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Industry Insights: Robin Miller

Never one to withhold an opinion, the renowned motorsports journalist and commentator weighs in on the current state of Indy car racing, the changing dynamics of media, how to build star power, and much more in the first of an exclusive two-part interview.

By Dave Argabright

Irrepressible and tenacious, Robin Miller is one of the most enduring and respected media professionals in motorsports today. He has been a mainstay in the frontline media trenches for nearly 50 years, and his extensive network of insider sources has allowed him to break a great many stories of significance through the years.

At the core of Miller’s work lies a deep passion for motorsports, enormous experience in the sport, and a personality that is genuinely entertaining. Miller was with The Indianapolis Star from 1968 to 2001, and currently covers motorsports for RACER Magazine. In 1999 he expanded his range to include broadcasting, first working with ESPN and later SPEED Channel, where he co-hosted the popular Wind Tunnel program with Dave Despain. Miller is currently a contributor to NBCSN’s IndyCar coverage.

Miller took his passion for the sport to another level in the years 1974 to 1981, when he was a regular on the USAC National Midget trail. His cockpit experience has afforded him a perspective beyond that of most writers and broadcasters today.

Tough-minded and a man of strong opinions, Miller never hesitates to speak his mind. His body of work is enormous by any standard, and although he has his detractors, he also boasts a strong and loyal following of readers and viewers.

Miller recently sat down with PRI to share some insights from a career that stretches across six raucous decades. The result is a lively, interesting conversation that will span two issues of PRI Magazine. Here is part one. Look for the second part in the October 2017 issue of PRI.

PRI: You’ve never shied away from expressing an opinion, even when it meant some strong feedback and pushback. How did you develop that aspect of your writing? Was it always there?

Miller: When I was given the platform at The Indianapolis Star, you have to remember, I wrote 52 columns a year about USAC racing. Not just Indy cars, but midgets and sprint cars. So when you have a column, you immediately have an opinion. And then, if you’re lucky enough to race for a few years like I did, and you’re lucky enough to get to know so many people in the sport, you begin to form an opinion on what needs to happen and what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s easy to find fault with things that happen, and it just snowballs. You think you’re more of an expert than you probably are, but when you go to the races and when you compete and when you live it, it’s easy to form an opinion.

To have a strong opinion, you’re not just observing. You care about it. Larry Rice was my first landlord when I moved out on my own in Indianapolis all those years ago, and Chuck Gurney lived there, Mark Alderson, Larry McCoy. It was the racer’s YMCA. Then I started racing midgets, and Larry Rice was my tutor and my mentor. You go from writing about it to participating in it, and I was already kind of stooging on some Indy 500 teams. So it became, even though I worked at the Star and covered a lot of different sports, racing was always the center of my world. The longer you have the connections that I had, and the interest and the passion, the more opinionated you get.

PRI: That phrase you used a moment ago, “the center of my world.” For most of your life, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) has been the center of your world, something very special to you. How did that come to be? Why was it so special?

Miller: In 1957 I went to the Speedway for the first time, and the first thing I saw was the Novi going down the straightaway. It was so loud, all the chairs rattled around me when it went past. I was like, “That’s the most exciting and coolest thing I’ve ever seen or heard!” Then I started following Jim Hurtubise and Parnelli Jones at places like Terre Haute and other tracks. I found out Hurtubise liked beer, so after the races I’d steal beer and give it to Jim, hoping he might remember me. But the Speedway, there was nothing like it. Nothing that big, nothing that exciting, nothing like it.

My dad and I used to walk across the golf course and stand at the fence and watch the start of the race; we didn’t have tickets. We got tickets in 1964. We’d go watch time trials and get there early on Saturday morning in hopes that we could find a seat. I just think it was such…it was so exciting, especially if you’re a kid. It’s funny—today the roadsters look small, but when I was a kid they looked huge!

I cut school to watch practice, and then I stooged for Hurtubise when I was 18, and it just kept blossoming. It was the thing I was drawn to the most. It’s probably like the first time someone goes to Yankee Stadium, they’re hooked on baseball.

But when you’re a kid, if you went up to the Speedway, it did one of two things: It either hooked you for life, or you realized this was not for you. But for kids in my generation, it had a big impression on us.

PRI: Your relationship with IMS has been strained at times. Are things good today?

Miller: (Laughing.) You are a funny man, Davey. Very diplomatic. You know, this is very funny. When the CART/IRL split came in 1996, I was very vocal and things were polarizing. I saw stickers at the Speedway that said, “No Robin Miller!” Nobody, in the last 50 years, has written more positive stories about the Indianapolis 500 than I have. The 500 meant everything to me, and what bothered me was that it was being torn apart. That’s what I was preaching in 1996: We can’t have this. It will ruin the month of May. And it did. People can say what they want, but the crowds went away, the demand for tickets went away, the television ratings went away. It scarred it forever.

Now, having said that, had Tony George started the IRL maybe six or seven years earlier when CART was the haves and have-nots, and he would have stuck to his guns, build your own engines and things like that, it might have been able to work. But he couldn’t have picked a worse time to divide racing. It just turned so many people off, the sport has never recovered. And it might not ever recover.

It was what it did to our beloved Speedway that bothered me the most. People said things like, “You don’t belong there. You don’t respect it. You don’t like it.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I love it, and that’s why I was so outspoken, and so upset.

As far as my relationship with the Speedway, we’re fine now. Different regimes have come and gone. I think (IndyCar president) Jay Frye is doing a good job, and I think (Mark) Miles (president and CEO of Hulman Company) is trying hard. They inherited some things that weren’t good, and they’ve tried to make things better. It’s nothing that can be fixed overnight.

The Speedway has made a nice little comeback on race day. Yeah, there were probably 25,000 empty seats last year, but they still have 225,000 people there on race day and it’s still the biggest sporting event in the world. That’s great, that part is good. I just worry about where the new teams are coming from, how can people afford it, why are the purses so awful. Let’s get a title sponsor for the Indianapolis 500 and find some way to pay some money and give teams a chance to survive. But the racing has been really good; I guess that’s the flip side of the whole thing. The racing has been really good the past four or five years.

PRI: Is Indy car racing where it needs to be today? If you had the keys to the operation, what would you change?

Miller: Maybe the junk formula is the wrong way, but I’d make it more of an open door than we have today. It’s too hard to get in. You’ve got to lease an engine, you’ve got to have permission to get the engine, you’ve got to do exactly as the manufacturer says. I’d like to see aluminum and fiberglass come back, and the people who know how to make things. I’d like to see people building their own cars, their own engines. Wouldn’t that be wild? That’s kind of what Tony George wanted to do 20 years ago, but he didn’t have the right application, he didn’t have the right timing, and he didn’t stay with it. But you’ve got to make it more attractive to come do it. And the purse is a joke today. You win an IndyCar race and you win $30,000. My God, if you won a dirt car race in the 1970s you won $30,000. So it’s regressed in that way.

I would try to make it more affordable, and I would try to open the door to more people who say, “We can do that.” Because what’s been lost in these last 30 years, Davey, is that it used to be Pole Day, Bump Day, and Race Day. Now what have you got? You’ve got 33 cars, everybody makes the race, and it’s no big deal to make the Indy 500. Bump Day was one of the most sadistic, dramatic, impressive days in all of motorsports. Guys like Rich Vogler and Bob Harkey and John Mahler and Jerry Sneva would hang around in hopes of making the Indy 500 because it was such a big deal just to make the race. We’ve lost that, and we’ve lost innovation, and we’ve lost guys like Smokey Yunick and Mickey Thompson who took an idea and ran with it. Those are the things that made Indy great. It was phenomenal, and that’s why it captured America’s attention. It needs to do something to capture America’s attention again. We need to have oval races on Friday night, or Wednesday night, or whatever. We need to do something different, because what we’re doing right now is not working. Nobody is watching and nobody is coming to the races, with just a few exceptions. That’s the dichotomy; road courses and street races offer the fans the most bang for their buck. They get to see seven or eight races through the course of the day, and it’s a party atmosphere. They have a great time. But what’s the best racing in IndyCar? It’s still the ovals. But we can’t get people to come out and watch. So it needs a rethink.

I give Jay Frye credit; he’s got a fiveyear plan to try and get a third engine manufacturer, and to try to bring the costs down. They’re doing the best they can with the package they were handed. He’s done a good job. But I want to see 50 cars going for 33 spots. That’s what I miss the most, and that’s what we have to get back to.

PRI: Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart…they are, to a certain extent, known throughout the mainstream American audience. Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Josef Newgarden…they are not. How does IndyCar get their guys, their stars, into the mainstream?

Miller: That’s a very good question. Scott Dixon is one of the best race drivers to come along in the last 30 years, and he can walk down any street in any city in the United States and nobody has a clue who he is. That’s too bad. Now, Scott doesn’t mind that; he likes the fact that nobody knows who he is. He’s a great guy and he doesn’t care about stuff like that. What IndyCar has to do is spend money like NASCAR does and have national television ads during the Super Bowl and during the Academy Awards, and show their drivers and their personalities. Because, I’ve got news for you: James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, Tony Kanaan—they’ve got as good a personality as anybody you’ve ever met in racing, and they could carry a television show if they had to. That would be a wonderful thing, because people could see them and get to know them. They’re approachable, they’re good guys, and people could cheer for guys like that.

But the thing that’s toughest, and the thing NASCAR has going for them, is think about Kyle Larson. He’s won (at this writing in July) six sprint car races in a row, and I’ve heard that when he raced at Grandview, Pennsylvania, the other night, there were 17,000 people there. Those people became Kyle Larson fans overnight. So now they will tune in to the NASCAR race on Sunday to see how Kyle Larson does. That’s what IndyCar does not have. We don’t have any connection to grassroots racing. Randy Bernard helped get Bryan Clauson to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and that was a great thing. It was well-deserved and it was wonderful that it happened. But that went away when Randy got ran out of town.

How do we get people who go to Indiana Sprint Week to care about IndyCar drivers? Well, you’re probably not going to get any IndyCar drivers to run Indiana Sprint Week, which would be cool, and we’re probably not going to get them to race a sprint car or midget at Eldora. But I’ve been trying to get IndyCar to sponsor a couple of cars at the Chili Bowl and put Newgarden and Graham Rahal or Hinchcliffe, put those guys in a car. Give ’em a couple of test days and let those 15,000 people at the Chili Bowl every night know who they are. Maybe they would figure out that these guys are pretty cool, trying something outside their comfort zone.

NASCAR is still the big dog because of their TV ratings. Yeah, their ratings aren’t what they were 10 years ago, but they’re still damned good and they still get pretty good crowds. People say, “Look at all those empty seats at Bristol!” Yeah, and they still had 90,000 people there. When’s the last time you had 90,000 people at an IndyCar race other than the Indy 500?

To answer your question, you have just got to tell people who these (IndyCar) guys are. I know we have social media and podcasts, and that helps, but you need national television, national media exposure.

PRI: As the world of online readers continues to grow, where does print media fit in? Digital media, online readership, seems to continue to grow. Podcasts, websites, blogs…where does print media fit today? If you had the keys to a print operation, how would you reach a new audience with your product?

Miller: That is a really good question. The Indianapolis Star circulation was 275,000 when I went to work there in 1968, and the Sunday Star was around 500,000. It is a fraction of that today. If people are getting everything on their cell phone, and you have been buying the Star all these years like I have been, and then they let you go online and read it for free all those years, I don’t know how you counter that. Little hometown papers will probably outlast the big-city newspapers, because in smaller towns there is a sense of community, and loyalty.

PRI: Twenty years ago a lot of mainstream print operations—magazines and newspapers alike—made the decision to give away their content, figuring the digital readership would be so great that they could easily recoup the lost subscription revenue. Now that we’ve had some years to provide clarity, there’s a growing sense that the “giveaway” strategy was a very significant mistake that is going to be difficult to recover from. Your thoughts?

Miller: I couldn’t agree more. When the Internet was just arriving, I was still at the Star. They came to me and asked if I could do something each week for the website. They created a column called “Ask The Expert”—that title was definitely not my suggestion, Davey—where readers could go online and submit questions about racing. They allowed free access to all the online content, and things went on for a few years until the Star let readers know that, oh by the way, readers were going to have to start paying to read that content. Guess what? Nobody wanted to pay for it. Once you give something away long enough, people won’t pay for it. Even if they like it! They just won’t. So that whole concept was a huge, huge mistake. Some smart people back then predicted this would happen, but nobody would listen to them. There was arrogance among the print companies that they were big enough that the money would just flow in from advertising. I think they learned a valuable lesson, didn’t they?

PRI: You have managed to transition to broadcasting as well as writing. Maybe I’m not the right person to be asking this, but in terms of pure gratification, can anything compare to the feeling you get when you have sat down at the keyboard and written something that gives you enormous satisfaction?

Miller: No. Jimmy Breslin, Kurt Vonnegut, those guys were writers, Davey. Writers! I’m a storyteller. The newspaper was a great place to be a storyteller, and you can have an opinion or you can tell the story of different people. There are stories that when you finish you just think, “Man, that was fun to write.” I don’t think there has been anything that compares to that sense of satisfaction.

You hit the nail on the head…there is a certain feeling you get when you break a story, and there is nothing like that feeling. There is a special sense of satisfaction, when your story resonates with the racing community. It makes you feel good because you don’t usually get that feeling when you’re doing television.

The only thing that ever came close was co-hosting WindTunnel with Dave Despain. That was as much fun as anything I’ve ever done. We had a good-sized audience, and Dave was generous to me, so good to me. He let me talk about people like Kyle Larson, and he let me rag on IndyCar or NASCAR or whatever. We had a weekly show that helped lift all different forms of racing. That was cool because the times were changing, and more and more people started gravitating toward SPEED Channel. There is a void in motorsports right now because SPEED went away. They filled a very important place in our sport. I sure wish we still had SPEED.

When I got fired by the Star, I was invited to work at ESPN on RPM 2nite. Then I started writing for their website and it took off from there. When ESPN’s coverage went away SPEED offered me a job, and I could keep doing television and writing about racing. And then SPEED went away and I got to work for NBC Sports and RACER.

You talk about lucky…I flunked out of Ball State and I wouldn’t even get an interview today, but I was lucky enough to fall into this great career. Nobody has been more lucky than I have.

Industry Insights: Robin Miller

Robin Miller's love for motorsports began in 1957 when he visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time. Shortly after, Miller (left) started following racers like USAC Champ Car driver Jim Hurtubise (right).

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