The story behind the sweetest drink in racing

Published On March 23, 2016 » 3623 Views» By Donald Davidson » 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 67 days to go, IMS Historian Donald Davidson explains another cherished Indy 500 tradition.

More Donald Davidson: Origins of: Brick-kissing | The Pace Car Why Indy is a 500-miler | Why it’s 33 cars | How “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines” beganMore 100 days blogs

As with several of the most cherished traditions surrounding the “500,” the drinking of the milk in Victory Lane started quite by accident. Louis Meyer, the first three-time winner, regularly drank buttermilk, his mother having convinced him as a young boy growing up in Yonkers, New York, that it would refresh him on a hot day. Louis always claimed that the tradition started in 1933, when he won his second “500,” but there is no photographic evidence to substantiate this, and Bill Cummings in 1934 and Kelly Petillo in 1935 certainly did NOT drink milk in any form.

However, in 1936, when Meyer won for the third time, a Movietone News cameraman was there to record Louis holding up three fingers with one hand and sipping from a bottle of what appeared to be milk with the other. It is understood that an executive in the dairy industry saw the footage and enthusiastically requested that milk (he had not realized that Louis was drinking buttermilk) be made available to the winner each year. Although there was no monetary incentive attached, every winner between 1938 and 1941, plus 1946 (no races were held during World War II) happily guzzled, after which it was politely declined between 1947 and 1955 in favor of cold water in a silver chalice, normally handed to them by three-time winner Wilbur Shaw, who was now the track’s president and general manager. Engraved on the cup was the legend “Water from Wilbur.”

Wilbur Shaw marked his third "500" win in 1940 with a bottle of milk.

Wilbur Shaw marked his third “500” win in 1940 with a bottle of milk.

In May 1956, with Shaw gone (having perished in a private plane crash in October 1954), the Dairy Industry posted an accessory prize of $400 to be paid to the winning driver, providing he drank milk in Victory Lane. Not only that, but his chief mechanic would be paid an additional $50. As luck would have it, 1956 winner Pat Flaherty suffered from a slight calcium deficiency and regularly drank milk. In addition to a healthy swig of water from the Shaw cup, he consumed an entire bottle of milk and then asked for a second. The water in the Shaw cup was still offered for a couple more years until finally being retired in favor of milk only. The prize money has increased dramatically since Flaherty, Sam Hanks and Jimmy Bryan and others were paid $400 for a swig or two. The most recent winners have received $10,000.

After winning Indy on his 12th try, Tony Kanaan did more than just sip the milk.

After finally winning Indy on his 12th try, Tony Kanaan did more than just sip the milk.

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About The Author

Donald Davidson

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson, based at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, developed a passionate interest in the Indianapolis 500 as a teenager in England. Arriving at IMS in 1964, he delighted the racing community with his ability to recite year-by-year accounts of participants’ careers. Returning permanently in 1965, he was invited by Sid Collins to join the worldwide IMS Radio Network and was hired by Henry Banks as USAC statistician, remaining at USAC for almost 32 years. He was named Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian in 1998. Along with numerous television and radio assignments, raconteur Davidson has played host to the popular call-in radio show “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” on 1070 AM in Indianapolis during the month of May continuously since 1971. His writing credits include countless historical articles and columns, a pair of “500” annuals in 1974 and ‘75 and co-authorship with Rick Shaffer of the acclaimed “Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500,” published in 2006.
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