It is one of the most famous sights in all of motorsports, the victor’s drinking of the milk after the Indianapolis 500. It’s been honored, discussed, protested — and memorialized in cheese. What more could a tradition offer?
The open-wheel drivers lust after this swig of milk. It is the stuff of both legend and lore. And once, according to published reports, even of a protest by People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals.
But just how did this tradition get started?
According to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, three-time winner Louis Meyer “regularly drank buttermilk to refresh himself on a hot day.” Turns out, one such day was the 1936 race, which he won and then drank milk in Victory Lane.
An executive with the Milk Foundation saw the photo in the sports section and worked to make sure it was repeated. Obviously, it was, except for a period from 1947-55 when milk was not offered.
The practice remains in vogue to this day, with images of the race winner slugging the product annually.
Drinking milk in Victory Lane has led to some interesting stories, though.
In 2001, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that PETA, citing cruelty to cows, asked then-speedway President Tony George to drop the tradition.
"Please consider dropping this outdated practice, or change the Indy 500 beverage to something humane and healthful, like orange juice or soy milk," wrote Andrew Butler, PETA Vegan Campaign coordinator, according to the story.
In 2005, Sports Illustrated named the bottle of milk given to the winner as No. 1 among the “sports world’s coolest prizes.”
In 2007, race fans at the Indianapolis State Fair were given a special treat. According to a story on the track’s website, a sculpture made from cheese — to commemorate the American Dairy Association of Indiana’s involvement with the Indianapolis 500 — honored the tradition.
The “Winners Drink Milk” sculpture was carved from cheese in front of fair attendees. It showed the race winner drinking milk beside his car — and included milk dripping from the lips of the victor. It took 67 hours to complete.
And finally, it has even been a topic on David Letterman’s show. The host, who is part owner of an IndyCar Series team, brought race winner Scott Dixon onto the show in 2008.
According to reports, Letterman posed the obvious question:
"After 500 miles, is milk what you really want to drink?"
And Dixon offered his take on the tradition — that it is simply the fact that one has the chance to do it that matter.
"That milk could have been a glass of mud for all I care at that point. It was the best moment," he said.