By Norm Wilkens
For over one hundred years, the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway has mirrored the evolution and revolution of auto racing. For over fifty of those years, it has been my pleasure to have been a part of the pageantry and spectacular events that surround this – the world’s largest spectator sports venue – the famed two and a half mile oval at IMS – through my association with the American Dairy Association and local Indiana Dairy Farmers.
There are literally thousands of stories that can be told that mirror the history of the Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, as well as the impact that the men and women who drive the cars have had on auto racing since 1909. I will relate three of those stories.
In 1933, after a grueling 500-Mile Race, Louis Meyer asked for a cold, refreshing bottle of buttermilk in the second of his three wins – thus began a tradition that lives on to this day. The bottle of milk consumed by the winning driver in Victory Circle is one of the oldest and most unusual rewards to be found in all of sporting events. It is an event that is unique to the Indy 500 and has been judged most recently as the most recognized symbol of any sports award in the United States.
Anton “Tony” Hulman who purchased the dilapidated Speedway in 1945, and saved the Speedway and 500-Mile Race from extinction, decided milk was a wholesome and appropriate beverage for the victory celebration. Thus, the “milk drink” at the end of the grueling race, became the legitimate award along with the Borg-Warner Trophy and millions in cash. By the way, buttermilk is no longer offered to the winning driver, but he or she has the choice of several varieties of milk. I had the pleasure of interviewing Meyer before his death in 1995, and asked him why he had selected buttermilk. Very simply he stated it was his favorite beverage and that’s what he wanted after the race.
The second story goes back to 1975 when I was approached by a representative of auto racing to see if the American Dairy Association would be interested in supporting a new racing tradition – The Fastest Rookie of The Year Award. I went to my contact at the ADA, Myrna Hazel Metzger (known as the Milk Lady for her involvement in getting the winning driver the bottle milk on Race Day) to determine if there was an interest. There was. This year we will be celebrating the 38th Year for the “Fastest Rookie” Award – second only to the Borg-Warner Trophy in longevity at the track under the same sponsorship since its inception.
The Fastest Rookie Award is won on the track by the skill of a first-year driver who achieves the fastest four-lap average speed during qualifications. Among the more notable drivers who have received the coveted award are Michael Andretti, Tony Stewart, Jimmy Vaser, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan. Several rookies have gone on to win the 500 including Rick Mears, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jacques Villeneuve, Chip Ganassi and Eddie Cheever, Jr. For you history buffs, Bill Puterbaugh was the first recipient in 1975.
Last but certainly not least, this story is one of the most interesting in the history of the 500 Mile Race. In 1993, Emerson Fittipaldi won his second Indianapolis 500. Instead of drinking the traditional bottle of milk in the Victory Circle, he requested orange juice. Fittipaldi owned orange groves in his native Brazil and he felt this would be an excellent way of promoting his involvement. Maybe he was right, but what occurred after that sequence of events went far beyond the promotion of orange juice.
The winner’s check that accompanies the milk was processed and sent to the racing team through the Motor Speedway the morning after the race. The first I knew there might be a problem was when I received a call from Bob Lamey, one of the track announcers, at 5 a.m. in the morning. “What happened to the ADA check, “ Bob asked. I immediately called Myrna Metzger to determine if the check had indeed been sent. It had. What happened after that is what legends are made of. The check had been held up by Tony George, president of the Motor Speedway, because in his estimation, the driver’s commitment had not been fulfilled.
The day after the race, Fittipaldi posed with the milk, so the ADA felt the contract had been fulfilled. Tony George did not concur. And, a check for $5000, the amount offered for the drink of milk at that time, went to a fund for surviving families of deceased drivers.
The story continues. The week following the 500 there was a race in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Tony George and Fittipaldi’s car owner – Roger Penske – were seated on the roof of the press box to watch the race. When Fittipaldi’s pole position was announced, boos rang out all over the track. Penske asked George why they were booing his driver. George stated, “Don’t you know you are in a dairy state? That’s what happens when you don’t drink the milk.” Penske said that there was no contract that said his driver had to drink milk. George replied that he didn’t think one was necessary after all the years of the milk tradition at Indianapolis. And, then he stated, “It will be in the contract from this time on.” And, it is.
Race fans have long memories. In 2008, Emerson Fittipaldi was driving the Pace Car – a Chevrolet Corvette. During the Driver’s Meeting, Fittipaldi was booed and heckled again by the fans for his lack of honoring the tradition. That was 15 years after the milk incident.
A word to the wise, don’t overlook any tradition when dealing with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – particularly those having to do with milk!