(Agua Dolce, Calif.): From his imposing 6-foot-4-inch stature to his quiet, yet commanding voice to his intense focus on winning, there was nothing common about a man known by so many simply as “Drino.” One of off-road racing’s earliest pioneers and a superstar in the fledgling sport, Miller sadly passed away this week after a long battle with cancer. A longtime resident of Costa Mesa, California, Miller was 72 years old.
Inducted with the inaugural 1978 class of honorees into the Off Road Motorsports Hall of Fame (ORMHOF) in 1978, Miller was an integral part of founding the National Off Road Racing Association’s (NORRA) in 1968. Born in Los Angeles on July 30, 1941, Drino graduated with a degree in Political Science from the UCLA in 1966 and began hanging out with his brother’s friend and fiberglass dune buggy inventor Bruce Meyers. Thanks to his ability to speak Spanish and being mechanically inclined, Miller soon joined Meyers on off-road excursions — including the heading south to the Baja peninsula.
With some Baja experience already under his belt, in June of 1967 Ed Pearlman invited him along on an attempt to set a new speed record on a run through Baja. Meyers provide him with a Meyers Manx to share with journalist John Lawlor, their job would be to cover the run for the press. Dick Cepek and Ed Pearlman drove a Land Cruiser with a Chevy V-8 engine as did Claude Dozier and Ed Orr. While the men broke no records on their trip, Pearlman credited the experience as the beginnings of NORRA and the seed to host an official Baja race, the 1967 Mexican 1000 rally.
Following that June Baja trip Miller accepted a scholarship to study law for a summer semester at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Thanks to a recommendation by Ed Pearlman to Vic Hickey, Drino soon found himself working on Hickey’s radical Hurst-sponsored “Baja Boot for the first Mexican 1000.
Built in just 30 days, the exotic car made the race’s starting line with Drino Miller behind the wheel. A broken rear suspension ended their day early, but the experience of participating in the first NORRA Mexican 1000 lit a passion deep inside the young and talented Californian.
Always the innovator, Miller returned from Baja with the idea of building a radical, lightweight tube-framed single-seater powered by a large air-cooled Volkswagen Type 1 (Beetle) engine. While that car was a success, his second single-seater was even better. Together with co-driver Vic Wilson, Miller and his little rocket-ship of an off-road racer took the overall victories at the 1970 NORRA Mexican 1000, as well as overall wins at the rugged Mint 400, the NORRA Dam 300 (later known as the Parker 400) and the NORRA Baja 500.
During this period he and partner Sanford Havens opened their own shop, Miller-Havens Enterprises, specializing in engines, transmissions and conversion kits for Baja Bugs. Miller-Havens Enterprises created the Baja Bug concept as an economical vehicle for driving and racing off-road. Modifying a Volkswagen Beatle by trimming the heavy fenders, lifting the rear and encasing the body in fiberglass, Miller created a potent off-road machine which a working person could easily afford and build in their home garage.
By the mid 1970′s, Havens pulled out of the business and Miller changed the name to Drino Miller Enterprises. He continued to build off-road vehicles while expanding his area of expertise to include sports cars and midgets – all the while keeping a keen eye on building Indy cars. He demonstrated great skills with race cars and ran top-level teams at the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Daytona and at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Recognizing his skills Andial, Porsche’s American racing arm, approached Miller in 1985 to work on their sports car program. Miller was part of Andial during a period when their cars could do no wrong and found great success at every race they entered.
After four years at Andial, Miller joined the factory performance team at Toyota. Miller managed their Toyota Racing Development (TRD) program for six years, providing his talents to Toyota’s off-road, IMSA and Indycar efforts. Miller left TRD in 1996 and continued working on a contractual basis with motorcycle racing icon Pro Circuit as his major client. In recent years Miller took a great deal of pleasure riding his motorcycle though the European countryside.
“My earliest memories of Drino was that he stood out from the crowd as just a true hero,” remembers NORRA President Mike Pearlman. “He was right there with Parnelli (Jones) and Malcolm (Smith) as the guys you really had to beat in those early off-road races. The world would be a much better place if there were more guys like Drino Miller in it. We will all miss him.”
Photo: Marty Fiolka Collection