Robin L. Miller, a lifelong motorsports fan who became one of the sport’s most recognized and influential media personalities, died Aug. 25 in Indianapolis. He was 71.
A native of his beloved Southport, Indiana, Miller rose to prominence as an Indianapolis Star sports writer, parlaying his love of many sports into more than 50 years of communication that defined his life.
Known predominantly as a writer and columnist covering the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR SERIES racing, Miller became a television personality first with ESPN, then SPEED and most recently NBC. He also had long stints at all of Indianapolis’ TV affiliates over the years.
Miller’s journalism career began at The Star in 1968, and he never retired from writing about auto racing. His stories and columns were featured in Autoweek, Car and Driver, Sports Illustrated and RACER, among other notable publications and websites, and for years he hosted shows on Indianapolis radio stations as he was a master storyteller.
Miller first visited Indianapolis Motor Speedway with his father, Bob, in 1957, attending his first “500” two years later. In 1968, at the age of 18, he began working for his racing hero, hard-luck driver Jim Hurtubise, running the pit board and assigned to various non-mechanical jobs. However, the stint was short-lived as Miller ruined part of the paint on Hurtubise’s car.
Miller got hired at The Star a month later and talked his way into the sports department, where his first duties included answering telephones and taking box score information alongside Jeff Smulyan, who later owned the Seattle Mariners, and future Star columnist Bill Benner.
Miller, a Ball State dropout, got his first break as a newspaper writer when The Star needed a reporter for the still-fledgling professional basketball team, the Indiana Pacers of the American Basketball Association. Fiery coach Bobby Leonard took a liking to Miller, allowing the skinny-but-frisky 19-year-old access to the team that would be unheard of for today’s sportswriters. Many of the ABA players from that era – Bob Netolicky, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and Billy Shepherd – became among Miller’s closest friends.
Miller tried his hand at driving race cars in the early 1970s, buying a Formula Ford from Andy Granatelli. Two years later, Miller purchased a midget from Gary Bettenhausen to start a 10-year run as a USAC competitor. With help from racing buddies Larry Rice, Johnny Parsons and the Bettenhausen brothers, Miller developed into a driver quick enough to qualify fifth for the 1980 Hut Hundred midget race at the Terre Haute Action Track, a prestigious dirt event featuring 33 cars lined up in 11 rows of three. However, a blown engine forced him out of the race.
Miller admittedly didn’t have a mechanical bone in his body and long enjoyed telling stories of his racing naivety. Such as, he bought a trailer too narrow for his race car – it had to be loaded in at an angle — and he survived a crash into a telephone pole in the Indiana State Fairgrounds parking lot when he started the car without buckling up. The throttle stuck, launching the powerful machine unexpectedly and dangerously forward.
In an even more serious situation, Miller suffered a head injury in hot laps at a 1975 midget race in Hinsdale, Illinois, when he flipped the car into a concrete wall, tearing the cage off his car.
However, a decade in a race car gave Miller a unique perspective on the sport and the drivers he covered. Over a span of 50 years, Miller befriended most of racing’s biggest names, regularly engaging them at lunches and dinners he organized. He was particularly close with “500” drivers Tom Sneva, Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Bobby and Al Unser, Tony Bettenhausen, Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan, and late-night TV icon and INDYCAR SERIES team owner David Letterman. Yet he seemed to know something about everyone involved in the sport, and he could hold court with the best of them.
For years, Miller was the animated emcee of the Last Row Party, the Indiana Press Club Foundation’s event which traditionally skewered the slowest three qualifiers of each “500.” He particularly enjoyed the event when it included Gordon Johncock, Steve Chassey and Pancho Carter, other close friends of his.
In 2019, as Miller covered his 50th “500” amid declining health, Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced the creation of the Robin Miller Award, to be given annually to an unheralded individual who has brought unbridled passion and an unrelenting work ethic to enrich the sport.
Miller, a lifelong bachelor, is survived by a sister, Diane, and nieces Emily and Ashley.