The Indianapolis 500, affectionately referred to as “Indy 500” by fans, is the oldest automobile racing track in the United States. The course itself was built by a team headed by Carl G. Fisher and was intended to serve as a test track for car manufacturers to gauge the top speed of their vehicles.
The organization held its first 500-mile motor race in 1911, which drew in 80,000 race fans. While originally built over rough bricks and stone, the track has been refined over the years so that each driver can race safely and give a good show to the audience.
Each racing league has its own set of traditions that make it stand out from the rest. The Indianapolis 500 features one that is really unique, the drinking of a tall glass of milk after a big win. How did this unconventional tradition get started? And why is it still around today?
The drinking of the milk
When a driver wins a race, they don’t get to drink just any plastic bottle of milk from a grocery store. The milk is purchased from local farmers and comes in glass bottles. These bottles are engraved with the names of the team’s owner, the winning driver, and the team’s chief mechanic.
These local farmers are referred to as the “milk people” by Indy 500 officials. They’re entrusted with transporting and delivering the milk to each match. The Indy 500 takes this very seriously, giving the farmers a police escort to make sure that the milk is safe leading up to the big moment.
There are two designated milk people: one to present the milk to the mechanic and the team owner, and another to hand off the beverage to the driver. These two individuals are chosen by their fellow dairy farmers based on their hard work and dedication to their profession.
How it began
The tradition was started by Louis Meyer in 1933. After winning that year’s race, he asked for a glass of buttermilk, since his mother had always told him to drink it to cool down on a hot day. He did it again after winning the race in 1936, this time drinking the milk out of a glass bottle.
An executive from the Milk Foundation (later known as the American Dairy Association) found the photos of Meyer drinking the milk and was inspired to make it a tradition for each Indianapolis 500 winner. In 1956, the organization became a sponsor of the race purse, offering an additional $10,000 as an incentive for drivers to drink milk after winning the race.
Why it stuck around
In addition to the sponsorship from the dairy industry, the tradition became popular with both the racing drivers and fans. Each year, the 33 racecar drivers are polled to find out what kind of milk they’d like to drink should they win. Even though the tradition started with buttermilk, flavored milk is not an option, including strawberry or chocolate milk. Winners can choose between fat-free, whole, or 2%.
One notable racer who went against tradition was Emerson Fittipaldi in 1993, who chose to drink orange juice instead. While it made sense to him as the owner of an orange grove, the spectators were not pleased. After fans expressed their disapproval by booing him from the stands, he drank the bottle of milk as well.
Whether the drivers enjoy milk or not, a swig of something cold after an intense race is always appreciated. While other racing leagues break up their matches over a period of time, Indy 500 drivers tackle the 200 laps in just one race, earning it the title of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”