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Top 5 Indy 500 Traditions – Milk, Balloons and Bricks, Oh My!

The Indy 500 is about as tradition-rich as any other sporting event in the world. The 2022 Indianapolis 500 is set to take place on Sunday, May 29th. The date of the race itself is in accordance with a tradition that goes all the way back to the very first running of the event. The first-ever Indy 500 was held on Memorial Day Weekend in 1911. It has remained a staple of the holiday weekend ever since. Over the years, many more Indianapolis 500 traditions. In preparation for the 106th running of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”, the following highlights five of the top Indy 500 traditions.

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Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

5 Best Indy 500 Traditions

Singing “Back Home Again in Indiana”

The Kentucky Derby, the most prestigious horse race on the annual calendar, pays homage to its host state with the signing of “My Old Kentucky Home”. Similarly, the Indianapolis 500 counts the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” among its own pre-race festivities and traditions. The song was first published back in 1917, just six years after the very first Indy 500 was held. Interestingly enough, it was also originally titled “Indiana”.

According to Indianapolis 500 historical reports, the song was first played at the race in 1919. It is said that a trackside brass band played “Back Home Again in Indiana” during the closing laps as the Hoosier State’s own Howdy Wilcox drove the final laps on his way to the victory. As far as being a part of the Indianapolis 500 pre-race traditions, the song was first sung before the engines were fired in 1946.

James Melton, who supplied many of the cars that ran in the 1946 Indy 500, sang “Indiana” over the public address system along with the Purdue marching band about 45 minutes prior to the start of that year’s race. The serenade was so well-received by those in attendance that race organizers invited him back the following year. In 1948, the decision was made to move the song up to its current spot in the order of pre-race festivities. It is now sung just prior to the command to fire the engines.

Pre-Race Balloon Release

Legend has it that the iconic Indianapolis 500 balloon release was first incorporated among the event’s traditions in 1947. The pre-race balloon release is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Hundreds of balloons of multiple colors are let go into the race day sky just before the engines are fired. Former Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman oversaw the first-ever balloon release which is said to have been suggested by his mother, Grace Smith Hulman.

In the first few years of the Indy 500 balloon release, there was no real rhyme or reason to the timing. By 1950, however, the release of the multi-colored balloons had been synced up to coincide with the final notes of “Back Home Again in Indiana”. Those who have attended the Indianapolis 500 in person can attest that the rise of colorful balloons add a magnificent race day touch to the last lines of the historic state song.

Sadly, cancel culture seems to have gotten the better of the balloon release for the time being. In late April, IMS track officials confirmed that there will be no balloon release at the 2022 Indianapolis 500. Perhaps the complaints by groups like the Indiana Audubon Society grew too loud. Or, maybe it is the reported shortage of helium in Biden’s America that is to blame. The true driving force behind forgoing this Indy 500 tradition is unknown. Track officials have suggested that a second flyover will take the place of the longstanding Indianapolis 500 balloon release this year.

Helio Castroneves IndyCar Series Indianapolis 500 traditions Indy 500
Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Milk and a Wreath to the Victor

The Indianapolis 500 pre-race traditions are always a sight to behold. However, the race’s customary practices extend right through the 500-mile event to the post-race ceremonies as well. As they say, “To the victor goes the spoils”. For Indy 500 winners, those spoils include a glass of milk and a laurel wreath.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, why milk? Surely, drivers would prefer something a bit more refreshing after racing 500 miles under the Memorial Day Weekend sunshine. Well, it turns out that three-time Indy 500 winner Louis Meyer preferred to guzzle some milk to refresh himself on hot days. Today, we have Meyer to thank for starting the tradition of the Indianapolis 500 winner drinking milk in victory lane. He drank some simply out of habit after winning the 1936 race and the practice has been an Indy 500 staple ever since.

The winning driver is also presented with a symbolic laurel wreath in victory lane. This Indianapolis 500 tradition dates back to 1960 when Jim Rathmann was presented with a wreath after winning that year’s race. The Indy 500 wreath includes 33 Cymbidium orchids of ivory color with burgundy tips along with 33 miniature flags. Why 33 of each you ask? Well, aside from a few odd-ball races back in the day, every Indianapolis 500 starting lineup features 33 total cars.

Kissing the Bricks

Once upon a time, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway racing surface was made up entirely of bricks. When the first Indy 500 was run in 1911, Ray Harroun raced to the win on the all-brick track. For those wondering how IMS got its nickname of “The Brickyard”, now you know!

Over the years, the 3.2 million bricks that once made up the entire IMS racing surface have been paved over. By 1961, the entire track had been paved in asphalt with the exception of one section spanning three feet in width at the start/finish line. It is this remaining section that is the site of the annual Indianapolis 500 tradition of the winning driver and race team getting down on their knees and kissing the bricks.

Funny enough, the Indy 500 actually borrowed this tradition from NASCAR. In 1996, Dale Jarrett got down on all fours and gave the bricks a smooch after winning the Brickyard 400. We’ll save our rant about NASCAR doing away with racing on the IMS oval for the time being. At any rate, Gil de Ferran was the first Indy 500 winner to follow suit. He kissed the bricks after winning the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in 2003. Nowadays, any winner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, no matter the competition, is allowed a celebratory kiss with the bricks at the track’s start/finish line.

Indy 500 traditions
Credit: BorgWarner

Iconic Borg-Warner Trophy

The world of sports is filled with recognizable championship trophies. Football’s Lombardi Trophy, basketball’s Larry O’Brien Trophy and baseball’s Commissioner’s Trophy are all iconic pieces of hardware that are only claimed by champions of each respective sport. To MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, these trophies may simply be “pieces of metal”. To the athletes and fans of each sport, they are the ultimate goal.

Of course, no trophy truly compares to hockey’s Stanley Cup. Interestingly enough, the trophy given to the Indianapolis 500 winner shares a similar element with Lord Stanley’s Cup. The Borg-Warner Trophy was first awarded to the Indy 500 winner in 1936. Part of what makes this one of the most iconic trophies in sports are the faces that adorn it. Just as the names of every player on each Stanley Cup-winning hockey team are engraved on the cup, sculptures of every Indy 500 winner in the history of the race don the Borg-Warner Trophy.

The original Borg-Warner Trophy only had 50 spaces for race-winning faces to be sculpted. Thus, after the 1986 Indianapolis 500, a base was added to the trophy in order to accommodate more driver faces. Eventually, this base also became filled up. In 2004, a larger base for the trophy was created. This enlargened base is still being used today. It has enough spaces for new faces to be added last up through 2034. Only one face sculpted on the Borg-Warner Trophy is not that of an Indy 500-winning driver. Late IMS track owner Tony Hulman was sculpted in gold on the base of the trophy in 1987.

Made of steering silver, the current Borg-Warner Trophy weighs a whopping 110 pounds! By comparison, the current Stanley Cup only weighs in at 34.5 pounds.


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