“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.
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.”
Camaraderie notwithstanding, Miller has had his share of run-ins with drivers. In 1981, Foyt infamously smacked him over a story intimating that A. J. was cheating–a charge often heard in Gasoline Alley but seldom enshrined in print. Andretti, meanwhile, says without rancor that Miller has used material that he passed along in confidence. But neither Foyt nor Andretti hold a grudge, and Miller is more comfortable than most journalists with the back-slapping, lie-swapping ambience that pervades small-town racetracks.
The first person he runs into at Eldora is 1973 USAC sprint car champion Rollie Beale, who gives him a meaty handshake and a crooked smile. In the pits, Miller hangs with his old bud Norman “Bubby” Jones, a chain-smoking National Sprint Car Hall of Famer. As Miller pores over the entry list, Dane Carter–whose father and grandfather were both Indy-car studs–ambles over and shows him a photo of the midget he wrecked recently at Angell Park Speedway.
“Did you go out of the ballpark?” Miller asks.
“Naw, just took out the fence pole.”
When he hears that Silver Crown hot laps are about to begin, Miller sprints to the grandstands for a better view, and his enthusiasm rarely flags even as the sun sets and the moon rises and shifts across the ink-black sky. This is the old-school racing he loves–no wings, no laptop computers, no PR minions, no villains, just a bunch of honest Joes trying to make an honest buck rim-riding around a half-mile dirt oval built when men were men and women weren’t allowed in the pits.
The show doesn’t end until one in the morning. Miller and cameraman Jim Roeder prepare for a standup on the hard, slick dirt of the front straight. A knot of fans hovers nearby as Miller flubs his extemporaneous intro. “You guys don’t want to watch me do fifty-five takes, do you?” he asks good-naturedly.
“That’s okay,” one of the onlookers says. “We got plenty of beer in the pits.”
The Midwest used to be thickly dotted with tracks like Eldora, and the badasses would eventually make their way to Indy if they didn’t get killed or paralyzed along the way. No more. Now, if they’re lucky, they’ll find a home in NASCAR. By the same token, the days when a kid who’d flunked out of college could ride his charisma and overcome his political incorrectness to achieve a position running the sports department of a big-city paper are long gone. Like these small-town short tracks, Miller is a relic, and we won’t see his kind again.
At two o’clock, still as upbeat as he’d been twelve hours earlier, he knocks out the rest of his standup. “All right, brother,” he says. “Let’s call it a night.”
Amen to that.