3/28/2014 - Engineering Legend Drino Miller Passes Away
Southern California -- Drino Miller, whose successes in motor racing spanned the distance from Baja's off-road races to professional sports car racing, and from the driver's seat to an engineer's drafting table, lost his final race, against cancer, on March 4th. Born on July 30, 1941, he was 72 years old.
In auto racing, legendary status is usually reserved for drivers, and a very few team owners. Los Angeles-area native Miller was only briefly a driver or team owner. Yet such were his accomplishments over four decades that racing insiders from all forms of the sport acknowledge that he was indeed a legend. A racing renaissance man, Miller excelled as a driver, team manager, team owner, engine builder, and an engine and chassis designer.
With a degree in political science from UCLA, Miller was well equipped for motor racing's politics, but he was equally adept as a self-taught engineer. Miller served an apprenticeship of sorts with Bruce Meyers, originator of the off-road Meyers Manx, which began the dune buggy craze. In 1967, Miller was part of the Meyers team that produced a vehicle for Ed Pearlman, a San Fernando Valley florist, to attempt a record on the end-to-end Baja trek. Miller, fluent in both Spanish and the dirt trails of Baja, was drafted to drive journalist John Lawlor, who provided press coverage.
The record did not fall, but the attempt led Vic Hickey, a General Motors R&D engineer, to hire Miller to develop a Baja race truck. When GM later passed on the project, Hickey convinced speed equipment baron George Hurst to underwrite the project, which became the Baja Brute. Miller and Al Knapp drove the Brute in the first Mexican 1000 in October, 1967, but dropped out with a broken suspension.
The experience led Miller to conclude that an anti-Brute -- a lightweight, single-seat buggy -- was the solution to Baja's challenge. In a rented garage, he designed and assembled his first car and modified the VW-based engine. His $2,500 creation took 2nd place in 1968's Mint 400, Mexican 1000 and Baja 500.
The following year, Drino set up shop with partner Stanford Havens, where they created the Baja Bug, a cut-down, hopped-up version of a Volkswagen Beetle. While selling parts and modifying Beetles, Miller evolved his single-seat race car. He returned to Baja with it in 1970, co-driving with Vic Wilson. They dominated that year's Mexican 1000, winning in just over 16 hours, by a margin of over an hour, and beating the previous record by more than 11 hours. Collectively, those accomplishments earned him entry to the Off-Road Hall of Fame in 1978, its inaugural year, along with Meyers, Pearlman and Hickey.
As sole proprietor of Drino Miller Enterprises, he continued to build off-road vehicles and engines, gradually expanding into engine and chassis development work for midgets and sports-racing cars.
In 1974, Miller partnered with Eddie Riddle to field a midget with fellow off-road racer Roger Mears at the wheel. It was a steep learning curve for all, though Miller's engines were already respected in the sport. While the car was fast, more often than not, the team's races ended abruptly with Mears crashing out. Running the team alone in 1975, Miller put Danny McKnight in the car and focused primarily on West Coast events, which they dominated for three years, winning the United States Racing Club championship in '77.
In 1978 and '79, Miller set his sights on the national USAC midget series, with Sleepy Tripp replacing McKnight. They won a handful of races each year, and were always competitive, but Tripp was handed a 30-day suspension by USAC for fighting in the pits in '79, which eliminated the team from championship contention.
Miller graduated to the Indianapolis 500 in 1982 as crew chief for the Whittington Brothers. The effort resulted in second- and third-row starts for, respectively, brothers Bill and Don. Less was achieved in '83, and in Drino worked with the Interscope team and driver Danny Ongais in 1984, as team manager and crew chief. Ongais started the 500 from the middle of row 4 and finished 9th.
In 1985, Miller closed up shop, and began a five-year stint with Porsche racing specialist Andial. Over the years, Drino was involved as an engineer with the legendary Porsche 962, the racing version of the street 944, and eventually the 935, a racing version of the German marque's 911.
Andial's Alwin Springer, who became a life-long friend, tells a story that captures the essence of Drino's engineering prowess and the speed with which he could almost divine solutions to problems that eluded others. When the first Andial-modified 935 was taken for its second pre-season test, the driver complained of chassis flex and said the car was undriveable. It was taken back to the Andial shop and stripped to the bone. Miller was recruited to look at the bare car. "He told us to add a few pieces of tubing to the chassis in certain places. We did, and it transformed the car," says Springer.
At Andial Miller worked on racing engine design and development, created engine and chassis parts, and worked on car design as well.
In 1989, Miller moved to Toyota Racing Development USA (TRD) as chief operating officer, managing both the engine shop and the retail performance parts business. Initially, Miller was involved in supporting Dan Gurney's All American Racers (AAR) team as they transitioned from IMSA sedans to sports-racing prototypes.
The AAR operation was saddled with hand-me-down Toyota Le Mans endurance cars, which proved uncompetitive in IMSA sprint races against GTP cars from Nissan and Jaguar. Gaining competitiveness required a new car and engine. AAR created the car, and Miller designed the 2.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, and managed its testing and development.
The combination of Eagle Mk III chassis and Miller's engine was introduced mid-season in 1991 at Laguna Seca, with Miller continuing to serve as team manager. The Mk III won for the first time in the season-ending race at Del Mar, near San Diego.
The 1992 season saw two Mk-IIIs, in the hands of Juan Manuel Fangio II and P.J. Jones, dominate the Nissan and Jaguar cars. The team breezed to wins in 9 of 13 races and the IMSA championship. The car was raced to the championship again in 1993, against modest competition. Miller's engine and AAR's race car had raised the bar beyond the reach of any competitors, and both Jaguar and Nissan teams quietly disbanded at the end of the '92 season.
At the end of 1995, Miller and Toyota parted ways, with Miller joining Gurney's AAR operation. AAR returned to the open-wheel CART series, with engines and backing from Toyota. After four years of racing with little to show for it, Toyota pulled its support of the AAR effort, as did long-time Gurney supporter Goodyear, and the team withdrew from competition.
In 2000 Miller served as team manager and race engineer for a Formula Atlantic car, entered by AAR and driven by one of Gurney's sons, Alex. Miller also served as the young Gurney's driving coach.
Miller joined Pro Circuit, a leading manufacturer and retailer specializing in motocross competition products, in 2003. When Miller signed on, motocross racing was transitioning from two-stroke to four-stroke engines. Drino was charged with developing a Kawasaki four-stroke for the series, and designed the complete valvetrain, including the camshaft, and was involved in developing all aspects of the engine as well as the transmission. The continuing success of Pro Circuit's four-strokes remains a testament to Drino's broad-based knowledge and expertise. Nearing retirement and his 70th year, Miller continued at Pro Circuit, working a few days a week until his illness got the best of him.
Miller is survived by his wife, Lisa. A celebration of life will take place at the Miller home on April 19th.