Why Indy 500 milk? How tradition of victory lane celebration started

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The 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 takes place on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (watch the 2020 Indy 500 on NBC and the NBC Sports app).  Year after year, we’ve watched the winners celebrate their victory by taking a swig of milk on the podium and sometimes even topping off the moment of triumph by pouring it on their heads … but how exactly did the Indy 500 milk tradition begin?

How Indy 500 milk tradition began

In 1933, after earning his second Indy 500 win, Louis Meyer requested a glass of buttermilk—a drink he often had as a refresher on hot days. In 1936, Meyer claimed his third Indy 500 title and this time, he was photographed with a glass of buttermilk in one hand and holding three fingers up on the other. The photo appeared in the paper the following day, catching the attention of a dairy industry executive who requested that milk would be available to the winner each year. It took some time for the tradition to stick. From 1947-1955, the winner received water in a silver cup, normally presented by track president and three-time Indy 500 winner Wilbur Shaw, with the words ‘Water from Wilbur’ engraved on the cup.

In 1956, with Shaw having perished in a private plane crash in October 1954, the dairy industry posted a $400 bonus to the winner if they chose to drink milk in Victory Circle. And while the Shaw cup did remain for a few more years, milk has been part of the Indy 500 tradition ever since. Today, winners receive a $10,000 bonus from the American Dairy Association of Indiana.

Do you have to drink milk?

While drivers do have the choice, fans take the milk tradition very seriously. In 1993, driver and successful orange grove owner Emerson Fittipaldi wanted to promote the citrus industry and drank a bottle of orange juice after his second Indy 500 win. Fittipaldi was booed by fans, even after taking a sip of milk in an attempt to appease them. The decision tarnished his image for a period of time, and even got him booed at other IndyCar races.

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Can drivers make requests?

Yes. Every year, each driver is polled before the race to see what type of milk (whole, 2% or fat-free) they would like if they were to win the event. Flavors are not allowed, but drivers can request lactose-free milk if they have an intolerance.

Who delivers the Indy 500 milk?

There are two designated milk people—dairy farmers voted in from the American Dairy Association of Indiana’s board with a two-year term. The rookie milk person brings milk to the winning mechanic and owner, while the second-year milk person delivers the milk to the winner of the race. In previous years, the milk and milk people have been transported with a police escort or armored truck.

Tune into the race on Sunday, August 23rd at 1 p.m. ET on NBC to find out who will be drinking the milk in Victory Circle.