Tony Kanaan was probably joking in the days leading up to last week's Indianapolis 500 when he said, “I’m going to actually put a note on my steering wheel not to pour the milk on myself. I’ll regret it.”
That’s because last time he won the race, he dumped it all over himself.
Kanaan had been trying for years to win the 500 when he finally reached Victory Lane in 2013. He was so overcome with joy that he dumped the milk right over his head, hardly caring about the stink that was sure to follow him around hours later.
The bottle of milk passed to the winner of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing is one of the unique traditions of the Indy 500, along with the three-wide starting grid and the yard of bricks. It dates to 1936, when race winner Louis Meyer asked for his favorite drink afterward.
Buttermilk. Just imagine that for a second.
“He enjoyed buttermilk as a boy. His mother told him it would cool him down on a hot day,” explained Donald Davidson, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian.
It might not make much sense these days, but it was still the start of a tradition. And since then, just about every winner of the Memorial Day weekend race has put in their request for a specific kind of milk in the week leading up to the race.
This year’s winner, Takuma Sato, opted for 2%, but he was in the minority. More than half of the field (17 of 33 drivers) selected whole milk.
Rick Mears is one of only three drivers to have tasted milk in Victory Lane four times.
“It’s refreshing to a point, but I’d like a cold drink of something else, afterwards. It does help, immediately after,” he said. “Matter of fact, I’ve got all four bottles of milk at home.”
There’s a story behind those empty bottles of milk, one that demonstrates just how much they mean.
“I lost the first one. It disappeared. I wasn’t thinking about it,” Mears said, “and then some years later, I’m talking to a guy. I’m signing some stuff for him. He says ‘Oh, by the way, I’ve got your old milk bottle, from 1979.’ So finally, I caught him off guard and said, ‘What do you want for it? I’ll take it.’ Then he kind of stumbled around for a little bit and said, ‘How about a helmet?’”
Done deal. Mears gave him one of his helmets for his 1979 milk bottle.
Juan Pablo Montoya won in 2000 and ’15. He doesn’t normally drink milk by itself, but the Colombian driver made an exception to honor the tradition.
“It’s like, do you really want to kiss bricks? Same thing, you know what I mean?” he said. “The tradition behind it is to kiss the bricks. People get excited, so it’s pretty cool. It’s part of the culture.”
Montoya isn’t the only one who didn’t care for milk. Emerson Fittipaldi was heavily booed in 1993 when he chose to drink orange juice after his win. “His family grew oranges for the Brazilian government, so he asked for orange juice instead,” Davidson said. Fittipaldi eventually realized the error of his ways and took a sip of milk to make the fans happy.
The fans love it when a driver pours milk over their heads, too. Even if the drivers would be wise to learn from Kanaan’s mistake.
“It stinks," Kanaan says. "If I can give any advice to first-timers, it is: Do not pour it on yourself. You pour milk around three o’clock, and you aren’t able to shower until midnight…I actually was doing a live set media tour that day, and while I was in between interviews, my ear was itching, and I actually grabbed a chunk of dry milk from my ear.”
The Victory Lane ceremonies are an important part of the culture of the Indy 500, just like the singing of “Back Home in Indiana” before the race and kissing the bricks afterward. Winning is so surreal that it even cancels out the stench of hours-old milk.
“It’s not that bad,” said three-time winner Helio Castroneves. “It smells a little bit, but let me tell you, when you’re on adrenaline, emotions, and celebration, you’re going through everything, it’s a good smell. Because it feels like ‘I made it.’ It’s pretty cool.”
Photograph by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images