Skip to main content

Indy 500 champions say milk is race's top tradition

An AP poll of 27 Indy 500 champions revealed that moo juice is the race's finest tradition.
  • Author:
  • Publish date:

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Sam Hornish Jr. remembers every moment from his Indy 500 victory as if they were snapshots in time.

His aborted pass of Marco Andretti with just over a lap to go. His successful pass just yards from the finish line. His team pushing his Penske Racing car to victory lane in the race he'd always wanted to win.

And he remembered taking a swig of milk and pouring it over his head.

''It was like, 95 degrees that day,'' Hornish recalled a decade later, ''and everybody thinks that was the last thing I wanted. The milk was exactly what I wanted after that race. Pouring it over myself wasn't the best decision - started to get pretty ripe after three hours of picture-taking.''

Indy 500-winner Sam Hornish Jr. enjoying life as a racing fan

In the lead-up to the 100th running of the ''The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,'' The Associated Press interviewed the 27 living race winners on topics ranging from the greatest driver to most memorable moment. Hornish and 12 others called the milk the race's greatest tradition, while seven chose the singing of ''Back Home Again in Indiana.'' Others chose the Borg-Warner Trophy and the iconic three-wide starting grid.

Why was the milk such a popular pick?

''It's so unique,'' replied 2004 champion Buddy Rice. ''There's nothing like it anywhere else.''

The tradition dates to 1936, when Louis Meyer won his third and Indy 500. Meyer professed to drink buttermilk to refresh himself on hot days, and a photographer captured him guzzling from a glass bottle in victory lane. The picture showed up in the newspaper the following section, and an executive representing milk producers vowed that the winner would continue to drink it in future years.

Beginning with Pat Flaherty in 1956, that has been precisely the case.

''I can tell you, those guys know what they're doing. It's cooled to the exact right temperature,'' 1996 winner Buddy Lazier said. ''You may not think it would sound good in today's day with sports drinks, but they know how to present it. And it's delicious.''

GALLERY: Evolution of the Indy 500


No good tradition is without colorful stumbling blocks, though. Emerson Fittipaldi famously broke from custom in 1993 when he instead drank orange juice (the Brazilian owned several groves). Despite having a sip of milk after the TV cameras had left, Fittipaldi was chastised for the faux pas for years.

These days, the American Dairy Association compiles a list of what type of milk each driver requests before the race. Some choose skim, but whole and 2 percent are the most popular varieties.

Juan Pablo Montoya was among those who chose 2 percent prior to his victory last year. But when asked for his favorite tradition, Montoya said with a laugh, ''The wreath because I don't like milk.''


Originally played by a trackside brass band in 1917, the song became the unofficial anthem of the Indy 500 beginning in 1946. And while Mel Torme and Dinah Shore are among those who have led the singing, it is the baritone voice of Jim Nabors that became synonymous with it. Nabors sang it every year, with just a few exceptions, from 1972 until 2014.

''It was always my favorite part of pre-race,'' said three-time winner Dario Franchitti. ''I wish they would have recorded Jim singing and continued to use it. I can neither confirm nor deny that I used to sing along whilst sitting in my car.''


The silver trophy, permanently housed at the track museum, was first awarded in 1936. The face of every winner is sculpted onto it in bas-relief, and their name, year and average speed are also inscribed. Winners later receive a smaller replica, a ''Baby Borg,'' to keep.

Gordon Johncock and Tony Kanaan both called the Borg-Warner the Indy 500's greatest tradition.


Johnny Rutherford called the release of thousands of balloons, first done in 1947, his favorite tradition, and some mentioned the three-wide starting grid. Others mentioned the late public-address announcer Tom Carnegie's call of a new track record as an indelible part of the Indy 500.

''The whole race is a tradition. It's the oldest motor race known to us, the entire world,'' Lazier said, ''but I also like the tradition of them handing out the prize money.''