"Tony George screwed it up irreparably, so he deserves the first bullet. But then Roger Penske and Pat Patrick and Chip Ganassi and Bobby Rahal piled on. They ought to line 'em all up and shoot them for their greed and stupidity and lack of foresight."
It's a balmy Friday evening in Indianapolis, and Robin Miller--racing's most fearless print and broadcast journalist--is flogging his two favorite hobby horses: how the Indy 500 lost its groove, and why open-wheel racing cars have been eclipsed by NASCAR's clunkers.
"There used to be a mystique about the month of May in Indianapolis," he says. "The whole town got behind it. Everybody had a checkered flag and signs in their windows. Since the first Indy Racing League (IRL) Indy 500 in 1996, there have been years when you wouldn't even know it was the month of May. But Champ Car is no better than the IRL. This year, they had two races on ESPN Classic at seven o'clock in the morning. The ratings were so low they didn't even have a rating. What are we doing here, boys? Are we nuts? We're killing open-wheel racing."
We're sitting at a weathered picnic table outside the Mug 'n Bun, a drive-in where grease-laden, gut-busting food is prepared inside a wooden shack and served, if you like, on a tray that hooks to the window of your car. This is where Miller loves to bring newcomers to Indianapolis--drivers Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian when Ganassi imported them from Europe, Stefan Johansson after he defected from Formula 1, Jimmy Spencer when he was in town for the Brickyard 400. (Johansson complained that the pork tenderloin was still in his digestive tract a week later, but the supersize Spencer couldn't get enough of it.)
Like the Mug 'n Bun, Miller is a throwback offering good value in a plain wrapper. Loud, funny, painfully profane, and excruciatingly honest, he loves to take shots at the self-important blowhards and would-be heroes of the IRL, Champ Car, NASCAR, and USAC. In an age when most racing journalists are lapdogs for the sport they cover, Miller--currently working mostly for the Speed Channel and its Web site--is the field's most rabid attack dog.
"I don't agree with everything he says, but I respect him for expressing what he believes," says Mario Andretti. "He's so passionate about open-wheel racing. He doesn't just report on it; he lives it. He's there in the trenches, and he really understands what's going on. Everybody I talk to agrees that nobody in open-wheel racing can benefit from the status quo. But do they speak up? No. Robin is the one guy who keeps hammering away on the subject, and it's hard to argue with what he reports."
Dan Gurney is another big Miller booster. "Robin's not for sale," he says. "He'll stand up for what he believes in. He's a tremendous racing fan, he's been a participant himself, and he's a very sharp observer, so he's able to offer a lot of valuable insights, even though they aren't always welcome. He's willing to speak his mind for the good of the sport, even to the detriment of his own career. That takes a lot of courage, and I really admire that."
Miller's rsum is a case study in Career Mismanagement 101. After flunking out of Ball State University--"which was hard to do," he says--he got a job answering phones in the sports department at The Indianapolis Star, and he rose to a position as America's best-known open-wheel journalist. From this lofty perch, he devoted thousands of column inches to excoriating Tony George for the perceived idiocies of the IRL. Miller believes, and most observers agree, that pressure from Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials cost him his local radio and TV gigs. (He refers to it as "being gassed.") And in 2001, again thanks to IMS, he was fired by the Star and escorted from the building where he'd worked for thirty-three years.