Caked with sweat and the desert sand that had been lashing his face over hundreds of miles, Drino Miller rolled his hopped-up dune buggy to a stop. He was nine miles from the finish line of the 1970 Mexican 1000 – a grueling test for man and machine that he was achingly close to winning.
It was the middle of the night. He was miles ahead of a field that included racing legend Parnelli Jones and actor James Garner. He had roared past dozens of battered racing vehicles stuck on the torturous dirt roads and non-roads of Baja California, their engines blown, suspensions shot and drivers exhausted.
But even Miller, a self-taught automotive genius who helped pioneer off-road racing, couldn't run on empty.
Briefly marooned, he found a few locals with a gas can who eagerly sold him a gallon for roughly 30 times the going rate.
"The only money I had on me was a $10 bill," he told reporters after he and co-driver Vic Wilson won the 832-mile race in 16 hours and seven minutes. "I didn't hesitate giving it to them."
Miller, who went on to design advanced engines used in the Indianapolis 500 and other high-stakes contests, died of brain cancer March 3 at his Costa Mesa home, his wife Lisa Gustafson said. He was 72.
A tough guy who sailed the South Seas before he could legally drink, Miller had an imposing presence and could be both unnervingly forthright and surprisingly gentle.
"Shaking his hand was like shaking the hand of a bear," said Rod Hall, a veteran off-road racer who has competed in every Baja 1000 since the race's inception in the 1960s. "He was a gentle giant—but you wouldn't want to cross him."
"It wasn't about people's feelings," said Marty Fiokla, an off-road racing historian. "It was about: 'How do I make it lighter? How do I make it faster?' He was the first guy to elevate the sport from backyard mechanics to a true motorsports paradigm."
Miller is credited with building off-roading's first single-seat racing buggy. He also designed the Baja Bug, a modified Volkswagen Beetle that was cheap and sturdy enough to open up off-roading to the masses, according to the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.
In advanced engine design, Miller "sort of threw away the rule book and became very creative," celebrated racer and team owner Dan Gurney told The Times.
In the 1990s, Miller squeezed unprecedented power and torque from small engines that Gurney's teams used in big races. The innovations helped them win 17 consecutive races and set a still-unbeaten lap record at 24 Hours of Daytona, Gurney said.
"The fact that it was with a small, four-cylinder engine was already confounding a lot of the rule makers," Gurney said. "It wasn't supposed to do that."
Born in Los Angeles on July 30, 1941, Miller was the son of Lorenzo 'Pedro' Miller, an art professor at Long Beach City College, and Judith Ransom Miller, an industrial design teacher at UCLA.
His parents named him Drino after a close friend they called Padrino, a term in Spanish and Italian for godfather.
At age 10, Drino bought the hulk of a 1929 Model A sports coupe for $10 – the first in a lifelong succession of automotive puzzles he took apart and reassembled.
At 15, he dropped out of high school. Hoping to keep him out of trouble, his parents sent him to Tahiti, where he helped his older brother Lorenzo restore a yacht. After six months, the two island-hopped back to California.
On the mainland, the young Miller was adrift. After a scrape with the law and occasional jobs on abalone boats, he attended Monterey Peninsula College and graduated from UCLA in 1966 with a bachelor's degree in political science.
Along the way, he was introduced to rough-and-tumble Baja endurance races by his brother's friend Bruce Meyers, creator of the Meyers Manx dune buggy.
Miller's plan to earn a law degree at the University of Michigan fizzled. Through his off-roading connections, he was offered a fleeting job at General Motors. Shortly afterward, he worked on a secret team that, over six frenzied weeks, built the Baja Boot, the first racer designed specifically for off-roading.
His triumphs didn't come without pain. At a Baja race in 1970, he nearly choked to death on a wet handkerchief he'd stuffed in his mouth to keep the dust out of his lungs.
In 1971, he won the Mint 500, a desert race in Nevada, with parts extracted from a dozen new VW engines.
"After every race, Drino personally tears down the hopped-up VW engine until it's just a pile of greasy debris on the floor of his Costa Mesa plant," a Times writer observed. "He even X-rays the parts for flaws before reassembling the buggy for the next race."
He took the same meticulous approach to his later work developing parts and engines for Toyota Racing Development, Porsche racing specialist Andial, Gurney's All American Racers, and Pro Circuit motocross products.
"He was just incredibly thorough," said PJ Jones, a racing driver who attributed his 1993 Daytona win at least in part to Miller's engine.
In his later years, Miller enjoyed riding motorcycles at European rallies. Weeks after surgery following colon cancer about seven years ago, he rode in Ireland and broke his neck. That didn't keep him from later riding the "Route of 5000 Curves" rally in Spain.
Miller recently had four motorcycles and a motor scooter in his living room, along with trophies and racing memorabilia. In his garage, he was restoring a vintage Matchless motorcycle.
His day-to-day ride, though, was a Volkswagen Jetta station wagon.
"He wasn't really a car guy," said Gustafson, his wife of 31 years. "He just wanted something that would get him from A to B and that would start every morning."
In addition to his wife, Miller's survivors include his brother Chris. His first marriage ended in divorce.