Wednesday, October 8, 2008

RB interview: Robin Miller, the finale

The final installment of our interview with motor racing reporter Robin Miller. (Need a refresher? Here's part I.) Enjoy:

Q: We remember you on Wind Tunnel a while back and talking about Brock Yates' book on the original Cannonball Run. Why does that sound like about the coolest thing, ever?

RM: Well, that's because it was. There were only two years what they really had the real Cannonball, '71 and '72. In '71 Gurney won it in a Ferrari driving with Brock. And the next year, a guy won it answering an ad in the New York Times for a guy who wanted his Cadillac driven to California, so they did it at 110mph. You can't make this stuff up. I ran it the second year. I was gonna have Art Pollard go with me, but he found out there was no money and he said, "there's no chance, I'm not going." I had the USAC pace car from the Champ Car division lined-up, they didn't know what I was going to use it for, Jim Campbell Datsun, here in town was going to let me use it, then they found out I was going to be in this race. They had it towed out from in front of the start the night before I left. So I went there with no car. Hooked up with a guy who was a stock car driver from California and we drove a Vega station wagon. I think we finished sixth or seventh, made it in like 38-hours. And it was just this great group of people that met in this parking garage in Manhattan and stamped your ticket and you took off as fast as you could go. You could take the northern route or the southern route or the Midwestern route, there were three ways to go from New York to LA.

It was so sad that the movies they made about it-The Cannonball Run. Lemondrop Express, or whatever it was called- They completely had to go overboard with Hollywood. If they'd just stuck with facts, it was such a cool story. Three guys dressed as priests, that whenever they got stopped the Sheriff would ask, "Father, do you have any idea how fast you were going?" and he'd say, "no my son." Sheriff would say, "You're going 117mph, Father. What's going on?" They'd say they were going to a religious summit and never got a ticket. Their car broke, or they'd probably won the thing. There were just all these wonderful stories within the stories. The three big-chested blondes… Their plan was, every time they got stopped, they'd just undo their top button. Then they wouldn't get tickets. The guy I went with, Wes Dawn, I think we got six tickets, we didn't go to jail, we didn't go to the justice of peace, we didn't have to pay any money. But, when we were done, we used his address every time we got stopped, and he lived in Laguna Beach, they came to his house and arrested him and he had to spend four weekends in jail to take care of those tickets. So, he wasn't real happy about that. Those are the kind of things…

A couple of years ago Brock Yates' asked me, he called me up and said, "Hey Robin, we're thinking about having one more Cannonball. It is going to be everyone that was in the first two original years. We're gonna try to keep it below the radar. What do you think?"I said, "I'm in."So the first thing I did, I went to Eddie Wirth, who was a great motorcycle racer and sprint car racer. His wife is Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward's publicist, and has been their personal assistant for years, and Eddie was Paul's right hand for the past decade, he drove him everywhere, they hung out together. I said to him, "Eddie, what about getting Newman, you and me, and we'll go on the Cannonball?" He said, "God, that'd be great." He said he thought Newman would go for something like that too. So I approached Newman at Long Beach that year and said, "Hey, have you heard of the Cannonball Baker race?" He said he had. So I brought him the book that Brock wrote and told him to read up on it, because I had an idea. So he read a few chapters and the one I wrote. At the next race I saw him, I asked him what he thought. He said it sounded like a crazy thing to do. I told him I thought that you and me and Eddie aught to do it. He said, "No I couldn't do that. No, there's no way I can do that, Joanne would kill me." I said, "hey, you've been testing sprint cars on the dirt, 900 horsepower sprint cars, you're wife is not going to say anything about this. This is tame compared to that." He goes, "Well, she doesn't know about the sprint cars." It was just funny that Paul Newman was like I can't really do that, I've got to get permission from my wife. You're Paul Newman, you can do whatever you want to do. So as the summer went on, he started to weaken a little bit. He started asking about what kind of car we were going to drive… I asked him what kind of car he could promote. So he said that's why I wanted him, so he could promote us a free car. I told him that was one of the reasons. The other reason is, if we get stopped, the cops are going to recognize you and let us go. He said, "I wouldn't bet on that, I'm not very big anymore." He was just so funny because he was always making fun of himself. Then I think Brock's attorneys' told him you can't have another race, because if someone gets hurt, it all comes back to you and it'll be the end of you. So it didn't happen, but I really think Newman was going to do it. If push came to shove.

Q: Your racing career... Did you have three or four PR people and handlers and all that stuff?

RM: Haha, no. Art Pollard was one of my best friends, and he got killed at Indy in '73, but before he got killed he helped me get a Formula Ford from Andy Granatelli. And, if anyone should've not been allowed to own a racecar, it would have been me; because I was the biggest moron mechanically that's probably walked the face of the earth. So, I tried to run this Formula Ford for a year or so. But, I'm hanging out with Bill Vukovich and Johnny Parsons and Gary Bettenhausen, eating lunch and dinner with them, and I'm going to races, covering USAC, I've been going to midget and sprint races my whole life. They're like if you're serious about learning to drive a race car get rid of that Formula Ford and go get a midget or a sprint car and learn how to be a race driver. And they were right. So I bought one of Gary's midgets- it was the car Merle made his comeback in after he lost his arm in his first and only Indy car race at Michigan- so I became an unofficial Bettenhausen brother. 'Cause if you buy into the family like that, you're expected to, you know, you got to answer to Gary. The first couple of races we went to we had pretty good runs. The first time I went to Kokomo I had a good race, made the main event.

It's interesting; I look back at some of those lineups. A couple races there the first year I raced USAC midgets… There were a couple races where 13 of 20 guys in the A-main were in that year's Indy 500. So, it was a hell of field of race drivers, because they still had to run midgets and sprint cars to make a living. I had my moments, I think I had some talent, but I was too stupid to ever figure out that I should have been paying someone just to run their car instead of trying to run my own. Everybody from Ron Shuman, to Mark Alderson to Larry Rice, they all became my unofficial mechanics 'cause they were worried I was going to leave the wheel loose or something. I was so stupid mechanically, I couldn't be trusted. So, I learned a lot of hard lessons in the 10 seasons I ran USAC. Because I did everything about half-assed backwards. If you could do it wrong, I usually did it. But, I would never trade the experience. But, I just wish I had stated, well, I didn't start until I was 23. I didn't buy the Formula Ford until I was 22 or 23. So, I was way behind. I never ran a quarter midget or anything. I guess my best day was probably in 1980 at the Hut Hundred. It used to follow the Hoosier Hundred in the USAC schedule. It was 33 midgets, 11 rows of three at Terra Heute. Back in the day, back in the 70's when I was racing, the Hut Hundred used to get 100 entries. So there was 100 guys for 33 spots. There was no hooligan or suitcase race, if you didn't qualify in the top 33 you went home. Well, I was the first alternate one year. I was 34th out of, like, 104. That was like the worst day of my life. You don't get to run, you have to watch. You were 34th. So in 1980, I had a new car that Gary Stanton, who was a great sprint car racer, I had his first midget. I struggled with it all year. Finally, at Terra Heute, we got things going and I qualified fifth. I was in the middle of Parsons and Vogler and Chassey and Sleepy Tripp. I ran third for a long time and had a good race with Parsons and Sleppy. Then the thing blew up. We used to make fun of Kenny Schrader and Poncho Carter and Gary Bettenhausen 'cause they all started way behind me that day. They would kid me and say, "What side do you want us to pass you on?" And I'd say, "If you can keep up with me, you can pass me wherever you want." It was of those days where, like everyone says, the car was so fast it was so much fun to do. And dirt racing, there's nothing like it anyway. And Terra Heute is legendary, there's so many stories about Terra Heute that are fun. To race competitively is all you really wanted to do. I had a Chevy II, I didn't have a Volkswagen. I probably should have been smart and got a Volkswagen and not stuck with the Chevy II. I think I was $140,000 in debt when I finally quit. Because, you know, like I said, I did everything wrong.

You can't appreciate what you can learn racing 30-40 times a year across the country with all the good guys that were in USAC back then. It was a fabulous experience. I think I understand racing from a whole different perspective just because of it. I always got along with guys like Foyt, people like that, pretty easy because, I think, they at least respected the fact that I tried to do it. I worked on Indy 500 pit crews and stuff. I was pretty much immersed in it. I wrote 52 columns a year about USAC and I raced in the midget division. It always cracks me up 'cause I always hear people say that I don't like the Indy 500 or USAC or I don't like open wheel racing anymore. I'm thinking, you know, there's nobody in this country who has written more positive stories about open wheel racing than I have. One of the reasons is 'cause I'm almost 60 years old. The other is because that was my passion. I loved it. I wanted to see USAC always on top, which it should have been. They had all the best drivers. But, they had the best drivers and the worst management. Then CART came along and they had terrible management. The IRL came along and they got terrible management. My whole life has been full of nobody that really knew how to run open wheel racing. And we still don't have anybody.

Q: The people at Versus still haven't given you a ring yet?

RM: I don't think the people at Versus, I'm not sure they'll be doing the hiring. I think there are some people at the Speedway who are trying to assemble a team of who they'd have in the booth. But, that thing obviously needs an overhaul. I would like to see Gary Gerould do the play-by-play; I think he'd do a really good job. Or maybe Derek Daly, he's done it for a long time. Somebody said, "Would you do it?" Yeah I think I'd do it. I'd love to try to do it, if it was with the right circumstances. You couldn't be censored, you couldn't be told to be a PR man or a cheerleader. People don't want to be lied to. They don't want to watch that. I mean, you watch Brad Daugherty and Rusty Wallace and you gotta have a barf bag. It is the worst television ever. They don't tell you anything, it's all this suck-ass, kiss-ass dialogue, it just makes me cringe. That ESPN Now show everyday is one of the worst things that's ever been on television, it's just hysterical to watch. I think it's an insult to a race fans mentality that they have to put up with this shit. I'd love to see myself and Eddie Cheever in the booth, 'cause we don't really like each other. I think it'd be pretty combative and I think that'd make good television because you're not acting. It's just this kind of adversarial relationship. But, you have to keep focus, you'd talk about the race, but people want to hear the dirt. They want to hear the rumors, who doesn't like who, who's leaving, who's making this kind of money. I mean bless their hearts, Scott Goodyear and Marty Reid are nice guys but they have no chemistry and it's just painful to watch. I'm certainly not a big proponent of NASCAR, but Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip make you feel like they're letting you in our their personal little conversation about what's going on during the race. Just like Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett did back in the 80's. That's why it caught on.

I'm not saying people are going to watch a race or not watch a race because of the announcing team; I don't think that's true. But, you got to do something to upgrade your product in the booth. Remember that Todd Harris guy from ABC a few years ago? You just think where do they come up with these ideas? I thought Tom Sneva did a good job because he was honest and funny, but they sent him packing. The last time IndyCar had any kind of chemistry was Bobby Unser correcting Sam Posey and Paul Page every five minutes. That was hysterical. That was entertainment.

Q: Last question, if you had to watch a movie this weekend, would you pick Days of Thunder or Driven?

RM: Driven because it was so bad it's a comedy. I mean Days of Thunder was pretty lame, but Driven… We renamed Driven, Drivel. I just remember Stallone and all those people when they were making that movie… I mean, bless their heart, CART thought this was going to put them on the map. They thought this is going to bring people in from miles around. Well, it put them on the map alright; they were laughed off the map. I remember when it opened, it was the highest grossing movie of the weekend and everybody thought this is great. Well, it made like $2 million because it was the middle of the summer. And nobody had released a movie for about a month. It was awful; in every possible respect, it was awful. I didn't do anything for CART or open wheel racing. You know what's kinda sad? Paul Newman got Tom Cruise interested in racing. Cruise did some SCCA racing himself, because of Newman. And the Days of Thunder movie was actually supposed to be about the Indy 500, but I don't know, there was a breakdown somewhere and it never happened, which is too bad. It certainly had more potential then what they ended up with.

Robin, certainly appreciate the time.

RM: Hey, you bet...


Too Much Racing said...

Very cool, thanks for an excellent interview (and thanks Robin!).

Johnny said...

"I mean, you watch Brad Daugherty and Rusty Wallace and you gotta have a barf bag."

And people wonder why we love this guy.

Meesh said...

Awesome! Thanks again for this!