Farewell to Robin Miller – the best of all
Robin Miller never felt worthy of the attention he received as a broadcaster and writer, despite being the greatest journalist in our sport. David Malsher-Lopez pays tribute to a man who he and thousands more regarded as a hero and a friend.
I’m not sure which of Robin’s qualities I admired the most, but do know the one I appreciated most often. It was his unquenchable enthusiasm for the current IndyCar scene.
Make no mistake, he missed the days when drivers were less guarded in their comments to the media and didn’t whine too much about their rivals. He missed that being a champion in a sprint car didn’t lead to interest from IndyCar teams. He missed the eras when innovative engineering could be found on a wide variety of chassis, when media centers were press rooms full of genuine press people. Oh, and he regretted there weren’t more ovals – including dirt – on the IndyCar schedule.
But he was a consummate realist who knew those days aren’t coming back, and preferred instead to accentuate the positive, when so many of his age thrive purely on yesteryear, and tear down the current scene.
I asked him about this defiantly non-jaded stance during one of those beautifully soporific sun-kissed Indy 500 practice days a couple of years ago.
Robin was a strong link between various eras of Indy car greats. Dario Franchitti, Parnelli Jones and Rick Mears appreciated that, as did we all.
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
“Oh I miss seeing some of the wacky designs they used to have here,” he said, as he kept a keen eye on both the on-track footage and the speed charts. “I was clueless how they worked – everyone knows I’m a technical moron. But some of the guys building them… I’m not even sure they knew why they’d done what they’d done.
“The thing is, [Rick] Mears is right: the homebuild specials disappeared quick when carbonfiber chassis arrived. The little guys couldn’t afford them: they had to start using the big teams’ cars from the year before. And then it got to where sponsors didn’t want to get involved with a team that might not make the show, so Bump Day just became kinda nothing because we only get 35 cars trying for 33 places.
“But they’re all good cars. Look at those speeds – we’ve never had it so good. We shouldn’t be bitching about things when it’s so close. We all kinda know the five or six guys who are going to be fighting for the championship each year, but race wins? They could go about 20 ways.
“Remember, it was only 10 years ago that we had just two Penske, two Ganassi and two Andretti cars who’d be able to win – realistically. There’d be a coupla others who might get lucky. Jeezus, we get 20 cars covered by a second in qualifying on a goddam road course these days – and I’ll still get people writing to me how predictable IndyCar is. Race fans just love to bitch.
“But hell, at least they’re passionate.”
Diane Miller, Mario Andretti, Robin Miller, Sarah Fisher
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
That was typical Robin – proffering his beliefs before also noting the view from another angle. However trenchant he may have sounded in his opinions, he would also listen to opposing views. I once brokered peace negotiations after he was very critical of a driver and then made a guess about why he was underperforming. A month later, the offended racer made an off-the-cuff reference to Robin’s remark in the course of a soul-laid-bare interview, and so afterwards I urged my veteran colleague to clear the air, pointing out that the driver is a good guy who is (as the cliché goes) his own harshest critic, but just didn’t know how to remedy his issue.
Robin agreed, and a couple of races later said, “I talked with [X]. You’re right, he is still basically a good kid – and honest.”
“Yeah, frighteningly honest,” I agreed.
“There’s something missing there, though.”
“Killer instinct?” I ventured.
“Talent,” was his withering rejoinder. “He just hasn’t got it, or isn’t hungry enough to develop it or something. Is he ever gonna win again? I don’t see it. Too many badasses here since the merger.”
Robin and Roger Penske knew what was right for the sport and always fought for it.
Photo by: Dan Boyd
Robin was right, as usual. And that way of delivering the unsweetened truth is one of several reasons why he was respected and loved by his TV viewers and readers. To be clear, he didn’t have the type of ego that reveled in his cult celebrity status; he never wore it as a badge of honor. He just loved fans who shared his passion, while also appreciating the less dedicated race attendees because, as he saw it, they had the potential to become die-hards too.
So at the racetrack he’d speak to them all – and absolutely on the level, just as he did in broadcast or in print. Even on those rare occasions when the paddock was devoid of team members to whom Robin wanted or needed to speak, the fans alone could turn his five-minute stride to the broadcast booth or media center into a 20-minute four-stop-strategy trek as he posed for photographs, signed autographs, or exchanged views. And it truly was an exchange: Robin would listen to others’ judgments almost as well as he put forth his own. Seems to me that quality alone put him in the minority in this world.
Robin loved being at any racetrack, but in the early years of this millennium, a certain despondency had set in, and understandably so. Here was a man who had the firmest possible grasp of the heritage of Indy car racing, adored it and had witnessed its zenith. He therefore appreciated more than anyone how much the notorious Split of 1996 was continuing to keep this branch of the sport on its knees, with teams on both sides expecting and receiving handouts from their respective governing bodies, thereby prolonging the agonizing divide.
Robin had spent the first quarter-century of his journalism career delivering in-depth insights or merely nuggets of knowledge about the great, the good, and the plucky hard-triers – as well as the sleazy, half-baked and heedless. Now he was growing resentful that the time and space to talk about the most important elements of racing – the drivers and teams – had been encroached upon by the increasing need to act as correspondent from a bloody civil war that showed no sign of abating.
There was huge amount of mutual respect between Scott Dixon and Robin.
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
Robin trod the fine line of independence quite masterfully – and, to my mind, heroically on those weekends where he’d attend the Indy Racing League round on Saturday evening before flying to the Champ Car race on Sunday. The gauge of how well he balanced his reporting (and how high tensions remained more than a decade after the Split), is that hypersensitive advocates of Champ Car or IRL were always suspicious that he favored the other side.
At the Champ Car race at Road America in 2007, over an early morning coffee (ice-laden Pepsi, in Robin’s case) at Honda’s hospitality tent, I was moved to compliment him on retaining this non-partisanship.
“Yep, I guess I’m doing my job,” he shrugged with a sad look in his eyes. “I’ve got both sides pissed at me.
“But whaddya do? They just don’t get it. The team owners are all in too deep, protecting their own interests, to see the big picture – and they’re not noticing the big picture isn’t big any more. Christ! How about if they spent less time running their mouths at the media and actually started talking to each other?”
Ten minutes later we were heading back to the media center, when a group of fans stopped us – or rather, stopped my celebrated friend – with the usual cries along the lines of, “Hey Robin! Thanks for all you do!” By now, stints at ESPN and SPEED TV had made his face even more famous than had his byline in The Indianapolis Star, an organization that released him in 2001 but couldn’t damage his status as the recognized voice of authority on the U.S. open-wheel scene.
Then, as if our recent conversation had been merely a cue, came another voice from within the group.
“Who do you think’s winning the Champ Car / IRL war?”
Without hesitation, Robin responded, “NASCAR.”
Nailed it. Again.
Robin used to host the Last Row Party at Indy each year. With Mario having missed qualifying in 1978 due to his Formula 1 commitments with Lotus, his Penske entry was qualified by Mike Hiss – and very well, in eighth. But it did mean that, with a change of driver, Mr. Andretti became an unlikely occupant of the 33rd starting position.
As we walked on, I remarked that some media members – I mentioned a couple – seemed to be relishing The Split, because that’s certainly how it felt: as if said folk had convinced themselves that the exchange of venomous soundbites made for good reading, good listening. Maybe they simply appreciated before the rest of us that misery and rancor was great clickbait before the word had been invented. For these people Robin had zero time.
“Don’t get me started, Davey,” he replied. “You’re probably right. But dammit, look at the two series – five badasses in each, five more decent guys, and then half a dozen slapd***s. And you’ve probably got three or four teams in each that can stay afloat without pay drivers. Put the best of the two series together and you’d have one good series that can actually get somewhere. Because this… this is nowhere.”
Most of Robin’s comments have stuck in my mind over the years, and that particular one resurfaced several months later as I sat in the Racer office with a gloomy column to write. It was the eve of the 13th season of division at the top of U.S. open-wheel racing and with my friend’s commonsense take on the situation as my guide, I decided to title my op-ed after Neil Young’s similarly doom-laced second album, Everybody knows this is nowhere.
Then the phone rang; it was Kevin Kalkhoven, co-owner of Champ Car, to let me know that the two series were merging, we needed to keep it quiet for now, but the announcement would be coming a couple of days hence. My editor-in-chief, Laurence Foster, was sitting next to me and I mouthed the crucial message to him, astonishment doubtless written across my face. When I hung up, Laurence and I wasted two seconds on expletives of joy, but he being smarter had already been thinking in practical terms. Racer, still a monthly at that time, was going to press in two days – all words and pictures were in, pages were laid out and pretty much finalized. What could be done in 48 hours?
“Phone Robin!” said Laurence. “I bet you he knows too. See what he can turn around in 36 hours.”
It was around 9pm here in Cali, so midnight for Robin, but he answered on the second ring and his excitement matched ours. And yes, as expected, he knew about it, because he’d had a secret sitdown with IRL leader Tony George. He appreciated that time was of the essence for the magazine and vowed to have 1500 words to us a couple of hours after the press conference.
Both much missed – Robin with Justin Wilson, Long Beach 2008, the final Champ Car race following the merger.
Photo by: Kurt Dahlstrom
As I recall, he beat even his self-imposed deadline. And the story was impeccable, conveying the magnitude of the moment but also the practicalities regarding how the merger would work and the difficulties the Champ Car teams would face in switching over from their Panoz-Cosworths to the IRL Dallara-Hondas. And inevitably it fizzed with positivity as the author finally released the pent-up frustrations of the previous dozen years.
Yup, Robin always had the interests of the sport – rather than his own status within it – as the foundation of his journalism. The good health of Indy car racing was the only agenda I saw from the man in the 16 years I knew him – and those lucky folk who knew him for double or triple that amount of time will say the same. Or if they don’t… well, just ask yourself why.
Thanks primarily to Robin and his dear friend, Steve Shunck of BorgWarner, I felt truly embraced in the scene once they recognized I wasn’t just passing through and using Indy car racing as a stepping stone to some other branch of the sport. I love it and regard it as a destination. At dinners – some formal, some informal – or in countless media centers, I heard tales of Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Dan Gurney, Gordon Johncock and Tom Sneva, Bobby and Al Unser, Johnny Rutherford and Rick Mears, and I would absorb them. Previously I had thought I knew a lot about those guys already, but apparently I’d been kidding myself.
Then, if there was a pause in these entertaining if inadvertent ‘lectures’ as Robin bit into some suspicious-looking charred or breaded meat, or a halo-sized onion ring, I’d throw in questions about racers who had hitherto been only names and statistics to me. How quick was Bobby Marshman? What was Jan Opperman really like? Why is Joe Leonard not given his due for being a two-time Indy car champion? And on. And on. And on. Someone of Robin’s stature could have regarded me as a pest, but instead he shared his knowledge. And then each Christmas he’d also furnish me with books, old and new, and pictures. On the back of one image he wrote, “To a young man with an old soul.” It was as endearing as it was flattering.
With one of his favorite people in an Indy car paddock, Paul Newman.
Photo by: Dan Boyd
And yet… I never did quite get past the awe factor, never could forget that he was one of my two heroes in motorsport journalism. (The other is Nigel Roebuck, a friend of Robin’s, whose elegant prose, passion and deep knowledge of the sport got me hooked on this in the first place.) My admiration for Robin – aside from the aforementioned zero-bullshit stance and fearlessness – also stemmed from his writing, but for different reasons. For one thing, he was a newshound without peer in the racing paddock. Secondly, if he learned of a tasty news scoop but couldn’t quote anyone on it, he’d find a way to convey it to the readers anyway. Thirdly, he could say in 800 words what it takes the rest of us 3000 words to say.
This last ability baffled me then and baffles me now. For instance, if Shunck had fixed up a dinner with Foyt, Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Mears, etc., then any other journalist who spent 15 minutes with each of these legends in turn over the course of the evening would be left with copious amounts of material to work with – 500 from A.J., 2000 each from J.R. and Rick, and probably 5000 from Uncle Bobby. At that point, cutting it down becomes a problem, as you might imagine, and after endless hours transcribing, I’d be able to write a decent 2500-word story.
Robin’s report of the same evening would be 800 words, it would quote all the stars present, nothing crucial would be missing, and it would be emotive. On finishing reading the story, fans weren’t left wistfully wishing they’d been there but feeling like they had been. How could he do that in one-third the amount of space it took the rest of us? It’s as if Robin’s sentences just packed more substance.
I never pried into how he worked that kind of magic, but I did remark on it once or twice.
“Newspapers – old-school, brother,” he smiled. “You were told your word-count and if you didn’t stick to that, then something had to give. If I was filing six stories from the 500, and I wanted to make one of them a bit longer because I had this great quote, then suddenly I was filing five stories instead. Or I was risking someone on the news desk chopping stuff out.”
Robin was thrilled when Fernando Alonso first came to the Speedway - and deeply impressed that the two-time champ lived up to the hype.
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
This ‘proper’ learning of the journalistic art also explained his utter professionalism, which I was fortunate to experience first-hand for a few years. Following the demise of SPEED, Racer was able to grab Robin and Marshall Pruett, and commissioning the old man was a breeze. A 20-minute phone call – only five of which were spent discussing what we needed from him – would typically end with him saying, “Davey, email me with the word count and a sentence or two, just in case I lose this note. I’m old; the memory’s going.”
Then, two days before deadline, would come the progress report – “It’s OK. It’s not great. There’s some more people I want to get.”
A day before deadline, the story would be there, in my Inbox. And it was great. And it was the right length. And it quoted all the crucial people involved. And it assiduously followed the brief. As a purely hypothetical example, if the commission was very specific – say, Penske’s early years in Indy car racing, culminating in Mark Donohue capturing The Captain’s first Indy 500 win in 1972 – then that’s what he’d write about. Sure, there would be passing reference to RP’s success at IMS since then and his other ventures with Donohue in Trans-Am and Can-Am, but he wouldn’t waste the word count with irrelevancies. He wouldn’t think, ‘This is a Penske story,’ or ‘This is a Donohue story’ and then reel off the stats or anecdotes we already knew. Robin never took the lazy route.
Two of the greatest racing writers, Nigel Roebuck and Robin, with one of the greatest drivers, AJ Foyt, and one of the greatest friends, Steve Shunck.
Photo by: Anne Fornoro / AJ Foyt Racing
I always wondered if his ability to cut out the fripperies, stick to the point, had been further honed by his work on TV – X number of seconds to squeeze in Y amount of info – because Robin was great at that, too: in a straight-to-camera piece, be it a news item or a report, he covered all salient points. If it was a back-and-forth with a presenter, he answered unswervingly. And if it was an interview, he wouldn’t flinch from asking provocative questions – but would then shut up and let the person speak, even if he knew the answer already. It wasn’t important to Robin to show off how much he knew, but instead give the protagonist time to put it in his or her own words.
Robin was widely liked and/or admired in the media corps. I was by no means the only person who felt a race weekend was incomplete without spending at least five minutes at his desk to exchange a couple of viewpoints (and steal from his ridiculously large stash of candies and chips). The long practice sessions at Indy allowed more time than that, however, and over the course of an eight-hour day, he would play host to countless media folk with whom he’d share anecdotes peppered with impressions of Bobby Unser, Johncock, Foyt and Mario, with intervals for showing photos he’d dug out from home or just purchased from the memorabilia sale.
Robin being inducted into the Motorsport Hall of Fame in the same year as the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner seemed fitting. Both Helio and Robin were proud of their respective win tallies at the Speedway.
Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images
Best of all was Robin recounting his own racing career. His failure in Formula Ford, after briefly wondering if he was the next Jimmy Clark when he qualified on the front row for his first race, was a simply epic tale, to which no one but Robin could do justice. His mechanical ignorance, which had seen both his original hero Jim Hurtubise and his friend Art Pollard forbid him to touch their cars during spells working for them, meant that another dear friend, Tim Coffeen, had to work from instinct, knowledge and rapidly gathering experience when prepping Robin’s midgets.
Despite often being a magnet for fellow media members, Robin didn’t need their recognition any more than he craved the adulation of the public: it just happened. In fact, sometimes he drew attention quite by accident. One unappetizing character who allegedly hid some pretty shady practices behind Bible quotes and a wall of near silence suddenly reappeared in the IndyCar paddock one day after several years’ absence. I mentioned it to Robin when I was next in the media center.
“What?! You’re kidding me!” said Robin aghast. Then, in his typical tone that knew no volume between theatrical conspiratorial whisper and stridence, he asked aloud – very aloud – “Who the **** asked that **** back?” The press room, although packed, had been quiet. Robin ensured it suddenly seemed quieter still.
With Larry Faust and Tim Coffeen, circa 2002.
Photo by: Dan Boyd
On that occasion, I had unwittingly prodded Angry Robin. Sometimes I did it deliberately. During a race weekend at Pocono, where there was always too much time between IndyCar sessions and precious little in the way of support races, he had been ranting about a few figures in the contemporary paddock who he wished would “just disappear”.
To defuse his anger a little, I set him a brain-teaser. I picked three of his most recent bête-noires – a bore who believes he’s the smartest person in the room and pretends to knows everything already, someone who simply never seems to stop talking and, finally, an egregious hybrid of the two. I said: “Imagine all airliners are grounded and you have to do a 3000-mile road trip to the next race, but sharing a car with those three. Who do you kick out of the car first?
“None of them,” Robin replied. “I get out. I’d be done before we ever hit the freeway. I’d risk hitchhiking with a bunch of freaks before I’d go with those three.”
He was funny but also sharp-witted which made him gold behind a microphone. Once, when he made one of his very rare slips of the tongue, he recognized he hadn’t quite caught himself in time, and offset the error with a brilliant throwaway. He was commenting on a driver who had just crashed for the second or third time at this street course event. Out came the caution flags, the session was paused and it became clear the car was too damaged to limp back to the pits, even if it could be extricated from the tire wall. What Robin meant to say next was, “He’s going to need a hook or a wrecker.” What came out was, “He’s going to need a hooker.” There was a brief splutter before the mutter: “The weekend he’s had, he probably needs one of those, too.”
His means of supporting drivers he believed were “badass”, or had the potential to be so, was usually more conventional than that. He would badger and nag at team owners – in person, in print and on TV – to pay attention to rising stars rather than the well-funded has-beens and never-will-bes. He and former IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard in a short time formed an unbreakable bond, and Robin explained to RB that the disconnect between sprint car racing and IndyCar needed reconnecting if the series wasn’t to lose another generation of American driving talent. It was fulfilling for both of them to see the brilliant Bryan Clauson qualify for the Indy 500.
Three of the very best, in 2019, on the establishment of the 'Robin Miller Award for services to racing' .
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt
And, rather more sotto voce, he would dispense advice to drivers. Some of them might be road course experts struggling with ovals. “Go speak with Mears or Rutherford,” he’d urge. “What they’ll tell you is still gold – so don’t talk. Just listen.” Or if a driver was in a ‘silly-season’ dilemma of staying in his current team or moving on, he might call Robin to check out the potential vacancies elsewhere in the paddock.
Try and credit Robin with oiling any of those gears and making things happen and he’d modestly dismiss the notion, and certainly he’d never put it down to kindness or generosity of spirit. For him, seeing a worthy driver in a worthy ride was just how things should be, and his own contribution was nothing to be trumpeted.
“I’m an asshole, Davey. You know that,” he’d say. But he wasn’t. He was a good guy who appreciated other good guys and great drivers. For that reason, he was temporarily dumbstruck at the sheer misfortune involved in the death of Justin Wilson – “badass racer and just the sweetest guy” – before eventually delivering his tribute on NBCSN with a sincerity that could only come from a warm-hearted man. In 2016, when Clauson crashed his midget at the Belleville Nationals and suffered the injuries that the following day would claim his life, I called Robin as soon as I could and learned the true definition of the word “outrage”.
Robin was thrilled to discover that Bryan Herta's son Colton was "America's next-gen badass".
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
But I believe there were a couple of deaths over the last few years that psychologically knocked him back, and permanently. One was Gary Bettenhausen’s passing in 2014, for the pair had been kinda brothers for 40 years. Robin bought his first midget from Gary’s (real) younger brother, Merle, in 1974 and over the years the family tie became knotted tight. Gary – one of Indy car racing’s most underrated drivers yet a demi-god in USAC – would often attend Miller’s weekly gatherings at a cheap-n-cheerful restaurant in Indy to shoot the s**t and bench-race with the likes of Pancho Carter, Bubby Jones and Lee Kunzman.
So Gary’s sudden death at the age of 72 was a genuine shock to Robin, and I swear I could hear a tremor in the voice of the man who never cried, a tightening of the throat, as we talked about Bettenhausen and tried to find pictures for his obit.
I’d been here at Motorsport.com for a couple of years and was out and about on Sunday, January 14, 2018, when I got a text from our editor-in-chief Charles Bradley that Dan Gurney had passed. I rushed home to write a tribute. Once completed, I called Robin and this time heard a guy so depressed it sounded near-irrevocable. He adored the Big Eagle as a person, while in terms of importance, ranked him alongside Parnelli, Mario and A.J. on America’s motorsport Mt. Rushmore. On the occasions I was privileged to accompany Robin to visit All American Racers Inc., in Santa Ana, I saw him shed decades of careworn desensitization and even a layer of professionalism to once more become an enthusiastic cub reporter with a healthy dash of wide-eyed awestruck fan rolled in.
“They’re all starting to go,” sighed Robin over the phone that sad January afternoon, ignoring the fact that he was already some ways into his own battle against cancer. “Indy’s greatest generation is old or sick or both. The next few years are gonna be f***king awful…” I couldn’t think of any words of solace because, as ever, Robin was speaking the truth.
Dan Gurney with his two biggest fans – wife Evi and Robin.
Photo by: Steve Shunck
His synopsis cast my mind back to a moment of friction between us at Indy one May, several years earlier. I had given an 80-percent-certain ‘Yes’ to a dinner invitation to join him and 10 or 12 buddies that included Mario Andretti and Dario Franchitti. But before I left the Speedway that evening, I got extensive quotes from a mediocre driver whose interview would, I knew, get us a bunch of clicks on the website, provided I transcribed the words and fashioned them into a story for the morning. I wrestled with a moral dilemma and finally decided on duty before pleasure. I sent Robin an apologetic text to explain. His response, by way of phone call, took all of 15 seconds to arrive.
“You’re gonna blow off Mario and Dario to write about that ****?!” he said, derision and disgust almost melting my mobile. “What the **** are you thinking, kid?!” I tried to pacify him but swiftly lost. Moments later there was a text from Dario. “Malsher! Robin says get your arse down here. If you trade dinner with Mario for writing about [X] he’s never going talk to you again!”
By next morning, the old man had almost forgiven me, even if he initially regarded me with the look of someone with a godawful hangover catching sight of some pungent leftover cocktail from the night before.
“The thing is, Davey,” he explained after a truce had been called, “you never know how many more chances you’ll get to speak with any of these guys. Dario should outlive us all – although he nearly killed himself a few times on the track. But you look at the other champs and you’ve gotta worry. Mario’s still driving the two-seater like he’s on a qualifying run. A.J. seems immortal but one day that damn bulldozer is gonna win one of their battles. Bobby and Al are sick as often as they’re healthy – and it’s the same with Parnelli.
“I was lucky, I got to see them all race. You didn’t. And that generation is going to start dying off pretty soon.”
About to take a ride with Mario Andretti in the Ganassi-run Champ Car two-seater at Laguna Seca in 1999. A youthful Juan Pablo Montoya (a true badass in Robin's view) watches on.
Photo by: Dan Boyd
His words were accurate then, and seem exceptionally poignant now. The man who uttered them has gone… and just a few months after the great Bobby Unser.
It’s so sad that it felt like everything went against Robin over the past two years. The November 2019 news that Roger Penske had bought the Speedway and the IndyCar Series was like a blood transfusion to its most respected journo – he was so incredibly happy and relieved to see his two beloved institutions would receive an injection of ambition. Yet last year, with zero immune system due to his cancer treatment and the COVID curse floating around, he wasn’t attending races, and the pandemic itself was of course ravaging the series schedule, while also siphoning the resources of its new owner.
“You wouldn’t think we’d ever be calling Roger unlucky,” he said after the ghastly sight of empty grandstands for last year’s 500. “Not in a million years. But goddammit, the timing of all this is terrible for Roger. Absolutely terrible.”
It never took much to perk up Robin, though. As noted at the start of this story, he saw so many positives in the modern IndyCar scene. He was thrilled by a win for "America's next-gen badass" Colton Herta at Mid-Ohio last year – “Bryan’s kid has got everything going for him”. And in general he just loved the young guns holding the old guys’ feet to the flame over the past couple of seasons. And he was almost garrulous following the first round of the Harvest Grand Prix last October. “That was amazing!” he almost yelled. “Have you ever seen a better race on a road course? Shit, there was more to watch there than most oval races. Whatever the magic was – tires or stint lengths that meant no fuel-saving – they need to remember it for all races.”
Toward the end of the conversation, not for the first time and not for the last, he trotted out the only lie he ever told me and it was prompted by my asking how he was doing. “I’m fine, Davey. Quit worrying.” He was a long way from being fine, and once or twice I pushed him on it. There’d be a sigh, and then he’d say: “Well, I’m not feeling great – and the problem is I don’t know if it’s the cancer or the treatment.”
He was pallid and frail when he came to the Speedway in May this year, to present the Robin Miller Award to Bob Jenkins and receive the Bob Russo Award from Mario. But like the stoic he was, Robin didn’t wince as he sat down or stood up, despite going through God-knows-how-much pain, and delivered a heartfelt appreciation of the track’s legendary broadcaster Jenkins, who died earlier this month.
Everyone present that day in mid-May, I’m sure, was also wondering how much time was left for Robin himself, and we realized the significance of him missing the race itself. But his spirit, at least publicly, was very much intact.
And then we damn near lost him to an infection in July, around the time that he finally acknowledged there was nothing that could be done. Shunck, along with Robin’s beloved sister Diane, her friends, and some of his hardcore, Indy-based, fast-friends-for-life, swooped in like angels of mercy during Robin's final months, and he kept me abreast of developments. As anyone who’s cared for a terminal cancer patient will recognize, subconsciously you’re aware the general trend is downward, but the spells where one day is better than the day before will provide false hope… until you realize those spells are becoming shorter and more infrequent. Cancer’s march is merciless.
Less than two weeks ago, Shunck, Diane and pals ensured Robin had what he described as the “best day of my life” at Indy. They took him to the IndyCar/NASCAR Brickyard event where he was inducted into the Motorsport Hall of Fame (protesting all the time that he didn’t deserve it, naturally), and met up with – among others – Mario, Foyt, Chip Ganassi, Scott Dixon, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson. Then he, Shunck and Coffeen went for lunch at Foyt’s raceshop with the great man himself – the one who’d famously smacked Robin’s head in 1981 because of something he’d written, then forgiven a year later, and whom had eventually become a good and supportive friend.
Robin was never happier than when talking to - or about - AJ and Parnelli.
Photo by: IndyCar
And so our hero entered his final lap. Shunck assures me that Robin was, all things considered, on good form as he watched last weekend’s race at Gateway, with himself and Coffeen. In his final weeks he’d stopped cringing with embarrassment whenever his NBC colleagues broadcast a “Get well soon” message – but in other ways he was still being classic Robin. He was bad-mouthing drivers for whining or not owning up to errors, offering his opinions on the shunts, and observing, “You’d think the Penske guys would know by now not to run into each other. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes if Roger’s waiting for them in the trailer.” And, highly impressed by Romain Grosjean’s oval debut, he told Tim and Steve that the F1 veteran and IndyCar rookie would be the subject of his next column.
But less than 48 hours later, Robin’s own form nosedived, and soon – too soon by a couple of decades, as far as all of us are concerned – it was all over.
As ever, those left behind have a pile of regrets and unresolved issues. Why didn’t I call or email him more often this year, and instead relied on a third source? Was it because I knew Robin would play down his suffering – the one subject in the world on which he wouldn’t give the unvarnished truth? Was I politely trying not to intrude because I had nothing constructive to say? Or was I just too chicken-hearted?
Probably a combination of all three.
Bobby Unser and Robin - two greats lost to us in 2021.
Photo by: Ron McQueeney
On learning that he intended to move to Phoenix, AZ. this year to spend his final months with Diane and her family, I was encouraged by his optimism (overoptimism, as things transpired) and suddenly had a brainwave. For years, his legions of fans had been begging him to write his memoirs, a book of stories, anecdotes, and epic moments – joyful and sad – that he had witnessed in more than half a century of racing. We all knew such a book would be brilliant. He would spare no blushes (including his own), it would be written with good humor, dark humor, cantankerousness and anger, wherever he saw fit. And of course it would be written with the absolute sincerity, absolute conviction and absolute authority that imbued all his work.
But it never happened, and so I emailed him earlier this month, offering to drive him from Indianapolis down to Phoenix, and suggesting we record his memories along the way. For I think the first time ever, there was no reply. He knew he wasn’t going to make it – or, let’s be honest, he didn’t want to be trapped in a car for 24 hours downloading his brain to the same pest who’d been picking that brain for more than a decade-and-a-half.
Yet what unsettles and saddens me is a third possibility; that even if he had been healthy enough and had agreed to the trip – doubtless on the proviso that Shunck, Coffeen and more joined us – he never felt he was worthy of such attention.
He was. He is. And only he failed to recognize that.
I extend my deepest sympathies to Robin’s extended family at NBC, Pruett, Foster and the rest of the Racer clan, to Coffeen and all of Robin’s Indy-based army, to his golfing buddy and Honda hospitality operator Tom Neff, to Randy Bernard, to more geographically distant pals such as Nigel Roebuck, and then the vast phalanx of team owners, engineers and crew members, past and present, for whom Robin became a friend and confidant. And then there were his fans and readers: I’m well aware they now have a hole in their lives that no one else can fill.
For Diane, who has lost a loving brother, and Steve Shunck, who in the space of a few months lost Bobby and Robin, two heroes who became close friends, I simply don’t have the right words. Unlike problems, grief shared is not halved. But they’ll know every IndyCar fan is thinking of them at this time.
In the wake of Dan Gurney’s death, I asked Robin if he thought it was unethical, disrespectful or morbid to prepare obituaries for those still living. It certainly feels like it would be wrong… but at the same time, I didn’t want to get caught out again by the sudden death of a legend.
For once, he didn’t have an immediate answer, but eventually replied: “It’s a tough one, isn’t it? If you hear one of our heroes is ill, maybe you should start pulling together notes and facts and little stories. But, writing the thing like they’re already dead… I don’t think you can do it, right?”
Which is why, some 36 hours after receiving the phone call I’d been warned would come at some point this week, I’m still finishing this piece.
Yes, I’m fully aware of the irony – that it’s everything Robin hated in a story. He’d be telling me that it’s way too long, way too indulgent and way too much about him!
And, honestly, I’d take issue only with his last point. In the face of his grumbling and acerbic protestations to the contrary, I’d point out that he, Robin Miller, was as worthy of extensive eulogy as anyone for whom he had himself penned tribute.
Because, truly, he was the best.
Robin Miller, 1949-2021. The Man.
Photo by: Ange Lisuzzo
Robin Miller, 1949-2021
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