Monday, October 6, 2008

RB interview: Robin Miller

Members of the sporting media have important information to offer the masses. (Aside from how to score a free media center lunch and Rolodexs full of gentleman's club location information.) Seasoned reporters have the ability to add historical perspective to their subject matter of expertise. Some smart guy once said something like, "to know where you're going, you must know where you've came from." Or something like that. Speed's Robin Miller knows where motor racing has come from and he certainly knows the challenges facing the sport's future.

After an email and a few phone calls (we once caught RM while attempting to fix his faulty garage door opener... That was not a good time for Q&A) we spoke with the motoring pundit on a number of subjects. Much ground was covered. We laughed, cried and were left feeling cautiously pessimistic about the future of motor racing. (Kidding. Sort of.)

The prospects of a 5000-word transcript post seem rather daunting, so we're going to split this up.

Here's part #1 of Ridebuyer's interview with Robin Miller. It's not a straight forward Q&A, but we boldfaced what could best be described as our questions. Enjoy.

-Oh, in case you're not quite with it, here's Miller's bio. It's copy-and-pasted directly from, so it better be right.

Became an Indy-car junkie in late 1950s and stooged for my hero, Jim Hurtubise, at the 1968 Indy 500. Worked as a vent man and board man on Indy pit crews from 1971-77. Bought a Formula Ford from Andy Granatelli in 1972 and raced it in SCCA until 1974 when I purchased a midget from Gary Bettenhausen. Competed in USAC midget series from 1975-82. Flunked out of Ball State College in 1968 and began working at The Indianapolis Star sports department in 1969. Covered motorsports at The Star from 1969-2000, named assistant sports editor in 1984 and associate sports editor in 1989. Worked for ESPN from 2001-2003 on RPM2Night and Also covered Indy car racing for Autoweek, Autosport, Car & Driver and On Track magazines during the past 35 years.

Now enjoy:

Q: Robin, thanks for taking the time. What we're trying to do here is get a feeling for what you reporter guys, well, do. Since it's the off-season, what takes up your days?

RM: Well I think different people have different… I’m an old school newspaper-guy, there’s not a lot of us left. Most people are internet people I think.

But, there’s such a lull, there’s a six-month lull and so I do some work for Motor Sport, occasionally I write something for Racer, I got this Concourse de’ Elegance, is having a big thing- an annual thing- I write for their magazine, they usually like a 3000-word story on some old- timer, which is what I am. It’s always fun to do something like that. I have a “mailbag” a do once a week for Speed. I usually get 100 to 150 questions during the season and lately I’ve been getting 60-70 since the season is over. So, I go through all of those. There are still a lot of people who want to know what’s going on; what’s going to happen with Paul Tracy? Is Allmendinger coming back? What about Jonathan Bomarito? What about Raphael Matos? I mean, there’s a lot of people that care about it and want to know what’s going 12-months out of the year.

Q: You talked about the "mailbag," kind of imagine you get the same kind of questions each week. What do you hear the most about and what are you tired of getting asked?

RM: The thing that comes out more and more is the people who hate the IRL cars, they hate the sound of the engine, and the fact that they don’t have any horsepower. That’s the number one thing. And the number two thing is that Paul Tracy doesn’t have a ride and people want to know why, and who’s going to give him a ride and how come he can’t get a ride. It’s hard to answer because I don’t know. I don’t know why someone in Canada doesn’t step up and I would hope somebody at Andretti-Green Racing would be smart enough to give him a good ride, because without Paul Tracy at Toronto, you’re not going to have a crowd. I mean he is the Toronto race.

Q: You talk about being an "old school" kind of guy. I take it you're not frequenting any blogs?

RM: No, I don’t. I worked at The Indianapolis Star for 32 years. You know, the internet is great in some respects, but it was kind of neat when it would take awhile to hear about a driver that was maybe running Ascot Park and you wouldn’t know anything about it until you got to see him around Terre Haute or Winchester or Eldora or whatever, I realize I’m going back, but information travels quickly. When Parnelli (Jones) tested the turbine at Phoenix nobody knew about it and that was kind of cool. Now, not only are there no secrets, everybody is an expert and anybody can write anything they want to write. And, you know, I don’t think it’s that healthy as far as what’s factual and what’s not. I think you see more people trying to go out on a limb trying to predict things. I was reading Speed and Kenny Wallace said that his brother Rusty is coming out of retirement and Rusty said “no, I’m not going to do it, that’s not true.” Whether it’s true or not, it’s kind of funny that his own brother reported it, and if it’s not true, that makes it even better. There’s this pressure for everybody to go out and scoop, and you got to get this out first and scoop this and that.

There’s been a lot of talk here in the last few weeks about who the guys are in Indy for that big engine manufactures summit. I’ll give the Speedway credit, they told people to keep their mouths shut and they have. It’s the tightest thing I’ve seen in a long time as far as nothing leaking out. Now some guy at Porsche told some guy in Europe a couple of days ago that Porsche was one of the people at the meeting which is kind of cool. We heard it was Porsche, Audi, possibly Volkswagen. And it’s going to take somebody like that to really get this thing going again. That is really going to go out and spend some money and back some teams and spend some money on marketing and promotion. Hopefully it is Porsche because their first couple attempts at Indycar racing, I think, left them with a bad taste in their mouth.

Q: Do you have any kind of an everyday must-read? Do you pick up The Star every morning, or anything like that?

RM: That (The Star) would be the last thing I would pick up. Sometimes I’ll pick up a paper just out of habit, but you’re not going to learn anything about racing reading The Indianapolis Star. That’s not going to happen. There are always about a week behind. That’s too bad because that should be the paper of record for what’s going on, but times change. I used to buy Autosport every week because I wanted to read Nigel Roebuck’s column. I always enjoyed that. I still like to read Gordon Kirby, he’s got a website. But, if you’re into open wheel racing, there’s hardly anything, aside from Racer. Motor Sport is the best magazine going, but it comes out once a month and it’s published in England and is not the easiest thing to get over here. It’s great because 65% of the magazine deals with the old days and that’s what most of us want to remember because that was the most fun and that’s where we have our best memories.

But, no, there’s nothing that I have to read every day. There are very few people who are compelling and can hold my attention, to be honest. I used to really love reading Ben Blake’s stuff; I don’t know what’s happened to him. He had a nice edge to him about NASCAR. He messed with everyone down there; it was great. Instead of just being a little sheep and a PR man. That’s probably the toughest thing, because it’s hard to get people to write what’s going on because they are worried about their jobs or friendships. It permeates the whole motorsports media. It goes from television and radio to magazines and newspapers.

I think there is always room for a fresh voice and maybe someone will come out of left field and say ‘I think this and that.’ There is a guy named Bill Zahren that I enjoy reading. He calls himself It’s funny, has a really good wit about him. He puts things in pretty good perspective he doesn’t take himself or the thing too serious, and it’s a really good read. He’s made up some pretty funny stories of the past couple of years. He takes real life situations and makes them pretty funny. He interviews himself sometimes and I think that’s pretty clever.

Q: Your role as a reporter and a person who provides commentary- I guess a columnist is what you would call them- is it easy to differentiate those two roles?

Yes, absolutely. That’s good question because it’s what Tony George-when we were really battling in the mid-90’s, our 10-year war, whatever it was- he could never understand when I was at The Star, how I could cover a race and also write a commentary about it. And I explained to him, when you write a straight news story, you talk to the people who participated, you state the facts and get quotes if they have something worth saying, and it’s a real easy thing to do. Then, when that’s done, you go write a commentary about whether it was good, bad, ugly, indifferent, whatever it was. That’s very simple to do. I think it’s funny, when I worked at ESPN doing RPM2Nite, John Kernan, who was the host, would read all these websites everyday, these chat rooms. To see what people were saying about the RPM2Nite shows. He would get so upset if someone didn’t like what we did one night, or somebody didn’t like what he said or what I said. Or if somebody didn’t think we gave enough time for something. I would just laugh. I used to tell him, I’d say, “John, that’s the same 40-people. Why would you waste your time?”

To me I love people who have passion for racing, and there are some really good questions I get in this “mailbag” I do every week. People have some pretty thoughtful questions. They pay attention and they don’t just come out of the woodwork with insanity. There are a lot of people who really understand it, and get it, and want to know more about it. Those are the fun people to deal with.

The tough thing about open wheel racing is the war between CART and the IRL was so nasty that a lot of people can’t let it go and never will. I get a lot of people saying they used to like me because I stood up for CART. Well, I stood up for CART because they belonged at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and that’s what ruined the Indy 500 because, when it was divided, CART was in their heyday. I also ripped CART’s heart out every time I got the chance because they did so many stupid things for 25-years.

People either have convenient memories or don’t understand. There was a time when Roger Penske and I didn’t talk to each other for a year; there was a time when A.J. Foyt and I didn’t talk to each other for a year, because of something that was said or the way something was written. If you do your job you’re going to piss everybody off because that’s what happens. Your job is not to be a PR man-cheerleader. I love good races and I love good stories. But, racing is full of conflict. It’s full of people who are upset, people who are bitching and pissing and moaning because they don’t have the right car or the right engine. They’re trying to steal each others drivers, their sponsors, their wives, that’s what racing is. It’s this great conflict. I think that’s what Paul Newman was so drawn to. He lived in the world of make-believe, that’s how he made his living, but he liked racing because it was the ultimate reality.

-Part #2 will feature Miller's account of the Cannonball Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, his days wheeling USAC midgets and why ESPN's NASCAR coverage is, well, what it is...

1 comment:

Meesh said...

Great job! I've always been a fan of RM, even when he pissed me off, cause I respected his right to speak his mind and the fact that he did & still does, consequences be damned.

Looking forward to part 2