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INDY 500

Why does the Indy 500 winner drink milk? and other interesting facts

We take a look at some of the weird and wonderful things that make the Indianapolis 500 one of the sporting world’s greatest traditions

Jeffrey May
Update:
We take a look at some of the weird and wonderful things that make the Indianapolis 500 one of the sporting world's greatest traditions
Icon SportswireGetty

Tradition. It is what makes great institutions legendary. The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, the playing of the last post at the Menin Gate, the firing of the Noonday Gun in Hong Kong. Tradition lends gravitas to an enterprise.

And so it is in sports. Playing at Wimbledon in all white, lining up to receive the Haka when facing the All Blacks, standing for the National Anthem before the Super Bowl. The great sporting traditions are hallowed and beloved by fans the world over.

The Indianapolis 500, while itself one of the great sporting traditions, is also the home of several others that have found their way into the common lexicon. “Gentlemen, start your engines” is a command known the world over, and was first brought to us at the 1953 Indy 500. It has become so entrenched in the sport that it is synonymous with the very concept of motor racing.

The two-and-a-half mile long circuit is full of surprises and wonderful tidbits. Built in 1909, it is colloquially known as the Brickyard, due to its original construction material. The lasting monument to this era of its life is in the one-yard strip of bricks that remain at the start-finish line. The speedway has hosted Formula One Grand Prix and Moto GP in years gone by, as well as annually hosting two IndyCar races and the Brickyard 400.

The largest oval track in the United States, the track covers an immense area of ground, so big that there is no point on the entire oval where it is all in view. The Taj Mahal, both houses of Parliament and the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier could all fit inside at the same time and still have tons of space left over. The neighboring Brickyard Crossing Golf Course has holes 7 through 10 inside the oval of the race track.

Another strange and wonderful tradition at Indy is the drinking of milk by the victor. Sure, Formula One might spray a giant magnum of Champagne from the podium, but how wasteful, how gauche. Not as wholesome and, well, American as drinking milk. Everyone knows that it does a body good, right?

This little tradition was started by one of motor sport’s early legends, Louis Meyer. When he won his second Indy 500 in 1933, he drank a glass of cold buttermilk, as was his lifelong habit, in Victory Lane. In 1936, he won his third Indy 500 and took a swig from the bottle itself. A dairy industry executive saw the photo in the newspaper the following day and recognized the immense marketing potential in the act.

The executive arranged for cold milk to be made available to every winner of the race until Wilbur Shaw intervened in 1947, establishing the short-lived “Water from Wilbur” ceremony whereby he presented the winner with a silver cup of water. After his tragic death in 1954, the milk industry got back into the race by offering the winner a $400 bonus if they drank milk in Victory Lane. With such an incentive, the winning drivers began to comply and has made the practice an annual fixture at the event.

In 1993, Emerson Fittipaldi chose to drink orange juice instead as a promotion for the citrus industry in his native Brazil, and the outcry was such that he was booed by fans in the stands and had to issue a formal apology in the following days.

While drinking cold milk is not usually done outside of the United States, all drivers, regardless of their national origin, have respected the tradition and can even request the type of milk they prefer. They can’t have any flavors in the milk, like chocolate or strawberry, but can opt for a lactose-free drink if they so choose. Buttermilk, alas, is not available as one of the choices. Louis Meyer would be devastated.

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