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IndyCar Indianapolis 500

What are the traditions of the Indy 500? Milk, bricks and more

The Indy 500 is one of the world’s oldest motor races, dating back to 1911 when Ray Harroun became its first-ever victor.

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet

It has since become a highly prestigious race forming part of the elusive motorsport triple crown, which is awarded to any driver who wins the Monaco Grand Prix, Le Mans 24 Hours and Indy 500 in their career. So far only two-time Formula 1 world champion Graham Hill has achieved said feat, though many more have tried.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has therefore played host to many iconic moments, whether it is Al Unser Jr winning the closest Indy 500 in history by 0.043 seconds in 1992, Dan Wheldon emerging victorious in the centenary anniversary of the race, or Helio Castroneves finally standing on the top step for a record-equalling fourth time in 2021.

But with a race so historic also comes a lot of traditions or even superstitions, so what are some of them?

Indy 500 winner drinks milk

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

The Indy 500 winner drinking milk post-race is the event’s most famous tradition. It began in 1936, when race winner Louis Meyer drank buttermilk in Victory Lane because he’d allegedly been taught about its refreshing qualities. This caused a marketing man in the dairy industry to inquire about the Indy 500 victor drinking milk from there on.

But it took 20 years for the notion to stick, as prize money was suddenly offered to the victor for drinking it - so, since then the Indy 500 winner has almost always drunk milk in Victory Lane. The exception was Emerson Fittipaldi, who sparked outrage in 1993 when he drank orange juice after winning his second Indy 500. That was because the double F1 world champion was promoting the Brazilian citrus drink industry, but it became the ultimate PR blunder as the crowd jeered him for it and no driver has since dared to go against tradition.

The tradition is now so big that before each Indy 500, every driver is asked for their milk of choice should they emerge victorious but the options are quite simple: whole, two-percent, or fat-free. Many drivers want buttermilk as an option though, because that’s what Meyer drank in 1936. But IndyCar says the modern-day buttermilk is made differently to how it was in the 1930s, so will only consider making it an option should they see competitors drink it pre-race because then they’ll know for sure that it’s actually something drivers enjoy.

The Indy 500 winner receiving the Borg-Warner Trophy

Photo by: Brett Farmer / Motorsport Images

The 1936 Indy 500 is also well-known for the debut of the Borg-Warner Trophy, which has since been awarded to every winner of the race. It was unveiled at a dinner party that year hosted by the circuit’s then-owner Eddie Rickenbacker after automotive supplier BorgWarner commissioned the trophy.

It is also the tallest trophy in motorsport standing at a staggering 5ft 4.75in and was designed by Robert J. Hill and Spaulding-Gorham, Inc. The Borg-Warner Trophy also has some distinct features like its wing-shaped handles, a man waving a chequered flag at the top, or its large base which currently has enough space to last until 2033.

But its most unique part is the facade, which has the faces of each Indy 500 winner sculpted onto the trophy. The winner doesn’t get to keep it though, as the Indy 500 victors instead receive a replica which is commonly known as ‘Baby Borg’ with the official trophy being kept at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.

The Indy 500 winner kissing the bricks

Photo by: Brett Farmer / Motorsport Images

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is commonly known as ‘the brickyard’ because the circuit’s original surface was paved with bricks. Although the track almost entirely consists of asphalt now, a one-yard strip of bricks covers the start-finish line, paving the way for another Indy 500 tradition - kissing of the bricks.

It began in 1996 when NASCAR’s Dale Jarrett and his crew chief Todd Parrott kneeled to kiss the bricks after his Brickyard 400 victory. The celebration then translated across to the Indy 500 in 2003 when Gil de Ferran kissed the bricks to commemorate his maiden victory and kickstart a tradition which has remained ever since.

The Indy 500 always falling on Memorial Day weekend

The Indy 500 has always been scheduled in conjunction with Memorial Day. This dates back to the circuit’s early years when it held races on Decoration Day (known as Memorial Day from 1967), Fourth of July and Labor Day, yet attendance figures decreased throughout the season so organisers opted to focus on running just a single event which was to be known as the Indy 500.

Organisers later decided to run that event on Decoration Day because local farmers took a break from working in late May. So from 1911 to 1970, the Indy 500 was always scheduled for the 30 May unless it fell on a Sunday in which case it was run on the Monday because of circuit policy.

In 1971 the Uniform Monday Holiday Act then came into effect and officially declared Memorial Day as a federal holiday, meaning a three-day weekend culminating with the last Monday of May was created.

So from 1971 to 1973, the race was held on either the Saturday or Monday of Memorial Day weekend, but it was then decided in 1974 to always hold the Indy 500 on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. The tradition has remained ever since, with only a few exceptions due to rain delays (1986 and 1997) or the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020.

Month of May at the Indy 500

The Month of May is a tradition that dates back to the inaugural Indy 500 and it refers to the weeks leading up to the race. Historically the track opened for practice on 1 May, although as the years went by some teams would arrive at the circuit even earlier in April.

It might seem strange for teams to need so much practice for one race, but the Indy 500 is a huge event and one that usually features several one-off entries so a lot of track time is vital. Qualifying for the Indy 500 is also a big event in itself, being run over two days, so teams need to practice for that before switching its focus to the race.

The 500 Festival Parade

The 500 Festival Parade is the largest event in downtown Indianapolis each year, as approximately 200,000 people gather together the day before the Indy 500 to celebrate the Month of May festivities. It was first held in 1957 as part of an effort to further connect the city with the world-famous race and it proved to be a huge hit causing another annual tradition to emerge.

Every driver competing in that year’s Indy 500 is present at the parade, as well as huge helium balloons, marching bands, military units and entertainers, while around 800 people volunteer to make the day a success. The 500 Festival Parade tends to have a theme as well and in 2023 it was ‘Fuelling May’, which celebrated everything that helps make the month a huge spectacle in the city of Indianapolis each year.

Indy 500’s Last Row Party

Photo by: Brett Farmer / Motorsport Images

The Last Row Party has taken place every year on the Thursday or Friday evening before the Indy 500 since 1972. Being held in aid of charity, it is effectively a dinner party to celebrate - and roast - the three drivers who will start on the back row for the Indy 500, as a way of giving them some spotlight before the front-runners inevitably take it on race day.

It is held at the trackside Hulman Terrace Club and tickets are available for fans, who later have an autograph session with the drivers being celebrated. The Last Row Party is similar to Mr Irrelevant, which is a term given to the player picked last in the annual NFL Draft who will then receive various gifts like a trophy and a trip to Disneyland California as a result.

The food that fans eat at the Indy 500

A breaded pork tenderloin sandwich is traditionally eaten by fans at the Indy 500, as it is a popular creation from the Midwestern United States which is the region that the Indiana state belongs to. It is believed that the tradition started in the 1990s and the $10 sandwich has since become an Indy staple, but there are some foods that fans will not touch.

Peanuts, for example, have been considered bad luck at the Indy 500 since the 1940s because they were allegedly found in the cockpit of a car that crashed. The speedway refused to sell peanuts for several years as a result, but since 2009 the myth has somewhat passed and peanuts are once again being sold at the venue.

Drivers not using car number 13 at the Indy 500

Triskaidekaphobia - extreme superstition regarding the number 13 - is strong at the Indy 500, as drivers were officially banned from using it for their car between 1926 and 2002. This comes after the driver using it in 1911 failed to make the race while in 1914, George Mason drove car 13 but finished 23rd.

Only three drivers have used car 13 since, with Grey Ray finishing eighth in 2003, while E.J. Viso and Danica Patrick both retired from the races in 2009 and 2018 respectively. There is also a superstition against using a green car because it is believed that the 1920 Indy 500 champion Gaston Chevrolet was driving a green car when he died in a crash at the Beverly Hills Speedway six months after his victory in Indianapolis.

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