nieces Emily and Ashley. This profile from Zak Keefer was included in The Athletic’s Best of 2020.
He can’t sleep more than three hours a night. He can’t golf. Can’t shoot hoops. Can’t walk 50 yards down the sidewalk without having to stop and sit and catch his breath. Between a weakened immune system and the threat of COVID-19, the man barely leaves his condo these days, save the trips he’s deemed most essential to his survival: a cheeseburger at the Workingman’s Friend and the weekly trek to his doctor’s office, where he sits in a chair for six hours and waits for them to pump blood into him.
His body quit making its own awhile back.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he shrugs.
So he passes most of his days in front of his laptop, grinding away like he always has, a 70-year-old sportswriter fighting two evils at once: bone cancer and deadlines. He writes because there’s nothing to do but write. Columns. Essays. Mailbags. It keeps him going, even after all these years — chasing news, spilling his opinions, staring at that blank screen until something clever creeps into his mind. That screen doesn’t stay blank for long. Never has.
He’s spent half a century behind a keyboard, covered races all over the globe, written about — and become dear friends with — the best open-wheel drivers who’ve ever lived. Why retire when you can still do the only thing you’ve ever wanted to do?
Battered immune system, multiple myeloma, global pandemic … you think that’s gonna keep Robin Miller from covering his 51st straight Indianapolis 500 on Sunday? Not a chance.
He’s told friends he’s got three to five years left to live.
Sixteenth and Georgetown here he comes.
Warning: This story contains graphic language. A lot of graphic language. Which, if you know Robin Miller, shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“The man’s not a story,” they say of Robin Miller. “He’s a damn book.”
He’s a legendary hellion in these parts, an irresistible Indiana character who’s carved out a distinctly Hoosier career — and had more fun along the way than anyone probably should. He’s the college dropout who became a newsroom grunt, a pit crew stooge, a midget car racer, an ABA chronicler, a big-city columnist and a racing institution.
Along the way, he gambled away a half a million dollars, raced until he was broke, stuck it to Tony George and became Indy’s most hated man. He’s been sucker-punched and sued for libel by A.J. Foyt. He’s been banned from the Pacers’ locker room by Slick Leonard, loathed by Bob Knight and called a “scrawny motherfucker” by Jeff George. He once snuck strippers from the Wild Cherry Show Club into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He almost killed himself in a race car. He lost three jobs in the same town in the same year.
And he hung around, mined his sources and broke news. He penned passionate and provoking and fearless work, becoming not only one of the most respected racing writers of his era but also the most incendiary. It’s doubtful any scribe in this city’s history has riled up more readers than Robin Lee Miller. The man used to piss people off at a legendary clip.
Today, he wears it as a badge of honor. “You should’ve seen some of the hate mail I used to get,” he says, chuckling. “They wanted me dead. Or at the very least, out of the country.”
He’s as authentic as they come, warts and all — and there are plenty. He’s loud. Crude. Irreverent. And quite possibly the least politically correct man in America.
Why be polite when you can tell it like it is?
“Most writers are too scared,” the legendary Foyt says. “So while most of them are bullshitting, Robin’s telling the truth. He doesn’t care if you’re A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti or Roger Penske. He calls a spade a spade.”
But there’s also this: He’s generous, thoughtful and a fiercely loyal friend.
Mark Miles, the IndyCar series chief since 2013, says he can’t count the number of times Miller has come to him in the weeks leading up to the 500, hoping to get race tickets for a fan who couldn’t afford their own.
“A force in many ways,” longtime friend and colleague Bill Benner calls him. “Robin’s moxie then and now is still unlike very few I’ve encountered in my life.”
Adds popular Indy radio host John Gliva: “The most loyal, thoughtful, outspoken, fun-loving, Hoosier-sports-knowledgeable dude I have ever known.”
“Perhaps the greatest human paradox,” says Jake Query, a longtime Indianapolis media fixture who works for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network. “Not in any way based on anything he exudes — he is as open, raw, transparent and honest as anyone I know.
“Yet the perception of him is that he is an ornery, spiteful and judgmental recluse. He is none of those things, but his honesty and candor make him immune to the concern of perception.”
Miller spent 33 years at The Indianapolis Star, mostly as a racing writer and columnist, before being fired in 2001 for violating the paper’s ethics policy. It grew so bitter between him and Star management that he had to be escorted out of the newsroom by security guards after he was canned. He’s since spent time at ESPN, Speed, RACER and NBC Sports, and quite possibly has clocked in more hours at the speedway over the past half-century than anyone alive.
Not all have been pleasant. When Miller was warring with IMS chief Tony George on a daily basis during the famed open-wheel split of the mid-90s, vendors started selling “I hate Robin Miller” T-shirts across the street from the speedway. When he tried to buy one, he was told to get lost.
“Anyone but you,” the vendor told him.
He doesn’t drink. He’s never married. He gets fired a lot. His entire wardrobe consists of sweatshirts with old racers on them — Foyt, Andretti, Unser, Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones — his heroes then and now.
And to hear him tell it, he’s the luckiest guy on the planet. He’s a lifelong raconteur with stories that’ll last for days.
“There’s only one Robin Miller,” his friend Mario Andretti says. “And we can all thank God for that.”
So, the stories. Start with Foyt, whom Miller says he got along famously with before May 1981. After a practice session leading up to that year’s Indy 500, Miller wrote in The Star that “there were many in the pit population who were skeptical of Super Tex’s boost.” Foyt, already a four-time champ, had clocked a top speed one afternoon that was 8 mph faster than every other car on the track.
Foyt had been known to push the rules, and there were plenty in the racing community who had their suspicions. Miller was just the first one with the mettle to write it.
Foyt, naturally, was incensed.
He caught up to Miller a day later, behind the scoring pylon on the front straightaway at IMS, and punched him from behind. Then he yanked his long hair.
“What the fuck are you writing this shit for?” Miller remembers Foyt screaming. “Is it a crime to go fast?”
“When I was young, I had a pretty good temper,” Foyt says now. “And I never did care for long-haired people anyway.”
It took Miller a moment to realize what Foyt’s furor was about — “the line had been so innocuous,” he contends. But on his walk back to the press center, while he tried to collect himself, three friends approached. They were all lawyers, and they were ready to come to his defense. “That’s assault and battery what he did to you,” they told him. “We’ll press charges if you want.”
No, Miller thought. He had a better idea.
“I decided I was going to tell the world what a cheater Anthony Joseph Foyt was.”
So he did.
“A.J.’s nasty side hidden by legend” came the headline in the following day’s Star. Miller alleged eight little-known transgressions by Foyt — among them changing his car’s body configuration before an inspection, using an oversized engine and carrying a nitrous oxide bottle in his driver’s suit — that he mostly based on secondhand stories he’d heard from mechanics and other drivers over the years. When The Star’s editors wavered on publishing the column, Miller pushed it through.
“Of course, few people would ever talk or write about any of these matters because, well, it was A.J. Foyt,” Miller wrote. “In the eyes of many people, he could do whatever he wanted because he was sacred.”
If he thought Foyt was angry before …
“He sues me,” Miller says. “For libel.”
Without hard evidence or on-the-record sources, The Star had to backtrack. The paper not only apologized to Foyt, it offered to pay his legal fees.
Miller was irate.
And the hate mail poured in.
“A.J. is everything that’s good about America and you’re everything that’s bad,” one reader wrote. “Do all us Foyt fans a favor and quit writing. Or better yet, keep racing … maybe you’ll kill yourself.”
Foyt refused to speak to Miller for a year, but at a race in Cleveland the following summer, Super Tex walked straight up to him. Miller grew tense.
“Hey asshole,” Foyt began.
“At that point, I was convinced he was gonna drag my body into Lake Erie and drown me,” Miller says with a laugh.
Instead, it was a peace offering.
“I don’t think you and I should hate each other anymore,” Foyt told him.
“A.J., I don’t hate you,” Miller said.
Go figure: They’ve been close ever since.
“Good friends all these years,” Miller says. “He called me up a few years ago and said, ‘Hey, I’m going in for heart surgery and I’m not sure I’m gonna make it. You and I have had a lot of fun together.’ Now, I call him up once a week just to mess with him.
“He’s an American treasure, and I don’t think we’ll ever see another one like him again.”
Foyt is 85 now, and both he and Miller have spent the past few years fighting off health scares.
“I’ll probably be gone before him,” Super Tex says. “We’ve been at it for a long, long time. A lot of people used to not like Robin. Hell, I used to not like Robin, but I got to liking him. People would bad mouth him, but 99 percent of the stuff he wrote was true. I just hope he gets better so we can keep arguing some more.”
It’s unlikely Bob Knight would offer a similar sentiment. Miller once called the legendary IU coach “the ugly American” in a column after Knight marched his Hoosiers off the floor during a 1987 exhibition game against the Soviet Union. “He’s a dictator who rules by intimidation and answers to no one,” Miller added.
“You wanna talk about guts? Bob Knight was the most powerful man in the state at this time, and Robin didn’t hesitate,” says Mike Frey, a lifelong Miller friend. “He never looks back, and he never second-guesses himself.”
But at the time, few readers appreciated Miller’s candor. Knight was fresh off his third national championship in 11 seasons. His popularity was never higher.
A sampling of the subsequent letters to the editor: “Robin Miller is a birdbrain,” “Knight is the god of basketball” and “Winning covers Knight’s sins.” Years later, when a Star colleague tried to play peacemaker and get the two in a room to air their grievances, Knight refused. “Fuck that guy, never,” he said, according to Miller’s memory.
“That made me smile,” Miller says.
He won’t be hearing from Jeff George anytime soon, either. The big-armed quarterback and native Hoosier, whom the Colts made the No. 1 overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft, lasted just four rocky seasons in Indianapolis before forcing his way out. Miller hammered George in The Star while his career with the Colts crumbled. He wrote that he had no concept of team football, that he played with no heart.
One morning, after a particularly harsh column, George stormed into the locker room, fuming.
“Hey, you scrawny motherfucker! I’ll kick your ass!” George screamed at Miller, who was interviewing another player.
Luckily for Miller, George’s teammates intervened.
A few weeks later, before kickoff one afternoon at the Hoosier Dome, George’s three brothers climbed up to the seats just in front of the press box, where Miller was standing for the national anthem.
“We know where you live!” they shouted at him. “And we’re gonna kick your ass!”
“Take a number!” Miller shouted right back.
Three decades later, afforded time and perspective, the cranky old columnist looks back on the shots he took and the wars he waged. He pissed a lot of people off for a lot of years.
“Sometimes you wonder, was I too mean?” Miller says. “Was I just trying to get people to laugh? Was I too big of an asshole to Tony George or Jeff George or whoever? You’re trying to entertain people, but you don’t wanna cross the line.
“I probably did a few times.”
Bob Miller couldn’t scrounge up tickets for the Indianapolis 500, so for years, he and his only son would climb a fence on the backstretch and sneak into the speedway. They’d find the best view they could, stay for 40 laps, then head home, dreaming of the day they’d get to watch from inside the gates.
Robin was nine when he skipped his fourth-grade field trip for a 500 practice day. “It was $25 to take a train up to Chicago to see the Museum of Science and Industry,” Miller remembers. “But if your family didn’t have the money, you could just go to the track instead.
“So I lied and said my family couldn’t afford it.”
He’d never been much of an athlete, but sports always had a pull on him. One year, at Southport High School, he asked the basketball coach if he could be the team manager.
“Son, the junior high’s across the street,” the coach told him.
“Sir, I’m a sophomore,” Robin replied.
He became sports editor of the school paper instead. He wrote and wrote and wrote. He found his passion. He flunked out of Ball State, dropped out of IUPUI, then talked his way into a job at The Star one night in 1968 after a few of the sports clerks returned to the newsroom too drunk to finish their shift.
He earned his keep, answering phones, scribbling down box scores, staying long after the paper had gone to press. When he’d beg his bosses to let him cover games, they’d laugh. He’d turn in a story and never see it make print.
“An editor would look at it and go, ‘Get serious,’” Miller remembers. “‘This is the biggest paper in the state. You think we’re gonna run this shit?’”
He kept at it. One afternoon that first summer, he was summoned into the boss’s office. Miller thought it was his big break. The Star’s venerable sports editor, Bob Collins, was joined by a close friend, Jim Murray of The Los Angeles Times. Together, they were two of the finest sports columnists in the country.
Miller was pumped.
This was it.
“Hey kid,” Murray barked. “Run across the street and grab us a bottle of scotch, would ya?”
The grunt did as he was told. And a year later, that break came. The city had a new pro hoops team in an upstart league called the American Basketball Association. The Star needed a spare Pacers writer. Miller got the gig. He was 19.
And what a ride it was. The team’s fiery young coach, Bobby “Slick” Leonard, took Miller under his wing, not to mention to the bars and nightclubs the coaches and players frequented after games. The kid reporter flew on the team plane, grew tight with Roger and Mel and Neto, and came into his own.
“They took me everywhere,” Miller says. “The all-Black nightclubs. The big-and-tall stores. The strip clubs, too.”
By 1976, Miller landed the job he’d always wanted. He became The Star’s lead auto racing writer.
“We were the racing bible for the entire state,” he proudly notes. “No one covered racing like we did.”
A teenage Robin Miller (checkered shirt) pushes his hero, Jim Hurtubise, off of pit road during an Indianapolis 500 practice in 1968. (Courtesy of Robin Miller)
He’d started as a wide-eyed, 19-year-old pit boy for his idol, Jim Hurtubise, at the 1968 Indy 500. He ran the pit board, tried to not embarrass himself with a wrench, helped push the roadster out of the pits and stuffed greasy rags into Herk’s helmet to keep it in in place.
Miller calls it heaven.
“On an IndyCar team with my hero and not legally old enough to be in the pits?” he says now. “How could life even get better?”
By 1972, Miller was so immersed in the sport he decided to borrow $6,000 from a friend, buy a Formula Ford race car and start competing at the amateur level. He wanted to prove to the world-class drivers he was covering — Foyt, Andretti, Bobby Unser, you name it — that he could cut it.
Mission accomplished. The man couldn’t fix a car to save his life, but he could drive.
(Except for that night in Hinsdale, Ill., in 1975. On an early hot lap, Miller flipped his racer into the concrete wall, tearing the cage off his car “and damn near my head,” he remembers. “Bled like a stuck pig and was unconscious for a couple of days.” In all, it was more than two weeks. Still, Miller says, “zero trepidation coming back. Hell, I got hurt in the best possible way. I didn’t remember a thing.”)
Truth told, he never saw it all ending — dream job, home city, boom years for the Indianapolis 500 — until Tony George, president of IMS, let him in on a secret over breakfast one morning in 1995. “It’s gonna be hard if these guys aren’t back next year,” Miller remembers George telling him. These guys, George meant, were Penske, Paul Newman and Carl Haas, the biggest and most successful outfits in open-wheel racing. The lifebloods of the Indy 500.
George was starting his own series, the Indy Racing League. His cause was a noble one, his timing poor, his execution worse: George sought to preserve the American-born oval racer’s presence at the Indianapolis 500. By the mid-90s, too many rising prodigies — start with native Hoosiers Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart — had fled to NASCAR. CART, the sanctioning body at Indy since 1979, had become a series dominated by road courses. George wanted Indy to return to its roots.
But at what cost?
The tipping point came when George brashly altered the long-standing qualifying rules of the 500. Twenty-five spots would be reserved for his IRL teams. For many 500 lifers, including Robin Miller, it was a slap in the face to almost nine decades of tradition. The race had been born a 500-mile sweepstakes, open to any and all, the field filled with the fastest 33. And it had remained that way for 84 years.
George wasn’t blinking. The split with CART was coming. The big guns would be furious, and might never return.
Miller went berserk.
“I told Tony, ‘Why would you fuck up the biggest cash cow in the world?’” he says.
The feud dragged on for years.
“Tony George was telling the Rahals and the Andrettis and the Fittipaldis that unless you join my league, you’re not gonna race here,” says Tim Coffeen, a former IMS employee who counts Miller as a longtime friend. “Well, Robin was pissed. He wrote what he believed, and it cost him every job he had.”
Miller went after George mercilessly in his column in The Star, his radio show on WIBC and his television appearances on WTHR-13, Indy’s NBC affiliate.
“The Indianapolis 500 may be diluted forever,” he wrote after the split with CART, and he believed it.
To many around the city, he was attacking their race. He was piling on. He was making it personal. He was anti-Indy. Miller would walk up and down pit road at IMS and hear the jabs, one after another, from fans he’d made furious.
“Everyone hates you!”
“Quit your job!”
“You should never be allowed back in here!”
Meanwhile, the letters piled up at The Star’s offices. Most readers wanted Miller’s head on a platter.
“I thought I had some balls,” says Benner, a longtime Star columnist. “Well, they were minuscule compared to Robin’s.”
George’s IRL did become reality, but the 500 suffered dearly in the late 90s. Interest waned. Ticket prices plunged. The racing sputtered. Sports Illustrated, speaking to the national sentiment at the time, ran a headline after the first post-split 500 that left IMS officials fuming: “Whatever happened to Indy?”
“Everyone would always yell at me, ‘Why do you hate the speedway? You’re turning your back on the speedway,’” Miller says now. “Well, the ironic thing is that no one loved the speedway more than I did. All the media in town were trying to act like nothing was different. Everything was different! It was like a ghost town.”
It grew worse. And worse. And worse. By the late ’90s, Miller was public enemy No. 1; even the drivers he’d known for decades had turned against him. One night, after a TV spot on WTHR, Miller stood in the parking lot with legends Foyt, Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford — 10 Indy 500 wins among them — while they continued the argument they’d started on the air.
“You guys made the Indy 500 what it is because you’re the best!” Miller remembers shouting. “We got a bunch of jackoffs in here. We’ve got the Toledo Mud Hens playing in Yankee Stadium!”
With that, Miller says, they all stormed off. The racing circles he’d worked years to climb into had closed.
“To people on the outside, it got bad,” says Benner. “But Robin didn’t give a shit. He was totally unaffected by all the noise. He didn’t care. He’s still that way.”
By 2000, he’d lost his radio gig, and his TV spots were drying up fast. As for his day job, Coffeen remembers George sending lawyers to The Star’s downtown offices to meet with Eugene Pulliam, the paper’s publisher. “To say, essentially, ‘Hey, we’re the biggest tourist attraction in Indiana,’” Coffeen says. “‘You better shut this guy up.’ ”
Miller notes that around this time The Star and IMS were entering into a business partnership, and he believes George told management that the deal was off if Miller was still employed. (George, who was ousted as IMS president by his family in 2009, declined to comment on Miller for this story, citing he does not do interviews anymore.)
Miller was fired in January 2001 after more than three decades at the paper. (George returned as chairman of the board of IMS at 2016, and was in the same position at parent company Hulman & Co. when IMS and the IndyCar Series were officially bought by Penske earlier this year.)
He filed a grievance but a mediator sided with The Star, citing Miller’s “gross misconduct” on the job. He had sent inappropriate emails about colleagues and Indianapolis civic leaders, including George, and violated the paper’s ethics policy, allegedly accepting money to help a driver he covered, Kenny Brack, start a website.
Miller publicly trashed The Star for years.
He’s since moved on. But he hasn’t forgotten.
“I don’t dislike Tony George, not at all, even though he cost me my job at The Star, WIBC and Channel 13,” he says now. “His sisters took the checkbook away from him because he spent $700 million keeping the IRL going. Sometimes I think I was too hard on him. It probably sounded like it was more personal than it was. It wasn’t. It wasn’t personal except in this way: Wake up! You’re fucking up the Indy 500!
“People always ask me, who won the split, CART or IRL?” he continues. “I’ll tell you who won the split. NASCAR did.”
And with that, mid-sentence and mid-interview, Miller’s phone buzzes. He picks up. It’s Tony Kanaan.
“Hey TK, I’m gonna have to call you back, brother.”
Robin Miller wants to tell one more story about the day he was fired. An hour after he left The Star for the last time, his phone rang. It was Mario Andretti.
“You know who got you, right?” Mario asked him.
“I think I have an idea,” Robin replied. “I think it was Tony George.”
“You’re fucking right it was Tony George,” Mario said. “But don’t worry. I got three car washes and we could use a manager.”
The Star could get rid of Miller. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway could not.
He’s continued to cover open-wheel racing with the same flair and fervor at ESPN, Speed and RACER ever since. He picked up a gig at NBC Sports a few years back, interviewing drivers and team owners in Gasoline Alley and on pit road.
“You know the only thing that bothers me these days?” his old pal David Letterman, a longtime IndyCar team owner, told him recently. “It’s that you’re on TV and I’m not.”
When Miles was hired as the new IndyCar chief in 2013, he made it a point to seek Miller’s counsel. He wanted his take on the state of the series and the 500, and he wanted nothing held back. The two grabbed cheeseburgers and onion rings at Workingman’s Friend and talked racing for hours.
“I didn’t take this job with any Robin Miller baggage,” Miles says seven years later. “My style was to find out what he thinks. He’s not gonna sugarcoat anything, and I’ve never been offended by that. He cares deeply about racing, and his readers are loyal, and I wanted to hear everything he had to say, good and bad.”
Miles has heard plenty from Miller since. Maybe too much. The IndyCar boss has spent 40 years working in sports, and when he’s asked if there are any Robin Millers left out there, he laughs.
“No,” Miles says flatly. “Because they’d self-destruct.”
Most of Miller’s crustiness has worn off. Some of it’s age. Some of it’s the cancer, which is in remission but still hinders his daily life. About all he’s got left is that blank screen and those loyal readers.
His employers have kept him grounded this year, mindful of the spread of COVID-19 and that he’s high-risk, so he covers the IndyCar series from home. He sneaks in a few trips to Workingman’s Friend each week to catch up with some “broken-down racers” — his words — and share some old stories, something he never runs out of. He’ll be in his usual spot Sunday morning, ready for his 51st straight Indianapolis 500, passing out Long’s Donuts to any and all who ask.
He is the unquestioned mayor of the IMS press center, as synonymous with the place as any writer who’s ever walked through the gates. The wide-eyed kid who once climbed the fence to get a peek of the roadsters as they roared down the backstretch ended up chronicling the careers of Foyt and Andretti and Unser.
Five decades later, he lumbers on, into the era of Alexander Rossi and Will Power and James Hinchcliffe.
Last spring, the speedway decided it was time. Miles and Co. presented the cranky old columnist with the Robin Miller Award, honoring a career that’s spanned 50 years and seen him climb from Jim Hurtubise’s stooge to the authority on all things 500. The scene wouldn’t been unthinkable two decades prior, Miller posing for photographs with IMS brass. But the grudges are gone.
The speedway’s most hated man had come full circle.
All the legends showed up to celebrate — Foyt, Andretti, Unser, Rutherford, Robin Miller’s heroes then and now.
This time, it wasn’t their picture on the T-shirt. It was his.