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We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 32 days to go, we look at one of the more bizarre scenes in Victory Circle.
Imagine Jim Nabors taking the microphone and belting out “My Old Kentucky Home” before the Indianapolis 500 starting field of 30 cars aligned 15 rows of two. Imagine no military flyover, no balloons and the infield closed to all spectators.
Sorry if reading that made your eyes hurt. Silly talk, right? Completely absurd. Like winning the “500” and celebrating with a cold bottle of orange juice.
Yes, 23 years ago there was a premeditated attack on a half-century of tradition in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” As Emerson Fittipaldi was still unhooking his helmet in Victory Circle, having won the 77th 500 Mile Race in 1993, a bottle of orange juice was handed to him. Then, as his interview with ABC’s Jack Arute began, milk was offered but the newly crowned two-time champion pushed it away. Again it was offered, but Emmo smiled to a man off-camera and said “no, I’m not having the milk, sir.”
Arute couldn’t resist: “Now there’s a first – Emerson, you’re not going to drink the milk.”
“Well, I’m going to drink the orange juice … this time,” Fittipaldi said, shooing the white bottle away again. (The milk man, to his credit, was persistent.) Finally, before the winner’s wreath was presented, Emerson took a sip. (Scroll to 5:38 on video below.)
And with that developed a storyline never seen before at Indy, and certainly not since.
Fittipaldi owned orange groves in his native Brazil and thought the stunt would be good for business. Maybe it was back home, but not so much at Indy. The fallout was immediate, and prolonged.
“He got lambasted,” recalled longtime Indianapolis 500 writer and broadcaster Robin Miller. “He’s a very likable guy, but that hurt his image for about a year. He got booed at Milwaukee (the following week), then when he crashed trying to lap (Al Unser) Junior in 1994, there were quite a few people cheering.
“So don’t think that tradition didn’t mean something to a lot of the fans – it did.”
And still does. Don’t expect to see anything remotely like that ever again.
“I’m glad I like milk,” said three-time champion and fellow Brazilian Helio Castroneves, laughing. “I guess Emerson thought about it as the best way to promote his business, but I don’t think he ever thought of breaking a huge tradition.”
In the outstanding Penske 50th anniversary exhibit now at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, the team’s winning cars sit in gleaming repose with a poster above each showing the driver celebrating his win in Victory Circle.
That includes the 1993 Penske/Chevrolet and Fittipaldi smiling with that orange bottle. Walking through the other day, I saw two older race fans look at the poster and chuckle.
We can laugh about it now, right?