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Milk and Racing: The Indy 500’s Strange Obsession With Milk

Sports History | February 28, 2019

Scott Dixon drinks the ceremonial winner's milk over in victory lane in celebration of winning the 2008 Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. Source: (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

In May, racing fans turn their attention to Indianapolis for the annual race that has been held there since 1911—the Indianapolis 500. The sporting event is steeped in history and tradition, but none as strange as the one in which the race’s winner chugs a bottle of milk as soon as they cross the finish line. As sports traditions go, this one is weird, even if it does promote healthy bones. Let us look at how the Indy 500’s milk obsession began and what it means to the racing event today. 

In 1933, Louis Meyer started the tradition of drinking milk at the Indy 500. Source: (winnersdrinkmilk.com)

Louis Meyer Started the Milk Tradition By Accident

The Indianapolis 500 had been running milk-free for more than twenty years when the milk guzzling tradition began. When it did start, it was unintentional. Louis Meyer won the Indy 500 three times, in 1928, 1933, and 1936. The race is long and hot and exhausting so Meyer did what his mother suggested—he drank ice-cold buttermilk after each race. His milk sipping went unnoticed after his 1928 victory but caught the media’s attention with his second win a few years later. Photographers snapped pics of Meyer and his milk and the images appeared in newspapers across the country. When Meyer won his third Indy 500 in 1936, he repeated his milk drinking, to the delight of the crowds. Since then, it has been a tradition for every Indy 500 winner. 

Indy 500 winner Wilbur Shaw guzzled milk on victory row in 1940. Source: (nbcnews.com)

Meyer’s Photo Was Seen by a Milk Promoter

After Meyer’s 1933 milk photo circulated, an executive working for the Milk Foundation, an organization that promoted dairy products and dairy farming, not unlike the American Dairy Association, saw the image and immediately realized the potential of a milk drinking photo op with a race car winner. He worked to make sure that milk drinking was included as part of the Indy 500 from then on. When Meyer again drank milk after his third victory, he helped the Milk Foundation’s mission without realizing it. 

Dario Franchitti, winner of the 2010 Indy 500, chugs his celebratory milk. Source: (my-indiana-home.com)

It Pays to Drink Your Milk

The race promoters in Indianapolis and the dairy industry struck a few financial deals beginning in 1956. Milk companies agreed to sponsor the Indy 500’s race purse and, in exchange, they could promote their milk by bestowing a bottle of milk on the winning driver. The American Dairy Association of Indiana now offers a bonus of $10,000 to Indy 500 winner who drinks milk on victory lane. That sounds like easy money…who wouldn’t do it? At least one driver balked at the tradition. 

Emerson Fittipaldi was booed for drinking orange juice instead of milk in 1993. Source: (sports.usatoday.com)

Milk Was Replaced With Orange Juice And Fans Booed

When Emerson Fittipaldi won the Indianapolis 500 in 1993, he decided to forego the American Dairy Association of Indiana’s generous offer of bonus money for drinking milk. Instead, he chose to drink orange juice. The race car driver owned a large citrus farm and hoped to promote the citrus industry with his Indy 500 victory. But the race fans revolted over the break in tradition. They booed and jeered Fittipaldi and created such chaos that Fittipaldi took a sip of milk to calm the crowd. They were not appeased and Fittipaldi received hate mail and backlash. He was still being booed the next week when he raced in Wisconsin. He learned that you don’t mess with Indy 500 fans and their milk tradition. 

Mario Andretti before the start of the 1969 Indy 500. He would be chugging down the victory milk in a few hours. Source: (heavy.com)

No Indy 500 Winners So Far Have Been Lactose Intolerant

According to the American Dairy Association of Indiana, none of the previous Indianapolis 500 winners have expressed concern over milk allergies and lactose intolerance. In this case, most drivers agree that the milk tradition is worth upholding, even if it means an upset stomach later. As Mario Andretti once told reporters, “It’s the tradition. Not everybody enjoys milk but, all of a sudden milk tastes good.” The drivers do get their choice between whole milk, 2%, and fat-free. 

Dairy farmers vote for one of their own to be the year's 'milk person' for the Indy 500, like this gentleman in 2011. Source: (indianadairy.wordpress.com)

The Indy 500 Has Well-Established Milk Protocol

To this day, the American Dairy Association of Indiana organizes and manages the milk tradition at the Indianapolis 500. On race day, the ADAI has two people, called the ‘milk people’, to guard and deliver the milk. The ‘milk people’ are dairy farmers. Dairy farmers in the state all vote on who the year’s ‘milk people’ will be—and it is a pretty big honor among dairy farmers. The senior-level ‘milk person’ has the honors of awarding a bottle of milk to the victorious driver, while the junior-level ‘milk person’ takes milk to the winning car’s head mechanic and car owner. The milk is presented in specially-designed glass bottles and is, of course, chilled. 

The 'milk person' charged with guarding the milk until the end of the Indy 500. Source: (dailyjournal.net)

The Milk Gets a Police Escort

Much fanfare surrounds the bottles of milk as they arrive at the Indianapolis Speedway either in an armored truck or a police escort, as in recent years. While at the track, the milk is guarded to keep it safe from would-be milk bandits. The bottles of milk are kept in a cooler in an undisclosed location until close to the end of the race. At that time, the ‘milk people’ transport the bottles of milk to victory lane to await the winning driver. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.