100 years of Indy 500 traditions

Rick Kranz is product editor for Automotive News

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500 race.

Special events are expected to be held at this year's race, slated for Sunday. I've watched the race on TV for decades, much to the chagrin of my family.

Over the decades, numerous traditions evolved to become part of the race's colorful history -- drinking a glass of milk in victory lane, kissing the small band of bricks that recalls one of the 2.5-mile oval track's early racing surfaces, for example.

How and when did these traditions begin?

Thanks to a multipage insert celebrating the race's 100th anniversary, sponsored by Honda and published in one of the enthusiast magazines, several of those traditions are explained. Here they are:

Any color but green: Gaston Chevrolet's green racer won the Indianapolis 500 in 1920. Unfortunately, he was killed driving the same car in a race later that year. Drivers avoided that color until Jim Clark's British Racing Green car won the Indy 500 race in 1965. Even today, green is not a popular color -- call the men superstitious.

Danica Patrick's GoDaddy-sponsored car bucks that tradition. There is no doubt about the color of her ride -- day-glow green.

Moo: The tradition of each Indianapolis 500 winner drinking a glass of milk started in 1936. But it really wasn't milk. At the urging of his mom, Louis Meyer routinely drank buttermilk on a hot day. He swallowed the thick white stuff following his first of three victories at Indy. The tradition continued by other drivers until 1946, and was revived in 1956.

Emerson Fittipaldi created news when he skipped a glass of moo juice following his 1993 victory, opting for OJ.

But he had good reason: He's an orange grower back in Brazil. Even so, Fittipaldi was criticized for his on-air break with an Indy tradition. He drank a glass of milk some time later, but by that time the TV cameras were gone.

Smell the orchids: Each winner receives a wreath of flowers. Jim Rathmann was the first Indy 500 winner to receive such a wreath, which was placed over his head and around his shoulders in 1960.

Today's wreath is composed of 33 ivory-colored Cymbidium orchids and 33 miniature checkered flags, representing the starting grid.

The tradition was borrowed from Grand Prix racing.

Kiss the bricks: Ireland has the Blarney stone. Indiana the Brickyard.

The track's original surface was a mixture of crushed rock and tar. Not the ideal surface for racing, drivers soon learned. The mixture was replaced in 1909 with 3.2 million street-paving bricks.

It still wasn't perfect. Rough spots were covered with asphalt beginning in 1936. In fact, there were so many rough spots that by 1939 just 650 yards of brick remained. Finally, most of the remaining bricks were paved over in 1962, leaving a three-foot wide strip at the start/finish line that remains today.

The tradition of kissing Indy's bricks following a victory was started by outsiders, namely a NASCAR team. After winning the 1996 Brickyard 400 that was held at the track, winner Dale Jarrett and his crew puckered up.

Shortly thereafter, so did Indy 500 winners.

Now you have several talking points for this weekend's picnic.

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