Seven years ago today, the car world lost one of the truly greats, Chip Miller.
I met Chip during a family vacation to Ocean City, NJ when I was 15. I was riding my bike when I came across a red, 1990 Corvette ZR-1 in the driveway of one of the many ginormous houses that sit on the beach. I'd never seen a ZR-1 in person, so I stopped to gaze at it from the sidewalk.
As if on cue, the garage door opened up, and a man backed out a loud, black Cobra. My jaw hit the ground. He must have seen my reaction, because he looked over, and beckoned me over with a broad smile. We chatted about cars while he hosed off the Cobra (which turned out to be a replica - but he had two real ones "back home"). Two of the things that struck me as instantly cool about him was that by age 30, Chip had owned a Ferrari Daytona. And he'd returned a then-new Viper because of it's overwhelming awfulness. Yes, he was a car guy's car guy.
"Have you ever seen a Callaway Speedster?" he asked. I knew there had been only 10 twin-turbo ones made, that Otis Chandler owned #1, and that they were the hottest Corvettes ever.
"Just in magazines," I said with a shrug. He beckoned me into the garage, where a second garage door was installed on the back wall that opened into the first floor of the house. He opened the door, and sitting there was Chip's Callaway Corvette Speedster, which was #10 and only had a handful of miles on it at the time. As if that wasn't amazing enough, next to it was the C4 Corvette that won the first Corvette Challenge Series race in 1988 (it was the red Doug Rippie car at the top of the link - Ed.). By comparison, the white 1987 Porsche Speedster was fairly mundane in such company. On the back wall was a Chevrolet promo model of every year Corvette, and at least a thousand books on cars.
It was all an amazing experience, not just because of the cars, but because Chip seemed like such a genuine nice guy.
I ran back and told my parents about what had happened. "So what's he do?" they asked. I admitted that I didn't know. "Well, you should go back and find out what he does that he can afford all these great cars!" It was their way of inspiring me. Their philosophy was that if someone out there was living your dream, find out how they made it there.
I admit I was a bit embarrassed to knock on Chip's door again. "Could I interview you?" I asked. He laughed, but invited me in. We sat upstairs at the kitchen table, and talked about his life.
Chip had graduated from a junior college, and was able to scrape up enough money to invest it with a business partner, Bill Miller (no relation - Ed.). Together, they bought a large plot of land in Carlisle, PA that came to be known as the Carlisle Fairgrounds. They started hosting events like antique shows, and eventually turned to the automotive world, which now is the primary focus of the venue.
If you've ever been to a Carlisle Events show, you've probably seen Chip wandering the crowd. I'd often look him up (and even ran across him at a non-Carlisle show), and was thrilled when he'd recognize me, and ask questions about things that only he and I would have discussed. To a young car enthusiast, it really meant a lot, and made you feel special.
I don't remember where I first saw it, but I was terribly upset to read of his death. Chip had been diagnosed with a rare disease called Amyloidosis. From what I'd read, it attacks the body and leads to a miserable state of life. In Chip's case, it had attacked a number of his organs very quickly, and he passed away in a matter of weeks.
My own father would pass away two years later, but at the time, I felt like I had lost another father figure. I couldn't help thinking how tragic it was that such a wonderful, caring, and genuinely nice guy would have been given such an awful ending to his life. It didn't seem to be a fair fate for such a good person.
Not long afterward, I was attending a Carlisle show and I ran into his son, Lance. I had practiced what I thought I might say if I saw him. It sounded great in my head, but instead I found myself fumbling over my words. "I know you don't know who I am, but your Dad was really great, and I enjoyed meeting him, and..."
"Of course, I remember you! You came upstairs at the beach house and talked with him. He was thrilled that someone so young would be that interested in him," he said.
I once read that one of the things that Chip wanted to do was to make a difference in peoples' lives. Chip definitely made a difference in mine, and is one of the people that I credit with making me the car enthusiast that I am today.
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For more information on Amyloidosis, and the Chip Miller Charitable Foundation, please visit http://chipmiller.org/.
Check back here for a photo soon - just need to scan it in. - Ed.