Indianapolis 500

Why does the Indy 500 winner drink milk? Here's the history behind the unique tradition

Indiana dairy farmers play a critical role in victory lane after the Indy 500

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The Indianapolis 500 is all about traditions.

From the Snake Pit to the Borg-Warner Trophy, the event is filled with history on and off the track. But one tradition that often stands out is the celebration after the 500 grueling miles.

In victory lane, the winning driver emerges from his car and is almost immediately handed a glass bottle of milk.

What's that all about? Well, here's a deep dive into the milk tradition at the Indy 500:

When did the Indy 500 milk tradition begin?

It all started in 1936 thanks to Louis Meyer.

"We were very fortunate in 1936, the driver, Louis Meyer, won the Indy 500 for his third time," said Brooke Williams, director of communications for the American Dairy Association Indiana. "And at that time, he was actually photographed drinking buttermilk. So he had requested buttermilk. He was from a farm. It was always what he drank to quench his thirst. And so that photograph was taken and the tradition began.

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"So we're very fortunate that after all these years, it's very near and dear to our hearts, but also at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it's a tradition that won't go away anytime soon."

Meyer's victory in 1936 made him the first three-time winner of the Indy 500. That was the 24th running of the race, which was first held in 1911. Coincidentally, the Borg-Warner Trophy also debuted in the same year as when Meyer began the milk tradition.

Fourth-generation dairy farmer Alex Neuenschwander might be biased, but he believes the milk ceremony is the most iconic of all Indy 500 traditions. Neuenschwander will serve as the "Veteran Milk Presenter" this year, where he'll give the bottle to the winning driver in victory lane.

"It's an event all about tradition. There are a lot of them," Neuenschwander said. "There's the bricks, the taps, the princesses. I mean, there's so many traditions that go into it. I guess I'm maybe a little biased, but I definitely think milk's the coolest and the most well-known. It has to be like the coolest trophy in all the sports."

Why does the Indy 500 winner get milk?

When Meyer was photographed with buttermilk in 1936, the tradition was born. Ever since then, the Indy 500 has awarded milk to the winner.

While crossing the finish line and taking a victory lap is memorable, Neuenschwander doesn't feel like the journey is complete until the driver takes his first sip of milk.

"The tradition of the milk is the driver, they get into winner's circle and I don't feel like they've truly won the race until they have that milk and they take at least a few swallows of it," he said. "... They take at least a few swallows of it. And yeah, quite a bit of it goes on their head, but that whole thing is just a very interesting, very unique and awesome tradition."

Indiana is well-known for its dairy farming, as Williams explained. That has helped contribute to keeping the tradition alive after all these years.

"We have a little over 700 dairy farm families in the state and I believe we're the 10th largest for milk production across the United States," Williams said. "So not the biggest, of course. I think most people believe that the cows are from California or Wisconsin. But I think that's what makes our story even cooler, is that we get to share that every dairy farmer has a different story to tell.

"[Neuenschwander] is a fourth generation dairy farmer and that's pretty normal to be working on a dairy farm that was passed on from generation to generation. We do have some dairy farmers that they just decided they wanted to become a dairy farmer. But I think that's why every year the story is so fun to tell, because no two farmers have a similar story in that regard, though the passion across the board is so strong."

How does the Milk Presenter get chosen?

Handing the bottle of milk to the winning driver is a prestigious honor.

Since 2005, the American Dairy Association has made it a tradition that two Indiana farmers get to present the milk each year. There's the Rookie Milk Presenter and the Veteran Milk Presenter. The rookie delivers milk to the winning team owner and chief mechanic, while the veteran hands it over to the winning driver.

"We have a milk selection committee," Williams explained. "It used to be an American Dairy Association Indiana board member. But as you can imagine, there are only so many of those. And so now we have a selection committee. Dairy farmers can nominate other dairy farmers in their community, and now we choose.

"It really has opened up who is presenting that milk more and more every year. We know a lot of the farmers here in the state, but you really don't know what they're like until, for a month you're having them do media and taking them and having them be a part of a float and a parade. So, it's always fun to see how they are on the farm but outside of that lifestyle, as well."

Neuenschwander served as the rookie last year before taking over as the veteran for 2024.

"Yeah, so the milk presenter is chosen by our peers really, so it's such an honor to be chosen because my peers in the Dairy Association and the dairy farmers, they choose who's going to do it," Neuenschwander said. "They asked and I was excited to be (chosen), (it's) a huge honor to be chosen to be the milk presenter."

After getting a taste of the tradition last year as the rookie, Neuenschwander is excited to handle the main responsibility this time around.

"I haven't really practiced, but last year as the rookie, I was able to go into the winner circle, which is a crazy place to be," he said. It was awesome. And my job was to give the chief mechanic and the team owner a bottle of milk. So, that's as much practice as I'm going to get. I'm excited to do the driver this year. He's going to be a lot easier to find. He's the guy in the car with a wreath around his neck, where last year I had to go find these people in this mass chaos. It was a lot of fun, but I'm really pumped after going through it last year."

Jill Houin, the Veteran Milk Presenter in 2020 and 2021, shed some light on just how monumental the moment can be.

"To represent the dairy community in that circle was humbling," Houin said. "All of these different dairy farmers would contact me, ask me how it was, what was going on and all these different things. And to be able to represent all these families that work so hard every day and celebrate with race car driver whose family has also worked hard every day to get to that winner's circle. Oh my goodness. It's humbling. It's exciting. And I cannot even express how much it was overwhelming, the excitement."

Do drivers get to pick their milk for the Indy 500?

Yes.

As Neuenschwander and Williams explained, each driver has three milk options that they must decide on before the race: whole, 2% or skim.

"As soon as the drivers start having open practice here at the Motor Speedway, we give them their three choices," Williams said. "They walk into a room where they have all different autographs and things to sign, but we feel it's the coolest and it's always fun to see how the guys react, especially the rookie drivers that are still learning why milk is at the Indy 500. But we have a list pretty early on to be able to gather all the milk that we need and then we release those results the week of the race."

Neuenschwander added that almost every driver last year chose whole milk as their preference.

In today's world, there are plenty of other milk options besides those three. It hasn't happened yet, but any winning driver who is lactose-intolerant would be accommodated with lactose-free milk. There has been one occasion, though, where a driver initially went for a different beverage before switching to the milk.

"If someone's lactose intolerant, it's usually a note that they'll make or we'll hear from an agent," Williams said. "But we provide lactose-free dairy milk. It does exist. So we always have that on hand just in case.

"There's only been one time since 1936 where something other than milk has been drank. In 1993, Emerson Fittipaldi, and it didn't go well for Emerson. He had an orange grove in Brazil. And so he wanted to honor where he came from and was quickly booed (when he drank orange juice), and then picked up the milk and drank some milk."

Other types of milk -- like soy, almond, chocolate, strawberry or coffee milk -- have never been offered.

When is the 2024 Indy 500?

The 108th running of the Indianapolis 500 is scheduled for Sunday, May 26, at 12:45 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock.

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