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Drino Miller

Drino Miller

Drino Miller was an accomplished off-road racer and a self taught mechanical innovator. He developed the first single seat racing buggy which he co-drove to victories in 1970 at the Mint 400 and Baja 500. He is also responsible for the development of the Baja Bug which helped make racing accessible to more people. He is a specialist in four stroke engines and has helped make improvements in them in Volkswagens, Toyotas and motocross bikes.

Lorenzo and Judith Miller had four children, their third child, Drino was born July 30, 1941. Though born in Los Angeles, Miller grew up during a time when Southern California still had rural areas. He spent much of his childhood on a farm near Palos Verdes. At age ten, with ten dollars, Miller purchased his first car, a 1929 Model A Sport Coupe and began his life long pursuit of understanding how vehicles work by trial and error. His parents, both college professors, had little interest in the workings of automobiles besides the utilitarian purpose of getting from one point to the next. The young Miller taught himself how to work on cars with a succession of Model A’s. In 1957 Miller left the States to live with his older brother Lorenzo “Plazi” in Tahiti. His parents hoped that living with Palzi would help keep him out of and far away from trouble. In Tahiti he worked with his brother for a year repairing a large yacht in preparation to sail it back to California. They sailed back taking six months to visit most of the islands in the South Pacific along the way. Despite his parents best intentions, Miller once back, with such great experiences and freedom, found it difficult to return to the life of a regular high school student. He got into a bit of trouble with the authorities when caught having too much fun while driving his car and had to spend time at reform school. When he turned eighteen he moved to Newport Beach where Plazi helped him get a job working on boats. Miller did it all, from fixing them to running boats to San Clemente Island for the Abalone fishermen. By 1963 Miller determined it was time to finish his formal education. He took and passed the entrance examinations for Monterey Peninsula College and attended classes there for a year and a half. He then transferred to the University of California at Los Angeles where he studied Political Science. He graduated in 1966 and began attending law school there the same year. During the period he worked both on his education and the boats and spent some of his time off exploring Baja. He worked on occasion with his brother’s lifelong friend Bruce Meyers who helped popularize buggies. Miller spoke Spanish fluently and often went along for the rides through the desert with Meyers and other friends. With some Baja experience already under his belt, Ed Pearlman invited him along on the June 1967 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 the National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA) and the seed to host an official Baja race, the Mexican 1000.

After the June Baja trip Miller accepted a scholarship to study law at a summer semester at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. At the end of the semester he received a call from Vic Hickey who had his number from Ed Pearlman. The two met in Detroit and Hickey offered Miller a job with him at General Motors. Miller figured it would be an interesting way to spend some time before resuming his studies and accepted. The project Hickey asked him to work on however lost its funding. GM provided a position for Miller to participate in evaluate their pick-up trucks. Six weeks later Hickey convinced George Hurst to provide private funding for his project and asked Miller to re-join him to fabricate the first purpose built off-road racer, the Baja Boot. Hickey led the team to fabricating the Baja Boot in just under a month’s time. The men involved work around the clock, sleeping when possible in beds in a loft above the garage and having meals brought to them. The vehicle needed to be ready for the first Mexican 1000 held October 31, 1967. Miller and Al Knapp would drive the car, they tested first in the California desert and then on the race course of Baja. The Boot had power and carried a lot of speed. Perhaps it carried too much speed as it suffered some serious mechanical problems including the failure of the rear suspension struts. The men had to drop out of the race.

Driving the Baja Boot provided Miller with some ideas of his own for designing off-road vehicles. After racing the Mexican 1000 he had missed the deadline to attend his law school classes for the fall semester, it turned out going back would wait indefinitely. He focused his energies instead on creating a single seat buggy in his small rented garage. He knew a light powerful vehicle could be just the tool to winning races. He scrounged parts, picked up an engine from a local junk yard which he rebuilt, paid a friend to weld the tubing and borrowed tires and wheels from Rodger Smith; in all he spent around $2,500 on the creation of the vehicle. He knew his idea would work and he raced the vehicle to second place at the first Mint 400. His placing was much to the dismay of many other participants who felt the unconventional vehicle “unfair.” He raced it at the Mexican 1000, again taking second. In 1969 he finished the Mexican 1000 in third over all and placed second yet again in the inaugural Baja 500. Despite winning some prize money at the events Miller found that he needed to get back to paying work. He joined a crew on a boat operated by Ocean Science Engineering and set off to Alaska to research oil and gas deposits. The work provided him with enough income to invest in a business of his own. In 1969 he and Stanford Havens opened their own shop, Miller-Havens Enterprises, specializing in engines, transmissions and conversion kits for Baja Bugs. Miller-Havens Enterprises created the Baja Bugs as an economical vehicle for driving and racing off-road. By modifying a Volkswagen Beatle by trimming the heavy fenders, lifting the rear and encasing the body in fiberglass he created a machine which a working person could afford. Many other companies followed their lead making kits to retro fit the exteriors of all types of vehicles so that they could operated off-road. The Baja Bug, while a great contribution to the sport, was not up to Miller’s racing standards and he did not race it competitively. He was still striving to perfect his single seated buggy.

In 1970 with some sponsorship from Dune Buggy Magazine, Miller found the ultimate success with his single seat buggy. Miller and Vic Wilson took turns driving the buggy to the over all win of the Mexican 1000. The men completed the course in 16 hours and seven minutes beating the next finisher by an hour and 17 minutes. Their time bested Wilson’s first win of the event in 1967 by 11 hours and 31 minutes. This innovative single seat buggy taking the win forced other front runners in racing to continually push the development of technology. Better technology had become the driving force which would allow the front runners to race faster. In regards to improving technology, Miller has stated “Every time you go to a race you better be better than you were the time before or else you will not be competitive.” Miller had proved to the automotive world that his ideas worked. By the mid 1970s Havens had pulled out of the business and Miller changed the name to Drino Miller Enterprises. He continued to build off-road vehicles and expanded his area of expertise to include sports cars and midgets with his eye on building Indy Cars. He demonstrated that he had great skills with race cars as well and ran teams at the Indianapolis 500 and at Les Mans. Recognizing his skills Andial approached Miller in 1985 to work on their sports car program. Miller worked with them during a period when their cars could do no wrong and finding great success at every race they entered from Daytona to Indianapolis. After four years of working with Andial, Miller joined the team at Toyota. Miller managed their Toyota Racing Development (TRD) Program for six years. At Toyota he worked with Dan Gurney who is the first driver ever to win races in the four major categories of (on-road) motorsports: Grand Prix, Indy Car, NASCAR and Sports Car. He also designed an unlimited vehicle for Rod Millen to race the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Millen’s record set in 1994 of ten minutes and 4.6 seconds still stands today.

Miller left Toyota in 1996. He continued working on a contractual basis with Pro Circuit as his major client. Always a motorcycle enthusiast he designed engine parts for the company and found him self working with yet another group of successful racers. He lived with his wife Lisa Gustafson in California and passed away March 4, 2014.

Sources: Telephone Interview with Drino Miller June 11, 2006.

Fiolka, Marty. 2005. 1000 Miles to Glory, The History of the Baja 1000. Pheonix, AZ.: David Bull Publishing.

To read Drino Miller’s Obituary from the Los Angeles Times, click here.