Memorial Day weekend is upon us and, with it, the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500. While open-wheel racing has struggled to capture the attention of the average American sports fan since the CART-IRL split of 1996, the Indy 500 remains a transcendent event, rich in pageantry and tradition.
Moments after crossing the finish line under the checkered flag, this year’s winner, like dozens before him (or her), will remove his (or her) helmet and participate in one of the Brickyard’s oldest traditions—one that predates the Borg-Warner Trophy, Jim Nabors singing “Back Home Again in Indiana,” and the Andretti curse—by taking a swig of milk from a glass bottle.
The tradition dates back to 1933, when driver Louis Meyer requested a glass of buttermilk after winning the 21st Indianapolis 500, his second career win at the Brickyard. Meyer won the race again in 1936 and again requested a glass of buttermilk, but this time he didn’t get a glass, he got a bottle. According to legend, a local Indianapolis dairy saw a picture of Meyer drinking from a milk bottle and saw a marketing opportunity.
Unaware that Meyer had been drinking buttermilk, the dairy in question presented a bottle of regular milk to 1937 race winner Wilbur Shaw. This practice of awarding a milk bottle to the Indy 500 winner continued until 1941 then resumed in 1946. (There was no race from 1942 through 1945 because of World War II.)
The milk tradition then took a break from 1947 through 1955, but a bottle has been presented to every race winner since 1956. Indy 500 champions today have the choice of whole milk, skim milk or 2 percent fresh from an Indiana dairy farm and served in a commemorative glass bottle.
In 1993 second-time winner Emerson Fittipaldi created controversy when he refused the milk and instead took a swig from a bottle of orange juice. Fittipaldi eventually atoned for his transgression by drinking some milk during the post-race celebration.
You can watch Fittipaldi diss the milkman in this video, which is in Portuguese:
The Milk Promotions Board of the American Dairy Association of Indiana selects two dairy farmers each year to provide milk for the event. One serves milk to the race winner, while a second—the “rookie” milkman or milk woman—serves the owner of the winning car and the chief mechanic. Following a farmer’s rookie season, he or she gets a promotion and the opportunity to hand a cold bottle of milk to the next year’s winning driver.
This year’s Indy 500 milkman is Duane Hill of Fountain City, Indiana. The 2013 rookie is Ken Hoeing of Rushville, Indiana, who will be attending his first Indianapolis 500.
While the very thought of chugging a bottle of milk after three hours of driving at high speeds while confined to a tight space and wearing a fire suit makes me nauseous, most of the drivers don’t seem to share my repulsion. When asked about the milk following his first win in 2007, three-time winner Dario Franchitti said that it was, “Good. Really good. They chill it and it’s very cold. I went for full fat inside and then I went outside in Victory Circle after the rain stopped and I had another bottle and I think that was 2 percent. That was good as well. I was liking the milk.”