Indianapolis 500 Traditions: The History Of The Race And Its Quirks

May 20, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; General view of the Borg Warner Trophy during bump day for the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

The Indianapolis 500 is a unique event steeped in tradition. How those traditions came about may surprise you.

As annual sporting events go, much of the time their popularity follows decades of tradition unique to that event.

To the general public, the Kentucky Derby evokes thoughts of mint juleps first, and horse racing second.

The opening ceremonies of the Olympics almost always draw a larger television audience than any gold-medal event.

March Madness is the best excuse to skip out of work early on a Thursday in hopes of catching an upset, even if you have no idea what college basketball teams are participating.

For the Indianapolis 500, there are no shortages of hooks to lure you in to the fantastic event.

Since 1911 the race, held at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has become steeped in tradition that resonates with even the most casual of sports fans, all which give credence to the importance and impact of sport in the American culture.

The Indianapolis 500, let's be honest, is really about a bottle of milk.

In 1933, race winner Louis Meyer sparked the tradition when he asked for a glass of buttermilk in the victory lane. The request was the result of years of advice from his mother who told him it was the best way to handle the heat.

Three years later Meyer took the checkered flag again, once again requesting milk but by no means convincing subsequent race winners to mimic the act.

In fact, the actual tradition of the race winner being handed a bottle of milk is a bit contrived.

In 1936, following Meyer's send Indy 500 victory, a local dairy company executive recognized the opportunity to turn the drink into a marketing and advertising golden goose. But winning racers weren't necessarily panting for a swig of milk. Instead, dairy companies became sponsors of the event to ensure their brand was prominently placed in front of the media and race participants.

Over time the novelty of drinking milk before receiving the Borg-Warner Trophy became accepted by racers -- who wouldn't gladly accept a glass of cold milk amid sweltering heat and humidity? -- and thus the tradition grew into what it is now.

Today, the Indy 500 winner swigging (or just dousing themselves) from a bottle of milk is the most indelible image of the annual event, and it all started from someone who just wanted to quench his thirst.

But before racers can even think about that, there are a number of unique pre-race events and build-up that you'll only find in and around the Brickyard on Memorial Day weekend.

On the Friday before the race, each qualified team participates in a final practice session, known at Carburetor Day.

Until 1955, this meant a fine-tune of each car's engine to ensure optimal performance for race day. But even though IndyCars do not use carburetors anymore, the name has stuck, and it's used to signify the final day of practice when all 33 participating cars can be on the track at the same time.

Race officials open up the Speedway to the public to take in the event, and it's grown to become more of a celebration, as concerts and the annual Pit Stop Competition ensues once the cars move off the track.

As Carb Day turns into Carb Night, all racers attend two major parties in an attempt to loosen the nerves and laud participants.

The most fun is the Last Row Party. More of a roast, the Last Row Party raises money for charity and is an opportunity for attendees to toss light jabs at the three racers who will start the race last in the pack.

The goal is to get the racers to at least blush, if not laugh at themselves, but we all know it's not where you start but where you finish, as eight Last Row drivers have actually won the Indianapolis 500 since the party began back in 1972.

After two nights of what's probably not quality sleep, the racers awake on Sunday morning with emotions fluctuating between angst and excitement.

It's race day! And while fans have a beer or 17 in the Snake Pit, race teams prepare for the grueling 200-lap, 500-mile trek.

Before the racers zig and zag between and around one another, they are carefully arranged in marching order.

Since 1933, each Indianapolis 500 has had at least 33 starters (the exceptions being in 1979 and 1997, when controversies in both years resulted in 35 starters). The racers are famously introduced to the crowd by the PA announcer in 11 rows of three, a starting-line arrangement that, while certainly a tradition, is actually the result of a1919 mandate from AAA, which requires one car for every 400 feet of racetrack.

Following the introductions, the racers take a few pace laps to get moving and correctly assembled based on their qualifying time. From there, they'll follow the race's pace car before the green flag goes up.

The concept of a pace car, a fundamental part of any IndyCar or NASCAR race, was first introduced to professional racing for the inaugural Indy 500.

In 1911, the Speedway's builder and owner, Carl Fisher, believed that allowing racers to build up a moderate speed before the race actually began was a far safer method than cars grinding their engines and going full speed after standing still. Additionally, the rolling start would gradually warm up all the key elements to an IndyCar.

Since Fisher drove the pace car for the first five years, being handed the keys and serving as the center of attention just before than true race began has put a number of racing legends and celebrities in the driver's seat. From Louis Chevrolet to General Colin Powell, driving the pace car for such a prestigious race has become one of the more unique elements in the sport of racing.

As the race goes on, the revelry in and around the track continues. A racer or two is likely to flame out. A favorite will challenge the checkered flag. A newbie to the sport will create buzz.

It's these traditions leading up to and during the Indianapolis 500 that makes the jostling so intense and the race so important, knowing that a bottle of skim, whole or two percent milk awaits the winner to commence the celebrations.

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