Why do IndyCar winners drink milk? IndyCar, like any other sport, is deeply grounded in a tradition that is steeped in the long history of the 500-mile race. The race winner’s practice of drinking and bathing themselves with milk is one such practice. Although milk drinking isn’t the first thing that comes to the mind of winners, they are expected to honor the tradition – or risk getting booed by the crowds.
The rich tradition started in 1936, when winner Louis Meyer, who had won several races earlier, downed a bottle of buttermilk after his third Indy 500 win. Meyer was fond of drinking buttermilk to beat the summer heat, a practice he learned from his mother.
The next day, a photo of Meyer drinking milk appeared in a newspaper and caught the attention of executives from the dairy industry, who identified a marketing opportunity.
The executive approached Indy 500 with a proposition that milk should be given to the winner of the Indy 500 every year. This officially kickstarted the tradition, although it was briefly interrupted from 1947 to 1955 by three-time Indy 500 winner Wilber Shaw who requested players to drink “Water from Wilbur.”
Shaw died in a plane crash in 1954, and the dairy industry used the opportunity to reintroduce milk by offering a $400 bonus to winners if they drank their milk. Since then, milk drinking has been a permanent fixture at IndyCar events since 1956, with a few exceptions.
Drivers can choose from whole, skilled, or semi-skimmed milk. Lactose-free milk is also available as a secret fourth option if the drivers request it. An ice-cold bottle of each variation is kept in a refrigerator under watchful eyes. Polls indicate that most drivers request a bottle of whole milk.
Drivers can’t have any flavors in the milk, such as peppermint or caramel. However, if a driver is lactose intolerant, they can drink lactose-free milk.
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A designated person, known as the Veteran Milk Person, delivers milk to the winning driver.
The American Dairy Association of Indiana (ADAI) is asked to manage the milk celebration by voting in the designated “milk person,” who is asked to make a three-year commitment. Milk persons are professional dairy farmers.
After being voted in as the Rookie elect for the first year, the Milk Person gets promoted to the Rookie Milk Person and is asked to deliver the milk bottle to the winning team’s owner and chief mechanic.
The next year, they become the Veteran Milk Person who delivers the milk bottle to the winning driver. This year’s Veteran Milk Person is Tim Haynes from Garrett.
The duties of a Veteran Milk Person may sound simple until you realize that the role requires them to arrive at the track with the cooler by 6 AM sharp. Security guards surround the milk person, primarily for publicity reasons. The ADAI has been known for pulling extravagant stunts to promote the event.
One time, the bottle of milk arrived in an armored vehicle. Another year, the milk was surrounded by bodyguards for protection (all actors hired by the ADAI). For 2022, the milk veterans will be escorted by the police to the event, where they will get to interact with the fans and further promote the event.
The milk is then taken to a ‘secure location’ that gives them a good vantage point of the race. A few laps later, the milk persons make their way to the presentation area, where they wait for the winner to emerge.
Once the winner receives the checkered flag, the milk people use the poll to see the winner’s preference and retrieve the correct bottle from the cooler.
Who Refused Milk At The Indy 500?
Emerson Fittipaldi was the only driver who dared to break the tradition of drinking milk in 1993. He opted to drink orange juice because he was promoting a Brazilian beverage business that he was involved in.
Fittipaldi was heavily booed by the crowd and finally buckled under pressure to drink the milk (after being asked by his team owner, Roger Penske). That following year, Fittipaldi crashed his car in the race’s final laps. He survived the accident but was heavily criticized for bucking the trend.
All drivers have learned from Fittipaldi’s PR disaster and make sure to respect the tradition.
Buttermilk is no longer an option for winners of the IndyCar 500, even though Louis Meyer heavily preferred it. This is primarily because the formula for buttermilk has undergone several changes throughout the decades and no longer tastes the same way. It has a sour taste that isn’t very palatable to drivers.
Meyer used to drink what was left over from the butter his mother made. The buttermilk was rich, smooth, and delicious. But that is no longer the case because buttermilk is produced at large-scale plants while the old-fashioned buttermilk is very perishable. Buttermilk, as it is mass-produced in factories today, is mainly used as a cooking ingredient.
Milk drinking at the IndyCar 500 is an accolade in its own right, even if the drivers aren’t fond of drinking milk. Every participating driver wants the honor of becoming a part of the rich legacy and joining the ranks of winners who did it before them.
Many winners fondly display their bottles on display at their homes or offices like trophies. Four-time Indy 500 winner Castroneves made a slight modification to the tradition. After winning his first Indy 500, Castroneves took a few sips of the milk before dunking the bottle on his head. Many drivers have done the same in his example.
The only problem with throwing milk on a now-sweaty suit is the smell. Drivers often have to keep their firesuits on for media presentations several hours after the ceremony. It can be a humbling experience for drivers to carry the stench of milk wherever they go.