For those of you who haven’t spent time in Indiana during Memorial Day weekend, you may not know that the Indianapolis 500 is celebrated far and wide throughout the Hoosier state – and really throughout the world. Until you have attended the Indy 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it’s difficult to comprehend the importance of certain Indy 500 traditions, one being the drink of milk by the winning driver at the end of the race (also dubbed the “Sport World’s Coolest Prize” by Sports Illustrated). Before the start of the race, the ceremonies are so powerful–evoking so much emotion– ‘Ladies and Gentlemen. Start your engines’ gives me goose bumps each year.
The drinking of the milk is my favorite tradition (of course, I am a bit biased) but others include: the 500 Festival Parade, the Borg Warner Trophy, balloon release before the race, and the singing of ‘Back Home Again in Indiana.’
The milk tradition began with a simple request. When Louis Meyer, the first three-time winner, won his second Indy 500 in 1933, he asked for a cold glass of buttermilk to quench his thirst. Yes, buttermilk. Three years later, Louis repeated the win and was photographed drinking his buttermilk. For the next two decades, the Milk Foundation presented milk to race winners off and on. But in 1956, Tony Hulman made the Bottle of Milk a permanent part of the Victory Lane (now Circle) celebration.
Today American Dairy Association Indiana has the honor in helping to provide the milk that gets handed to the winning driver. Each year, an Indiana dairy farmer is selected to be the person who gets to hand over the bottle of ice cold milk to the winning driver. This is a two year commitment with the first year being a “rookie” year, and the second year being a “mentor” year. The rookie hands a bottle of milk to the winning driver’s chief mechanic and team owner; the “mentor” hands a bottle of milk to the winning driver.
The drivers are polled before to the race for their milk preference in the event they are the winner. The choices are between skim, 2% or whole. We don’t have the option of buttermilk today but have heard through the grapevine some drivers would choose that option if it were available. Proving how strong and meaningful the traditions are at the Indy 500!