A large part of what has made the Indianapolis 500 one of the greatest races in the world and a civic institution in the state of Indiana is the emphasis that is placed on the race’s many traditions. From “Back Home Again in Indiana” to “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines,” there are a number of ceremonial steps to the race that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its keepers cherish and firmly adhere to.
The winner of the Indianapolis 500 drinking milk in Victory Lane is just one of these. And like Indianapolis’ other traditions, the celebratory swig of milk is steeped in the long history of the 500 Mile Race.
In 1936, when Louis Meyer won his third Indianapolis 500, he had a drink of buttermilk as he celebrated his victory. Meyer’s mother had long told him to drink buttermilk on hot days, and Meyer regularly had that particular dairy drink throughout his life. When a photo of Meyer drinking buttermilk appeared in a local newspaper the following day, it caught the attention of a dairy industry executive who saw a marketing opportunity.
The executive requested that milk be made available to the winner of the Indianapolis 500 each year, and a tradition began to form with a brief interruption between 1947 to 1955. During that time period, the Indy 500 winner received “Water from Wilbur,” a drink of water in a silver cup presented by track president and three-time Indy 500 winner Wilbur Shaw.
After Shaw died in a plane crash in 1954, the dairy industry paved the way for milk’s return by offering a $400 bonus to the winner if they drank milk in Victory Lane.
As such, milk has been a fixture in Victory Lane since 1956, and the delivery of milk to the winning driver is handled by the Veteran Milk Person. The speedway has two designated milk handlers who are dairy farmers voted in by the American Dairy Association of Indiana’s board. The position is a three-year commitment, first as the Rookie-Elect, the Rookie Milk Person and finally the Veteran Milk Person.
The Rookie Milk Person hands the milk to the winning car owner and chief mechanic, while the Veteran Milk Person hands the milk to the winning driver. This year, the Veteran Milk Person is 62 year old Tim Haynes of Garrett, Ind.
Like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s other traditions, the celebratory swig of milk is taken very seriously. In 1993, Emerson Fittipaldi bucked the tradition by drinking orange juice in order to promote the citrus industry of his native Brazil. As a result, he was booed by fans both in post-race and for some time afterwards. The backlash was so intense towards Fittipaldi that he issued a formal apology days later.
Since the mid-1990s, drivers in the Indianapolis 500 are asked annually what their milk preference is, with a few exceptions. The winner cannot request flavored milk, nor are they permitted to request buttermilk like Meyer had. When Ed Carpenter and Felix Rosenqvist requested buttermilk in 2019, their requests were denied because today’s mass-produced buttermilk is highly perishable. If a driver is lactose-intolerant, they are permitted to request lactose-free milk.
This year, the Indianapolis Star states that 26 of the 33 drivers in the Indy 500 field have requested whole milk, while six — Helio Castroneves, Callum Ilott, Tony Kanaan, Sage Karam, David Malukas and Takuma Sato — have requested 2%. Two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya listed no preference.