Legends of the 500: Louis Meyer

Published On February 27, 2016 » 2190 Views» By John Schwarb » Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500

We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 92 days to go, we look back at one of the race’s most enduring champions. For more of our 100 days series, click here.

When the Indianapolis 500 is won on May 29, the arc will be complete. What Ray Harroun did in 1911 in the first 500 Mile Race will have been replicated for a 100th time, a nice clean line to be forever marked in history.

But if we’re getting down to some of the essential brass tacks of Indy, whoever who wins the 100th will complete a line that’s more direct to Louis Meyer.

Meyer, the first three-time champion in “500” history, was the first victor to drink milk and the first to celebrate alongside the Borg-Warner Trophy, arguably the two signature pieces of the winner’s experience. He was also the first champion to be awarded the Pace Car, a significant prize that is perhaps less widely celebrated today but is still appreciated. (No winner has declined the car, put it that way.)

Louis Meyer holds up three fingers in Victory Circle as the first three-time champion.

Louis Meyer holds up three fingers in Victory Circle as the first three-time champion.

The New York-born, California-raised Meyer won Indy for the first time as a rookie in 1928. On one hand, that was an era where one-third of the field every year was comprised of rookies and the winners for both years prior in 1927 (George Souders) and ’26 (Frank Lockhart) were first-timers.

On the other hand, the next rookie winner was Graham Hill in 1966, 38 years later. Make no mistake, Meyer was special as a driver.

He picked up win No. 2 in 1933 by six minutes over Wilbur Shaw, who would go on to become the second three-time champion. Meyer won again in 1936, with the aftermath more closely resembling a modern-era win.

Blog-Meyermug-175As any Indy fan worth their bronze badge knows, Meyer celebrated by chugging buttermilk – his preferred elixir for a hot day. A milk executive saw a photograph of that the next day, and a tradition was born.

In addition to prize money, Meyer took home the Pace Car, a Packard. In the race’s early years the Pace Car wasn’t a celebrated part of the day but as the race grew in popularity, auto companies wanted the prestige of pacing. A Packard automobile had the job in 1936 and former two-time “500” winner Tommy Milton, then a Packard engineer, drove the car and remarked that giving the car to the race winner would be a nice gesture – and not an insignificant one for that time. For years afterward, the Pace Car was an especially coveted prize.

But nothing of course compared to the Borg-Warner Trophy, which first saw the light of day at a post-race banquet. Meyer received congratulations from chief starter Seth Klein and BorgWarner executives and was given a miniature wood-mounted version of the trophy. The “Baby Borg” (now freestanding) is still awarded today.

Meyer’s last “500” start was in 1939, then after World War II he became a co-owner of the Offenhauser engine company. The “Offys” would power winners for a record 27 races including every “500” from 1947-64.

Meyer died in 1995 at age 91.

Meyer accepts a handshake from chief starter Seth Klein at the first Borg-Warner Trophy presentation.

Meyer accepts a handshake from chief starter Seth Klein at the first Borg-Warner Trophy presentation.

The winner received the Pace Car for the first time in 1936 -- a big deal for a driver and his family.

The winner received the Pace Car for the first time in 1936 — a big deal for a driver and his family.

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About The Author

John Schwarb

I joined the Indianapolis Motor Speedway communications team in July 2014 and love sharing stories from the World Capital of Racing, particularly its rich history. Most of my professional career has been in racing or golf, so if I'm not in the IMS media center, the office at 16th and Georgetown or milling around Gasoline Alley, maybe I'll be standing over a birdie putt at Brickyard Crossing. Follow us at @IMS or drop me a line at @JohnSchwarb and come back to the blog often for more stories.
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