PRUETT: A fitting farewell

We all pay tribute to our departed friends in unique ways. For Steve Shunck, one of Robin Miller’s closest confidants, it was delivered by exhausting himself while coordinating Miller’s spectacular Celebration of Life that took place on Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The selfless veteran of CART and IndyCar PR assembled a send-off for Miller and 400 of the scribe’s dearest friends and family that was fit for a king. Shunck was surrounded by allies who took the gathering to an incredible level. At the request of Robin’s sister, Diane, another beloved member of Miller’s inner circle, retired Honda communications leader T.E. McHale, penned a sublime remembrance in the program Shunck and Diane assembled. McHale’s words set the tone for the afternoon.

Roger Warrick drew his umpteenth Miller cartoon which Robin’s pal and NBC Sports colleague Linda Rosenburg turned into miniature towels and limited-edition t-shirts. After they were done working on the No. 28 Honda , Andretti Autosport’s IndyCar crew headed to the track on Thursday and volunteered for the thankless task of putting hundreds of chairs in place for the event. Days after the 2021 IndyCar championship concluded, Dave Furst, the series’ communications director and yet another member of Robin’s inner circle, poured hours into a script he’d use as the master of ceremonies which keep the event light and warm. Run down the vast to-do list and you’ll find all manner of gracious support from those who came together to assist Shunck and the Miller family.

And think of the names who attended Miller’s celebration. Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt, two racers who reside on IndyCar’s Mount Rushmore, refused to miss the event. Together, they represent the greatest we’ve ever known and between them – especially during the long cold spells – was Miller, joking and prodding, bringing a thaw to their contentious relationship when needed. The average person would sacrifice everything to have A.J. or Mario at their wake; Miller was honored by both.

And there was The Captain, Roger Penske, the most successful team owner in IndyCar and Indy 500 history, who dressed down – at the request of Shunck – by leaving the $20,000 suit in the closet and donning something that was maybe seven percent less formal. Andretti, Foyt, and Penske, all on-site for Miller’s last hurrah, with Super Tex hosting a small gathering at his restaurant afterwards that made the Miller family feel immense love from Robin’s eternal friend and occasional nemesis.

Along with Penske, the rest of IndyCar’s brass was there as Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles, IndyCar president Jay Frye and IMS president J. Douglas Boles mingled and shared their Miller stories. Former IndyCar president Randy Bernard, who made the celebration possible, delighted in spinning yarns about the man who supported him from his first to his last day at the series. A great collection of Robin’s longstanding friends took part in the gathering, with Merle Bettenhausen, Pancho Carter, Derek Daly, Paul Page, Tim Coffeen, Derrick Walker and dozens of others sporting (in)formal wear that would have made Miller proud.

All American Racers’ Kathy Weida, Dan Gurney’s righthand woman and a friend to Miller for decades, flew out from California on behalf of the Gurney family to ensure the Big Eagle’s presence was felt. And a few of today’s drivers, including Tony Kanaan, Conor Daly, Graham Rahal, and Takuma Sato were there to represent IndyCar’s modern era. James Hinchcliffe would’ve been there, but he was in Canada officiating a wedding!

Miller managed to upset pretty much every member of the paddock at some point during his long career, but his true impact was reflected in the hundreds who turned out to wish him farewell. Image by Chris Owens/IndyCar

Jimmie Johnson sent flowers; Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon sent a video message; race engineer Craig Hampson and his wife got there early; mechanics, team managers, pit lane officials, newspaper colleagues, network producers, online brethren, and every other conceivable person who might’ve worked with or been owned money by Miller took a seat and joined in on the collective goodbye.

Sure, there were a few misty-eyed moments during the 90-minute celebration that followed, but they were vastly outweighed by smiles and sense of appreciation for knowing someone like Miller. His ashes were placed in a vintage alcohol decanter shaped in the form of the famous STP Turbine IndyCar driven by legend Parnelli Jones. It sat on the stage next to a Novi roadster driven by his hero, Jim ‘Herk’ Hurtubise. He would have been tickled.

Robin’s sister, nieces, and extended family were hugged and thanked the entire time; if there was any doubt as to the deeply personal impact he made over 71 years, I’m confident it was erased by the time they returned home.

After thanking the hosts, organizers, friends, and his sister, I had to run and catch a flight. (On the way out of the Foyt Wine Vault, I couldn’t help but chuckle as Prince’s ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ blasted out of the speakers facing the street; I so want to believe the music selection came from A.J.’s secret Spotify playlist).

An hour earlier at IMS, while speaking with FOX Sports’ producer Frank Wilson at the back of the room, looking over his shoulder at the rear of the Pagoda, I couldn’t help but imagine Miller bursting through the doors of the pavilion, seeing the massive expanse of attendees, and shouting “What the **** are you slapd**** doing in here? Get a ******* life!”

What many were doing, including Robin’s longtime SPEED cameraman Jim Roeder who assembled the event’s video and photo packages, was to take stock of how they were changed or influenced by Miller.

“You don’t really stop to process it at the time, but when you do give yourself a minute, you realize how much he cared about you,” Roeder said, sharing a sentiment expressed by others throughout the day. “We’re there, working, doing your jobs like you’re supposed to, and so maybe it doesn’t hit you in the moment as much as it should. But when you step back and think about all the time we spent together, did all those shoots wherever we went, you understand Miller was really a loving guy. I don’t know if I fully realized it at the time. He’d never say he loved you, of course, but it was received. If you were on Robin’s team, he never let go of you. Not many people are like that who aren’t your actual family.”

Miller was fiercely competitive when it came to his work. Robin’s ego was on full display when someone challenged his authority, but as McHale wrote in the program, the person behind the keyboard and microphone would have been flushed with embarrassment by the event’s turnout.

“But I can say without fear of contradiction that I have never met anyone who was less self-absorbed,” McHale opened, “nor have I ever known a more fascinating blend of great vice and greater virtue.”

Respect was another theme woven into the words shared among the celebration’s speakers and guests.

If there was a choice to be made between breaking a story or running the risk of falling out with its subject – a driver, team boss, or series official once it was published – Miller did his job, filed the story, and kept it moving. On multiple occasions during the event, Miller was hailed for having giant balls for routinely choosing his craft over maintaining peaceful and easy friendships in a small paddock, but it came at a price.

That price, as a couple of presenters acknowledged, is a hazard of the job he readily accepted. Some of his best pals in the cockpit, on the timing stand, or at the series’ headquarters went long stretches without accepting his calls; in most instances, they’d eventually make amends. Robin’s fearless and hard-charging ways as a reporter was demonstrated in the same manner a driver uses the ‘chrome horn’ on occasion to make the winning pass, which many – but not all – seemed to understand.

Tony Kanaan was among the many who shared memories. Image by Chris Owens/IndyCar

Miller’s IndyCar stats are a perfect 0: He never entered a race, led a lap, or earned victory. But if you were there to witness his farewell or watched the live stream, you came away with a clear understanding of how racing immortality isn’t reserved for the men and women who drive. Four hundred people gathered on a rainy day at the Speedway to pay tribute to a person, whose primary contribution to the sport came through a pen and notepad. Take a moment to process that achievement.

As the crowd slowly dispersed, supremely talented IndyCar photographer Chris Owens and I were looking out on the Hall of Fame congregation in the pavilion. We surmised that if the celebration that follows death serves as an accounting of one’s life, Robin won, and won by a mile.

The only thing missing from the event was Miller. On Saturday, he was given the state of Indiana’s highest award, the Sagamore of the Wabash, by Governor Eric Holcomb, and IMS permanently dedicated his desk in the media center. And he was enshrined the day before at the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. But I don’t know if he fully understood how much he meant to the hundreds in the room and the thousands who lived for his work.

About a month before he passed, I rang his sister Diane to check in an see how Robin was doing after he collapsed and nearly died. Before she and I could finish saying hello, Miller grabbed the phone and we ended up spending an hour – a cherished hour – that turned into a farewell. We’d speak a few more times afterwards, but it was on this call where we, knowing the end was near, would share some meaningful thoughts and caring words about our relationship. The opportunity came as a surprise.

I know I was lucky in that regard; there were many who were unable to have a final, heartfelt exchange of their own before his passing. Maybe that’s why his Celebration of Life was such a grand outpouring from the IndyCar community. He meant so much to so many, and thanks to Shunck, Penske, Foyt, Bernard and all the others behind the production, his people had an opportunity to gather, commiserate, laugh, and share their unvarnished truths about an IndyCar legend.

“To call Robin ‘One of a Kind’ is to do him an injustice,” McHale wrote. “For it suggests that there have been others who lived their lives in any way similar to his.”

Image by Chris Owens/IndyCar