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Indy 500: Why does the Indianapolis 500 winner drink milk?

In contrast to other major motorsport events, the winner of the Indy 500 drinks milk. But how did this tradition come about?

Indycar series indianapolis 500 indycar 500 racingnews365 milk © xpb.cc

Milk at the Indy 500

During the 24th edition of the Indy 500 in 1936, significant changes were introduced. The Borg-Warner Trophy was established as the prestigious award for the winner, and the winner was also granted the official pace car. However, it was the actions of Louis Meyer, the victorious driver, immediately after the race that sparked an unusual tradition.

Louis Meyer, who was born in Manhattan and raised in Los Angeles, had already triumphed in the race twice before. After enduring over four and a half hours behind the wheel on a warm day in May, Meyer steered his Miller car into the Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Overwhelmed and fatigued, Meyer craved the refreshing and invigorating qualities of buttermilk, a belief instilled in him since his childhood.

Unbeknownst to many, the footage of Meyer's post-race celebration caught the attention of a shrewd marketer in the dairy industry. Mistakenly assuming it was milk that Meyer had consumed, this individual saw an opportunity. They initiated inquiries into establishing a tradition where Indy winners would drink milk following their victories.

The concept appeared to fade away initially, as when racing resumed after World War II, Wilbur Shaw, the next three-time winner and then president of the track, offered water to the victor. However, after Shaw tragically passed away in a plane crash in 1954, the tradition of milk-drinking was revived. At that time, the American Dairy Industry decided to provide a financial incentive of $400 to the winner and $50 to their chief mechanic if they were shown drinking milk in Victory Lane. It was quite an appealing offer.

According to Donald Davidson, the esteemed historian of the Speedway, luck played a role in solidifying the tradition. The 1956 winner, Pat Flaherty, suffered from a slight calcium deficiency and regularly consumed milk. After taking a hearty gulp of water from the Shaw cup, he proceeded to drink an entire bottle of milk and even requested a second one. The water in the Shaw cup continued to be offered for a couple more years until it was ultimately retired in favor of exclusively featuring milk.

Thus, the milk-drinking tradition was firmly established. However, in 1993, a hiccup occurred when Emerson Fittipaldi, after his second Indy win, declined the offered bottle of milk and instead chose to drink orange juice. He explained that he was promoting the Brazilian citrus drink industry, in which he had a stake. Unsurprisingly, this deviation from tradition did not sit well with motorsport fans, and Fittipaldi faced jeers from the crowd. It is rumored that his team owner, Roger Penske, convinced him to take a sip of the milk afterward, but the damage had already been done. To this day, there are Speedway enthusiasts who hold the incident against Fittipaldi. One person even claimed to have placed a curse on the Brazilian champion, which allegedly caused him to crash while leading in the closing stages of the race the following year.

Fittipaldi soon realized his public relations blunder, and the prize money received from the American Dairy Association was subsequently donated to a charity. Needless to say, a valuable lesson was learned, and it is highly unlikely that any future winner will make the same mistake.

Presently, prior to the race, every driver participating is asked by the Association which type of milk they prefer to drink if they make that triumphant trip to Victory Lane. The selection is pre-arranged. Even those who are lactose intolerant would not reject the opportunity to savor the iconic milk bottle and proudly wear the Borg-Warner wreath.

Dan Wheldon drinks milk after winning the Indianapolis 500. © xpb.cc

2024 Indy 500 milk choices

The American Dairy Association asks participants of the Indianapolis 500 in advance which milk they would like to drink upon winning the race. The choices include whole milk, semi-skimmed milk, or skimmed milk. The drivers' choices are available in the table below, in grid order.

2024 Indy 500 Milk Preferences

Driver Milk choice
Scott McLaughlin Whole
Will Power Whole
Josef Newgarden Whole
Alexander Rossi Whole
Kyle Larson Whole
Santino Ferrucci Whole
Rinus VeeKay Whole
Pato O'Ward 2%
Felix Rosenqvist Whole
Takuma Sato 2%
Kyle Kirkwood Whole
Ryan Hunter-Reay Whole
Colton Herta Whole
Alex Palou Whole
Callum Ilott Whole
Marcus Armstrong Whole
Ed Carpenter Whole
Kyffin Simpson Whole
Marco Andretti Whole
Helio Castroneves 2%
Scott Dixon Whole
Agustin Canapino Whole
Sting Ray Robb Whole
Christian Rasmussen Skim
Tom Blomqvist Whole
Romain Grosjean 2%
Linus Lundqvist Whole
Christian Lundgaard Skim
Conor Daly Whole
Pietro Fittipaldi Whole
Katherine Legge Whole
Marcus Ericsson Whole
Graham Rahal 2%
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