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Diane Miller

Pioneering Snowmobile Racer Diane Miller Keeps Her Passion For The Sport

By Keri Guten Cohen,  Contributing Writer

Talk for any amount of time to Diane Miller and you can easily tell what she’s made of. Hard-working, generous, spirited and loyal, this 79-year-old still exudes the strength of character and mind that made her a pioneering snowmobile racer.

Diane broke many gender barriers in this still male-dominated sport. In 1977, for example, she made international history as the first woman to race in the International 500 Snowmobile Race in Sault Ste. Marie — the so-called “granddaddy” of snowmobile enduro races. She also has been inducted into two snowmobile halls of fame. True to her love of the sport, she continues to encourage young female racers to make their own marks on the tracks here in Michigan, Wisconsin and Canada.      

It was her years on the family farm that shaped not only her determined and competitive spirit, but also her integrity. Her Czech grandparents, who arrived in Ellis Island, bought the 80-acre farm in New Lothrop. Born in nearby Owosso, Diane grew up the only child of Martin and Velma Zubek. Her birth name was Dianna, “but no one has ever called me that but my parents.”

Diane Miller

Diane Miller

“I had no siblings,” she said. “I was it! There was all the farming, the cattle, milking, feeding the chickens, hogs, ducks and geese. There was no one to help me. My parents worked outside the farm. I got supper ready. When they came home from work, everything started. Before I walked to school, Mom and I fed and milked the cows. “

“That’s what all of us did in the neighborhood. I was used to doing things by myself and I was always strong from working on the farm. My upper body strength was there, and my determination was there to pursue things off the farm.”

Diane went to high school in Chesaning and was in the first graduating class of the new high school there. “I wanted to be an airline stewardess, but my dad flew planes and had one at the farm. There were too many crashes, so he said no,” Diane recalled.She didn’t go to college but says that at that time the only thing a girl could do was become a nurse, secretary or teacher. “That was it! So, I became a secretary.”

She was competitive even then. “I was the fastest in dictation and typing at 125 words per minute on a manual typewriter. Maybe it wasn’t competition, but goals. On the farm, I completed things and didn’t leave things unfinished. That’s just my makeup.”

Diane Miller

Diane Miller

Diane Miller

Testing the Track

After buying two snowmobiles in 1967 and riding for a while, her father introduced Diane to non-sanctioned races and the people who frequented them. Her parents, always important to her, went with her everywhere. By 1970, she was competing in summer grass drag races, winning more than 50 trophies on the K&M Kart Shop team, according to her Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame bio. The next year, she joined Sully’s Chaparrals out of Lansing. Then she won two major class wins in the MISA Invitational riding Sno-Jet sleds owned by Jim Adema.

“Those grass drag races cropped up here and there around Clio and they always had a big turnout,” Diane said. She met her husband, William “Bill” Miller, at one of those non-sanctioned racetracks. He and her father were two of her greatest supporters. 

“I did Powder Puff races for women, but there weren’t that many girls who raced and often none showed up,” she said. “I would go to an event and there was no one to race against. I couldn’t race, just visit. I went on to winter oval racing from the summer grass drag — again there were just a few women. Then that dwindled. I would travel 1,000 miles up and back to the UP and to Rhinelander, Wisconsin, then there would be no Powder Puff race. We’d turn around and go home. It was frustrating — but then you do something different.”

The new strategy was to work within the system. She and Bill had traveled several times to Clare, Michigan, to address the board of the Michigan International Snowmobile Association.

“I had brought it up to them several times about traveling and not being able to race,” Diane recalled. “Bill raced and I sat and watched. I finally got on the board (in 1973).

“I told them enough times that I wanted to race with the guys, that I was tired of sitting on the sidelines. One man I raced said, ‘Let her go ahead and race, and we’ll just run her off the track.’ Then it started. People knew of me and knew I was getting into ovals and cross-country and enduros.

“From Day 1, I knew I was fighting for all women,” she said. “I would talk to the women and say your husbands and boyfriends are out there. A few women tried — one in New York and another in Wisconsin, I think. They were well-known, too. In Michigan, it depended on how far you wanted to go. Each step … there were just a few women.

“Men have more upper body strength than women, but I tell (female riders): ‘If you think you have the determination and upper body strength, if you want to, do it!’ I always tell them that, even today,” she said.

As she began racing with men, she says she didn’t really get negative responses from them.

“I proved I could race with them. I wasn’t out there to get a name, but for the competition, the fun of the race,” Diane said. “I love snowmobiles and they knew that. Right on up to the I-500, the respect was there and is still there because they are great people, and these are great races.”

Husband Bill says there is no problem with women competing with men. “But I couldn’t compete with her,” he offered during a phone interview from their home on the family farm. “She was always ahead of me. I’m proud of her; she’s done a lot.”

And she countered, “He’s always been my greatest supporter. He always did all my (mechanical) work for me. That means a lot.”

Their oldest daughter, Tina, was involved in racing snowmobiles and minibikes. Her younger daughter, Tammy, didn’t race, but both have been around it since they were little. So far, none of the grandchildren are into racing, Diane says, but there’s hope for the nine great-grands.

Diane Miller

Diane Miller

Making Racing History

As Diane continued opening doors, she competed in higher-level races. In 1972, she qualified for the 100-mile Powder Puff Race, where she competed for the first time on the legendary Soo I-500 racetrack. She came in seventh.

Because there were few female racers, Miller began competing with men on the winter sprint and enduro circuits, according to her bio in the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame. Also, in 1972, she won first at the Whiskey Creek Enduro and placed second at the Traverse City Mini-Enduro.

In 1974, she became the first woman to race in the professional SnoPro circuit in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, leading the pack early in the race.

According to the Hall of Fame bio, 1975 was a very successful year for Diane. She won three MISA Class State Championships, was the MISA Overall High Point Snowmobile Champion (men and women combined) and earned the coveted MISA Driver of the Year — and the huge trophy that went with it.

But it was in 1977 that Miller made snowmobile history by becoming the first woman to race in the International 500. Prior to that she had been a backup driver for Roger Anderson’s team at the I-500. But, in 1977, she qualified 33rd out of 50 sleds with a blazing time of 75.1 mph.

“We drove all night to get to the qualifier the next morning,” Diane recalled. “We got there at daybreak and there had been a storm the night before. We came down one of the hills by the track and the truck slipped over on a high snowbank. I got enough snow out and was trying to push the truck over to get traction and my leg got under the tire.

“I went to the ER and I had first- and second-degree burns and all the ligaments were torn from my toes to my knee. I had a really rough time. I was going to have to bend that leg on the running board. It was getting dark. I either had to qualify or go home. I got on it and qualified. No one knew [about the injury].

“When we started to race a week later, the doctor had me wrap it well. I never told anyone — not until now. I thought they wouldn’t let me race.”

Unfortunately, mechanical trouble forced Diane out of the race at 48 laps. But she still recalls the thrill of that first I-500.

“You had to start your own machine out there,” she said. “I didn’t know what to expect because the snow dust made visibility difficult. Driving backup, I knew what it was like. All this is pressing on you mentally and physically, but I love the track. It’s the most prestigious in the U.S.

“On the back straightaway you can get over 100 mph. One year, they opened the track for people to take a sled out and get a feel for the I-500. I made sure Bill and the girls did it. You can’t possibly imagine what that back straightaway is like. I liked going that fast. Speed never bothered me. I never had the fear of racing.”

Steve Landon of Farwell, co-founder of Winning Edge magazine with his late wife, Sherry, has been covering snowmobile racing for decades.

“When I saw Diane racing, she gave the guys the run for their money,” he said. “She was not lap traffic, but a fighter. She stayed right out there. Diane was tough and is a remarkable person with a heart of gold. When I saw her race, she was an incredible racer; she went out there to win.”

Diane Miller

Retirement and Beyond
Diane Miller retired from snowmobile racing in 1983 to care for her father, who had cancer. She may have given up racing, but not her role as an ambassador for the sport. She and Bill began the A-1 Swap & Show more than 20 years ago, and it’s still held the first weekend in November at Auto City Speedway in Clio.

The well-regarded event features antique, vintage and new sleds and other snowmobile-related items, and brings people together to swap, buy, sell and talk about snowmobiling.

Diane enjoys meeting new people and promoting the sport, especially among young people. The Millers created the A-1 Special Youth Achievement Award to encourage youth snowmobiling. 

“My biggest, biggest thing is getting the kids involved in events and snowmobiles, to teach them how to ride in the proper way and to keep them out of trouble,” she said. “They need to know where all this started and where it’s going today. I bring the past along and let people know how it evolved, and let them know lots of businesses, people and manufacturers are involved.”

Despite rheumatoid arthritis, Diane still works full time at her A-1 Upholstery business she runs with her daughter, Tammy. The business helped support her racing efforts. Though she had promoted Ski-Doo products, she was not paid; she did get help with parts and with knowledge. 

“Hard work, determination, positive thinking and goals, that’s what motivates me,” Diane said. “I’ve been asked if I have a bucket list, but I don’t. I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted to do and I’m still enjoying it. I love the sleds, the sport and the people. I would race today if I weren’t too old. That’s how much I love it.”

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