Embracing “the kid”
By Tony DiZinno
Robin Miller left no doubt about where you stood when you entered the media center for the first time. If you were newer, you had to work just that little bit harder to establish yourself and see that the scribe who’d seen, written and commented on it all knew you weren’t just a flash-in-the-pan, one-off entry like the type he’d seen on track for years. The good thing was, he was there to help.
As any young IndyCar fan would do, I read Robin’s work online and watched his commentary on ESPN and SPEED Channel. The Wind Tunnel days where Robin guest hosted alongside Dave Despain were generally riots and a perfect end to the weekends before for me, the school week restarted.
The first Champ Car race I covered with credentials at Road America in 2007 was meant to be where I met Robin for the first time. Except there was a catch. If I remember correctly, he’d gotten his own credential pulled for writing a scathing commentary about Champ Car’s impending demise on Champ Car’s website, or something of that ilk. Champ Car didn’t last past April of 2008.
Robin broke the unification story in February of that year to indicate the end of the bitter, divisive 12-year split. The point there, obviously, was that Robin knew what was happening better than most and generally outlasted so many other series and sanctioning bodies through his work.
May 2008 was a welcome month to attend my first Indy 500. There was Robin, holding court during the race with the fellow journalists that delivered the stories for the masses to read.
There was almost a passing of the torch at that point I immediately noticed. The late Chris Economaki was at one of his last ‘500s, if not his last, that year as his trademark typewriter was in one of the front rows. After Economaki, Robin always seemed heir to the throne as the new dean of the press room.
Meanwhile, I was 18 and wondering what I’d need to do for my own career to begin to even scratch the surface of measuring up. But both welcomed me with open arms; they knew the importance of finding young writers to cover this sport they loved so dearly. Economaki gave me my first journalistic opportunity, and Robin was the first journalist who made me feel like I knew what I was doing.
The occasional check-ins at the races I covered throughout my time in college indicated to Robin I wasn’t just a one-off writer at the time and there was a sign I just felt that I was starting to belong (Milwaukee Mile in 2009, below).
I joined RACER Magazine in late summer of 2011 and it felt as though I’d gained access to the club, fully. While there was a personal rocky period in my life as the magazine’s circumstances changed into 2012, Robin never lost faith in “the kid” even as my own work status changed.
The 2013 season was a make-or-break year for me in the sport. Post-RACER, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in racing. A lifeline for me came from NBC Sports of all places with a new blog they’d started. Ironically, RACER absorbed the SPEED.com crew of Robin, his colleague Marshall Pruett and their audience once SPEED transitioned to FOX Sports 1 in August 2013.
So in a roundabout way, Robin and I were both colleagues and competitors simultaneously. We worked together – albeit more adjacent than directly – at NBC since I was on the digital side and he was on the TV side. But he was also my competition on the .com side, and I was always a little intimidated because I knew he was so hard to beat to any scoops. He’d covered the sport almost double the time I’d been alive!
To me, he never saw me as competition. If he did, I never felt it. He was far more of a mentor and guide to help me continue to grow in my career. We exchanged messages and thoughts regularly and when I joined NBC full-time in 2016 after splitting my time for three years, there was a real recognition of how far I’d come. Getting included as the youngest member of the media he pinged for emails, his Indy legends sweatshirts or being mentioned in his trademark Mailbag or silly season columns were among my career highlights.
There were a couple trips to Rusty’s at Barber along the way, and most memorably, a hilarious roast he led of me for my 28th birthday on the Friday of Road America, 2017, saying I’d transformed from a “shy kid who might get eaten alive in this paddock” into someone that “doesn’t take s— from anyone and has even learned to cuss a few times.” The capper was a cake delivered in the media center filled with Milwaukee cultural references and an homage to some inside jokes Robin had had with me over the years.
The 2017 season was my last covering IndyCar full-time for NBC after five seasons, as different opportunities have emerged elsewhere along the way. I remember he and I had a chat at Sonoma, on the eve of Josef Newgarden winning his first title, where he pulled me aside in the paddock and told me, “Son, you’ve come a long way in this business. You’ll keep going as long as you want to. I’m proud of you, kid.”
As I’ve contributed off-and-on to TSO for the better part of 6 years, I’ve always felt at home when I came back, and Robin was always there with open arms. I remember chronicling the roast of Bobby Unser he led in 2018; that was a night that will forever live on in laughter.
I know he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea and I certainly didn’t agree with every one of his takes. But man, he was an original.
His passing Wednesday felt like a gut punch, even if it still was expected based on his health.
But from the first time he called me “kid,” as that was his go-to phrase for most folks, he made me feel like I belonged even if my career has now taken me to different places. And for me, it always felt literal as badge of honor.
I’ll forever be thankful that he embraced “the kid.”
Ed Note: Thanks so much to our friend Tony for trusting us with his remembrance of Robin. Steve is working on his own words that will come at a later time.