For years, Miller was the IRL's Public Enemy Number One. But even though detractors berated him as a CART suckup, he was, in truth, an equal-opportunity slam artist. Earlier this year, he was banned from the Champ Car Web site for writing a doom-and-gloom column about the coming season. More recently, Champ Car officials yanked his media credential after he reported embarrassing personnel changes high up the food chain.
"They sent a letter to the Speed Channel legal people, but nobody at Champ Car had the nuts to call me up and say, `We're taking your hard card.' " Miller shakes his head with disgust. "I have `conversations' with people all the time, and I don't mind that. I drew a line in the sand with A. J. Foyt over cheating at the Speedway, and I didn't speak to Jim Hall for three or four years after I wrote that the Chaparral that won Indy in 1980 had been designed by John Barnard and built by B. S. Fabrications. Would it have been better not to give those guys credit for the helluva job they did and stay friends with Jim Hall, or do you say, `Fuck you. If you can't handle the truth, I don't give a shit' and accept the consequences?"
Miller shrugs. "A lot of people say, `I've got a wife and a couple of kids, and I'm going to ride the gravy train and write the same pabulum every week.' Whereas me, I've never married. I'm a degenerate gambler. I don't care if anybody likes me. I quit caring about that when I was twenty-one years old." He polishes off his pork tenderloin and chases it with root beer. "As long as I don't lose too much money betting on the NFL, I'll be all right."
"Robin Miller! I watch you on TV all the time! Give me a hug!"
Miller embraces a human grizzly bear whose prominent belly strains the fabric of a T-shirt bearing the logo of the Dingus Lounge, the bar across the street from Knoxville Raceway. It's a measure of the power of television and how open-wheel racing has fallen off the radar that Miller is a bigger celebrity than most of the drivers here at Eldora Speedway, where he's doing a segment for the Speed Channel on the 4-Crown Nationals for sprint cars, midgets, and Silver Crown cars.As he makes his way to the infield, he's repeatedly waylaid by admirers requesting autographs and photos. "I just want to shake your hand." "I love you on Dave Despain." "I watch you on Wind Tunnel all the time."
Miller is at home with the fans because, at heart, he's one of them. An Indianapolis native, he attended his first 500 when he was eight, and he later worked as a volunteer crewman for his hero, Jim Hurtubise. In 1968, he jumped a fence to appear in the Speedway's official qualifying photo when Hurtubise became the last driver to get a front-engine car into the race. "My life had been made at that point," he says.
Miller started racing himself in a Formula Ford. But after Indy-car buddies Art Pollard, Johnny Parsons, Billy Vukovich, and Gary Bettenhausen derided it as "a squat-to-pee racer," he bought a midget that had been campaigned by one-armed Merle Bettenhausen. Miller wasn't a badass--his highest accolade--but he was quick enough to run third in the Hut Hundred before his engine puked, and in his last start, he beat Stan Fox in a heat race.
"I lived with these guys, I raced with them, and I wrote about them," Miller says. "Everybody stayed in the same hotel. We played softball at night and then went out and got pizza and beer. I remember seeing guys like Tom Bigelow and Bob Harkey and John Mahler and Jerry Sneva on the last day of qualifying at Indy, and before they'd go out, they'd give their wallets and car keys to their crew chiefs and tell them, `If I don't make it back, make sure my old lady gets these.' They did whatever they had to do to make the race. If they hung it on the wall, they hung it on the wall. That's the spirit that made the Indy 500, and we'll never see it again. These days, you just show up and you've made the race."