Al Unser, Jr. in the front car and Raul Boesel in the back. Indianapolis 500, 1994. Photographed by Rick Dikeman.
« From 300k spectators singing to the winner being requested to drink milk and kiss the bricks, the race has several quircks that set it apart. »
The Indianapolis 500
Aka the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, or the Indy 500 to its friends – is an annual event held, fittingly, in Speedway, Indiana, U.S.A. Inaugurated in 1911, the race is now reported to be the largest single-day sporting event in the entire world. It takes its name from the 500-mile course, which was the distance that could be covered from morning to nightfall, before visibility deteriorated.
Traditionally held over the Memorial Day weekend, the Indy 500 sits alongside Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix as part of the prestigious Triple Crown – and let us tell you, it’s not known as the ‘greatest spectacle in racing’ for nothing. With only single-seat, open-cockpit, open-wheel, purpose-built ‘Indy Cars’ competing, upwards of 300k spectators, an astronomical purse for the winner… and a curious relationship with liquids…
Departure of the Indy 500 in 2004
The Indy 500 has a long tradition of… traditions. From pre-race ceremonies, to post-race celebrations, to unusual procedures, this race has several quirks that set it apart from the crowd: from a 33-car field lining up three-wide for the start, the essential singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana,” and the fact that in order to qualify, drivers must complete four (rather than one) timed laps over a designated weekend. But perhaps the strangest of these now-famous traditions involves a simple bottle of milk.
After winning his second Indy 500 race in 1933, driver Louis Meyer made a slightly eccentric request for a glass of buttermilk, which he drank before the crowd. When he took his third title in 1936, he asked for another glass – but, in true Indy-500 scale, was given a whole bottle. A photographer caught him swigging from the bottle with three fingers (for three wins) held up in victory. Inspired by the image, a local dairy company seized the opportunity to promote their wares – and offered to provide a bottle of milk to all future winners. Every year since then (with a brief hiatus from 1947-1955), a bottle of milk has indeed been presented to race winners.
What’s more? Modern drivers are now offered a choice of whole, 2%, or skim milk… and we imagine it won’t be long before there’s a vegan nut-mylk option too.
Louis Meyer at the 1928 Indianapolis 500
In 1993, the Indy 500 was won by Brazilian driver Emerson Fittipaldi (who also happened to own an orange grove). Fittipaldi made the bold decision to request a glass of OJ in place of the traditional milk bottle during the winner’s interview – whether he was lactose intolerant, felt like a refreshing citrus treat or just really loved his orange grove, we’ll never know. The crowd went bananas. Or rather, they didn’t – fruit was forbidden as far as the spectators were concerned, and they booed so loudly that Fittipaldi relented, eventually sipping from the milk bottle during the post-race ceremony. But Indy 500 fans were so dairy-ritual-obsessed that serious damage had been done to the (exceptionally talented) driver’s reputation – he was booed again at subsequent races, even as late as 2008!
Since the unfortunate OJ incident, winners have learned their lesson and stick religiously to milk. In fact, in 2016 the track gave out bottles of milk to 100,000 spectators as well, so they could toast the winner.
Emerson Fittipaldi during the British Grand Prix in 1974. Photographed by Gillfoto
Kiss My Bricks
Shortly after the Speedway was first created in 1909, it was paved with 3.2 million bricks, each weighing 9.5 pounds. This ‘upgraded’ the original surface of crushed rock and tar; over the following years, asphalt was gradually added to rougher sections of the track, with all turns fully paved in asphalt by 1937.
Finally, in 1938, the entire track was covered in asphalt with the exception of the mid-section of the front straighway, and in 1961, this section was covered too, leaving only a 36-inch strip of the original bricks intact at the start/finish line. This, famously, has become known as the ‘Yard of Bricks’, and still remains today. That tradition of “kissing the bricks” was initiated by NASCAR champion Dale Jarrett. After his Brickyard 400 victory in 1996, Jarrett and crew chief Todd Parrott walked onto the start-finish line, knelt down, and kissed the Yard of Bricks in a theatrical tribute to the Speedway. The gesture caught on! The whole team then joined them for a group smooch of the bricks, and the tradition was born that both Indy 500 and Brickyard 400 winners have followed religiously ever since.
Indy 500 enthusiasts (and competitors) have an appetite for rituals and traditions rivalled only by their thirst for odd beverages. What will be next – a moonwalk to the winner’s podium? A maverick champion demanding chocolate milk on the menu? As the spirit of the Indy 500 continues to thrive, we hope there will be many eccentric new habits to come in the spectacle surrounding one of the most thrilling races in the world.
TAG Heuer is the Official timekeeper of the Indy 500. The next one is scheduled for this Sunday, May 30th, 2021.