Drink The Milk!
It is really frightening to realize how quickly a reputation can be destroyed. It can take years to build credibility and earn respect, yet it can all go away in a matter of seconds. That is exactly what happened to Emerson Fittipaldi in 1993. Fittipaldi had just won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time. It was a very entertaining race to watch and Emmo seemed to be a deserving two-time champion. He pulled his Penske chassis into Victory Lane and was greeted by a huge ovation. He climbed out of the cockpit, accepted the Borg-Warner trophy and the accompanying wreath along with all of the accolades that comes with being an Indy 500 champion. And then it happened…when offered the traditional bottle of milk, he declined. Thud.
Not only had he thumbed his large, pitted nose at one of the most honored traditions in sports; he explained it away by saying that he grew oranges in Brazil and he chose to drink orange juice, instead. The crowd wasn’t pleased. The National Dairy Council that sponsors this tradition would not take this snub quietly. Television replays show repeated attempts to “request” that Fittipaldi drink the milk. Each time he would look the other way and skillfully ignore them or else politely nod his head sideways and calmly shove the still full bottle aside; all the while sipping on his orange juice bottle.
There it was. Done. In the course of an instant, one of the fan favorites at the Speedway had suddenly become Darth Vader. He was instantly vilified. I am not sure I have ever seen a reputation go down the tubes so quickly. We don’t mind when a driver mentions his or her sponsor’s name twelve times in a single interview. That is part of the sport. But for a driver to use the hallowed ground of Victory Lane at Indianapolis as a platform to prostitute his own products – while avoiding tradition; well…that was too much to swallow.
We are now sixteen years removed from that incident and Fittipaldi’s reputation hasn’t recovered. He drove the pace car to start the race in 2008. When introduced, it was hard to hear the smattering of polite applause over the chorus of boos. There are two things about Indy fans…we like tradition and we don’t forget.
The drinking of milk by the winner of the Indianapolis 500 actually started in 1936, when Louis Meyer won his third 500. It was unusually hot that day. Meyer’s drink of choice on a hot day was actually a cold glass of buttermilk, which was what he was actually drinking from a bottle after the race in Victory Lane. The Milk Foundation saw the pictures and decided to capitalize on it. They began a promotion the following year where they provided milk to the winner each year. The practice was stopped in 1947, for some unknown reason, and did not return until 1956. Since 1956, the Indy 500 winner has consumed milk every year…except for 1993, when orange juice was the surprise choice.
Another sacrilege involving milk began in 2001 when Helio Castroneves won the race. After a few sips of the milk, Helio chose to pour the rest of the bottle over his head. This doesn’t come close to the Fittipaldi faux pas, but it tends to rub traditionalists like me the wrong way…not to mention what his hair and clothes must have smelled like afterwards. He doubled the insult the following year by dumping two bottles over his head in honor of his second win.
The next few winners were a bit more civil with their milk. Gil de Ferran calmly sipped it while simply saying, “I love milk”. Dan Wheldon didn’t sip – he gulped. He actually downed half of the bottle in about three swallows. Wheldon was even generous enough to share some with his car owner, Michael Andretti, since he had never had the honor as a driver. But he never dumped it.
The milk wasn’t dumped again until 2006, when Sam Hornish poured milk all over his head and then, doing his best Dan Gurney champagne-spraying imitation, proceeded to douse the unwilling crowd with milk. That’s certainly a nice way to pay back your well-wishers. Scott Dixon was the most recent milk dumper in this unruly trend. That’s four times in the last eight years that the traditional milk has been desecrated.
At least they all drank the milk before dumping it out, unlike Fittipaldi. Still, this is one of those traditions that you don’t turn your back on. Steven Tyler set tradition back one hundred years by his rendition of the National Anthem in 2000. You wouldn’t want Michael Jackson singing “Back Home Again In Indiana”. We shouldn’t have our race winners throwing milk everywhere. Some things you just don’t mess with. There is a lot of responsibility heaped upon the shoulders of an Indianapolis 500 champion. That responsibility should start with the sacred traditions in Victory Lane.