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Indy 500: Why do winning drivers celebrate by drinking milk?

Indianapolis 500 Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images

A long-standing tradition of the Indianapolis 500 is for the winner to drink a bottle of milk right after finishing.

The race is run annually in late May, when Indianapolis Motor Speedway is generally quite hot. Add to that the heat that comes from driving an also-hot IndyCar for three-plus hours and you don’t get optimal milk-drinking conditions. Not by a longshot.

But it’s still a tradition, if a weird one. And here’s why it exists.

Who started it?

Louis Meyer, a three-time winner of the race and an International Motorsports Hall of Famer, started the tradition, though he didn’t necessarily mean to. After winning the 1933 iteration of the race, he asked for a glass of buttermilk because his mother recommended it for hot days.

This is something he did again the next time he won the race in 1936. That time, he drank from a glass milk bottle. It was his third Indy 500 victory, and he was the first person to do so. After 1936, a few other drivers drank milk after winning the race.

But why is it a tradition?

An executive with what was then known as the Milk Foundation happened upon a photograph showing Meyer drinking from the glass milk bottle after the race, and according to the race track’s lore, vowed then and there that the image was too good to leave alone. He “vowed” to make sure the drinking of the milk was observed after the Indy 500 going forward, though there was a long stretch of time where it was not done in any official capacity.

That changed in 1956, when milk companies became sponsors of the race purse and promoted their product by awarding the winning driver a bottle of milk. Currently, there is a $10,000 award paid out by the American Dairy Association of Indiana if the winner of the Indy 500 drinks milk in the victory lane. This is the same organization that manages the logistics behind the tradition today, and they take it very, very seriously.

How seriously?

Well, on the day of the race, there are a couple different people in charge of guarding, transporting and delivering the milk, which comes in very nice, engraved glass bottles. These people are referred to as “milk people”, and they’re all dairy farmers voted into the role by ... other dairy farmers. Dairy farmers that work, essentially, every day of the week to produce milk and other goods. Yeah, they take it pretty seriously.

Not only are the Milk People almost definitely the subject of a bad horror movie from the ‘70s, there is also a pecking order. Each year, there are two Milk People. One rookie, who will award bottles of milk to the winning car owner and chief mechanic. And one second-year (Milk Person?), who actually gets to award the bottle of milk to the winning driver.

The rookie is, ostensibly, training for their big moment the following year, when they get to present milk to the driver. In recent years, the bottles of milk have been transported with either a police escort or an armored truck. The milk arrives at the race track, where it is guarded until the end of the race nears, at which point it is placed in a cooler.

The drivers get to pick their type of milk, with a caveat

You want strawberry milk? How about chocolate milk? Well, the answer is no, at least officially. The 33 drivers who qualify for the Indy 500 are polled before the race on whether they want whole milk, 2 percent or fat-free milk.

Here’s the poll results for the 2017 iteration of the race, of course courtesy of ADAI:

All milk is delivered ice cold, and .... well, it’s probably oddly refreshing given that fact. If the milk sat around for even a couple minutes though, things might get a bit ugly.

Or perhaps the taste doesn’t matter in the heat of the moment.

Do the drivers like it? What if they’re lactose intolerant?

ADAI says that it has not run into a situation where a driver is lactose intolerant yet, but that if this were the case, they could provide lactose-free milk for the purposes of ceremony. But then again, one Mario Andretti told USA Today that it really doesn’t matter in the moment:

“It’s a tradition. Not everybody enjoys milk but just because it’s happening at that point and because it’s got that meaning, all of a sudden milk tastes very good, even if you’re lactose [intolerant].”

Do the fans care?

In 1993, Emerson Fittipaldi drank orange juice instead of milk after his victory. Fittipaldi owned citrus farms, and wanted to promote that industry. This may seem sensible but, instead, it was udder(ha) chaos. Fans booed him, and he later took a sip of milk to try and calm them down. Fittipaldi was booed in Wisconsin — where they’re pretty serious about their dairy products as well, if you weren’t aware — the following week.

Bobby Unser didn’t drink milk in victory lane after his race win in 1968, which itself was questionable and initially overturned due to a penalty, making Mario Andretti the winner. Andretti, the next day, sipped from a milk bottle during a photo shoot, though the penalty was again overturned eventually and Unser officially won that year’s race.