13 weird Indy 500 traditions: Handcuffed milk deliveries, aerial bombs and more

Elizabeth Blackstock
The Indy 500 makes up one leg of the Triple Crown of motorsport.

Pomp, tradition and ceremony are everywhere you look at the Indy 500.

Tune into the Indianapolis 500 for the first time, and you’ll be bombarded with some of the weirdest references and traditions known to man. Why is the winner drinking a bottle of milk and not celebrating with champagne? Why is the victor’s trophy so big? What on earth is Gasoline Alley?

We’re breaking down 13 of the weirdest – and most critical – traditions you need to know in order to feel like a true, down-home Indy 500 fan. Oh, and the number 13? Well, one of the many Brickyard superstitions involves the fact that it’s supposedly bad luck to run the No. 13 on race day. Also on the bad-luck list are green cars and peanuts — but if you spot a rabbit, that’s a good sign.

Sipping Milk

The single most important Indy 500 tradition is the post-race milk celebration. Victors traditionally sip from a glass bottle before dousing themselves in dairy — and it all stems back to the 1930s.

After he took the 500 win in both 1933 and 1936, racer Louis Meyer wanted one thing: a cold glass of buttermilk. Legend has it that his mother told him to drink it on hot days, and after some hard work behind the wheel, Meyer only had that buttermilk in mind.

Several other drivers followed suit, but it didn’t become a full-on tradition until dairy companies got involved in sponsoring the Indy 500 back in 1956. Now, if you want to earn an extra $10,000, you have to sip some milk in Victory Lane.

The milk tradition is serious. Fans eagerly await the publication of the “milk list” each year; every driver selects whole, skim, or two-percent — there are no lactose-free options — and on race day morning, one bottle of each option is delivered to the track by a representative of the Indiana Dairy Association, who has handcuffed an insulated briefcase full of milk to himself.

And while the milk in victory lane is technically optional, Indy 500 fans won’t really consider you the winner until you’ve had a drink. Back in 1993, former Formula 1 World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi replaced the milk jug with a glass of orange juice, since he was sponsored by his own citrus farms. Fittipaldi was booed at the IndyCar events he contested later that year, and fans in Indianapolis still grimace when they hear his name.

Kiss the Bricks

While many American race series allow winning drivers to complete donuts or burnouts after the race, that’s a no-no in Indianapolis, largely because the start/finish line is marked by a yard of bricks that had originally been used to pave the track. Instead, victors will line up with their team and family, kneel down, and kiss the front stretch bricks.

The tradition of kissing the bricks is relatively new in Indianapolis history — and it didn’t even stem from a 500 victor! Back in 1996, IMS hosted a NASCAR race called the Brickyard 400, and winner Dale Jarrett decided to celebrate by kneeling down and kissing the bricks. The tradition made its way to the Indy 500 world in 2003 with Gil de Ferran.

33-Car Starting Field

The starting grid for the Indy 500 is unique in many ways. First, drivers line up in rows of three as opposed to the now-traditional two. Second – and most perplexing – is the fact that the starting grid is limited to 33 cars.

The first Indy 500 back in 1911 saw 40 entrants, but the sanctioning body in charge of the event (the AAA Contest Board) decided that was a few too many. Back then, research suggested to the Contest Board that, if you lined up the field one by one around the 2.5-mile track, each vehicle should have 400 feet of space to itself.

The mandate didn’t come into play officially until 1934, and it has only been tweaked a few times to accommodate more vehicles due to infighting in the American open-wheel racing world.

The 33-car limit introduced the concept of “bumping,” where the slowest drivers during qualifying fail to make the field.

The Borg-Warner Trophy (And Wreath)

An iconic race deserves an iconic trophy, and the Borg-Warner is just that. First introduced in 1936 by automotive supplier BorgWarner, the trophy is something of a Speedway relic.

While it’s awarded to every single Indy 500 winner in Victory Circle, it resides in the IMS Museum for the rest of the year. Winners are instead given a replica of the trophy, affectionately known as the Baby Borg.

The massive trophy clocks in at 5’4″ and weighs almost 153 pounds. Because it became tradition to add a bas-relief of the winning driver on the trophy, a large base was added in 1986 and subsequently replaced with an even larger base in 2004.

(Fun fact: the man on top of the Borg-Warner trophy is actually entirely nude! From the right angle, you can absolutely see him baring his genitals to the world; this is why you’ll generally see the Borg-Warner photographed from one specific angle, in which the man’s checkered flag-holding arm covers the pelvic region.)

Victors have also been provided with a floral wreath – one of the few remaining races to do so – since 1960. They were designed by a florist named Bill Cronin, who had consulted on everything from the Rose Bowl to the Indy 500. The wreath dons 33 ivory cymbidium orchids that feature burgundy tips in honor of all 33 starters for the race, while checkered flags and red, white, and blue ribbons are also woven in.

“Carb” Day and the Month of May

The build-up to the Indianapolis 500 is generally referred to as the “Month of May.” This is due to the fact that, for many decades, practice for the big race opened on May 1. Not everyone turned up on opening day to test their vehicles, but so many cars and drivers used to enter that a full month of practice was critical to success.

You’ll also hear about Carb Day, which is the name given to the track activity taking place on the Friday of the 500. No, it doesn’t refer to the large amounts of carbohydrates consumed in the form of beer — it actually refers to Carburetion Day, where teams tuned their carburetors in one final, short practice session ahead of race day. Indy 500 cars haven’t used carburetors since 1963, but the name has stuck.

Gasoline Alley

Gasoline Alley is the name for the garage area of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — and, like many names, it has stuck around despite IndyCar phasing out use of gasoline in the mid-1960s.

It used to specifically refer to the fueling-up area before becoming a catch-all name for the entire garage area, but no one is quite sure where the name came from. Some folks think it may have come from a comic strip of the same name, but it’s one of the Indy traditions whose origins have been lost to time.

The Coke Lot and The Snake Pit

Most folks head to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend to enjoy some racing – but the area also turns into a huge party scene courtesy of two specific locations: The Coke Lot, and the Snake Pit.

The Coke Lot is the informal name for a campground near IMS. Its name comes from the fact that it’s located in front of an old Coca-Cola bottling facility, and it becomes party central for the fans willing to pitch tents. It’s not for the faint of heart; there have even been deaths in the Coke Lot during 500 weekend.

Inside the track is the Snake Pit. What started as a general admission viewing zone transformed into an in-track concert venue, with its nickname coming in the 1960s. Nowadays, you’ll find music lovers gathered there during the race to watch an electronic dance music festival…and to sip plenty of beer.

Memorial Day

The decision to race on Memorial Day goes back to the very founding of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In its first year of existence, the track intended to host races on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day, but low attendance in the second and third races of the year convinced management to consolidate those three races into one long event.

Memorial Day itself tended to coincide with a break in local farming activities, but because most local farmers worked weekends, for many years the race was held on Memorial Day proper, May 30. It wasn’t until 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act came into play that Memorial Day’s date would change each year, but would always take place on the final Monday of May. As a result, the race moved to the Sunday before Memorial Day.

The Victory Lap

If you notice fans stick around in the stands long after the completion of the Indy 500, that’s because the victor is generally pulled from post-race celebrations for a victory lap in the back of a 500 Festival vehicle. He’ll wave to fans and give dazed and emotional interviews; it’s only the beginning of ongoing obligations that include giving interviews and making appearances at various hospitality suites.

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Public Drivers’ Meeting

On Saturday before the race, all 33 drivers starting the race gather in a set of bleachers on the front stretch of IMS. Fans can gather to watch as each driver is presented with a ring for starting the event, followed by some speeches and a short refresher of the rules. This is called a “driver’s meeting” — and if you’re seeing it for the first time, it doesn’t seem like a very effective one.

That’s because this is a ceremonial meeting; the actual pre-500 drivers’ meeting takes place on race day morning. The ceremonial meeting is primarily just a way to get more fans to the track before the drivers are sent off to the 500 Festival Parade.

500 Festival Parade

Back in 1957, longtime Indy 500 fans founded the 500. This non-profit organization hosts dinners, races, and more to build hype and support for the race, but the Parade is its most notorious.

After drivers leave the public drivers’ meeting, they hop in the back of a convertible and join celebrity grand marshals, floats, and marching bands in a tour of downtown Indianapolis. Fans gather roadside hours before the event to catch a glimpse of their favorite drivers.

The Last Row Party

Each year since 1972, the Indianapolis Press Club Association hosts an event called the Last Row Party. This is a scholarship benefit turned cocktail party turned roast, where the final three qualifiers for the Indy 500 make appearances, endure some good-natured jokes, and receive a big check for 31, 32, and 33 cents, depending on their starting position. In addition, scholarships are handed out to young aspiring journalists.

Pre-Race Ceremonies

The Indianapolis 500 goes green at 12:45 p.m. ET, but the build-up to the event starts six or seven hours earlier – well before we even get into musical performances or driver introductions. As the years have piled up, so too have the traditions, including:

  • At 6 a.m., an aerial bomb is set off to signal the opening of the gates.
  • Two hours later, at 8 a.m., the “Parade of Bands” begins. Marching bands from local high schools perform around the track. This tradition began in 1922.
  • The Gordon Pipers, a group of local bagpipe performers, perform all around the track and have done so since 1962.
  • As teams wheel cars out to the starting grid, The Purdue University All-American Marching Band performs several songs, such as “On the Banks of the Wabash” and “Stars and Stripes Forever.” This tradition likely began in 1919.
  • Several parades take place around the track; this is a more modern introduction. Parades can include a military appreciation lap, a 500 Festival Queen lap, and a vintage vehicle lap.
  • “The March to the Bricks” was introduced in 2016, where the Borg-Warner trophy is wheeled through the infield to the front stretch of the race.
  • Driver introductions begin at 11:47 a.m.
  • Pre-race ceremonies begin with an invocation (a tradition begun in 1974 when race day was moved to Sunday), followed by performances of “Taps,” “America the Beautiful,” and “God Bless America.” Next on the docket is a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which is followed by a military flyover; notable musicians have been invited to perform since the 1980s. Then comes the performance of “Back Home Again in Indiana,” accompanied by the release of balloons. “Back Home Again” has been performed since 1946, and the balloon release followed the year after.
  • Finally, someone will deliver the command for drivers to start their engines.

Years and years of tradition have built up to give us the 2024 running of the Indianapolis 500. This is why it is so special and a must watch after the Monaco Grand Prix.

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