Drink The Milk!

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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.

George Phillips

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12 Responses to “Drink The Milk!”

  1. I completely recall the Fittipaldi OJ thing. I was a big fan of his and glad he won that race, but then he did that. Although I didn’t hate him after that, I was never as big of a fan of his and that’s the only thing I remember about his win.

  2. Damm straight! Drink the milk!

  3. George,

    Another awesome post. Congrats on getting the P-dog press. Get ready for a flood of new traffic. Now I can brag to everyone, yeah, I was reading Oilpressure back in the day when he only had 2 comments per post!

    Best Regards,
    Turbine68

  4. I can’t say I’d drink the milk either. Because really — after 4 hours of intense heat & physical exertion — milk sounds about as appealing as a bucket of wet cement mix.

    *ignores chorus of boo’s*

    I stand by it.

    • Come on, Hobbson. If milk’s good enough for Ron Burgundy, it ought to be good enough for you.

      Great post, George, as most all of your posts have been. Keep up the fantastic work.

  5. I will never forget the first day back at the dairy association office after the race and the ‘oj incident.’ My boss and I fielded phone calls (literally non-stop from 8a-5p) from disgruntled race fans and others who needed to vent their deep disappointment, hurt and often anger that Emmo chose not to drink the milk to celebrate his Indianapolis 500 victory. (He did drink the milk but only after he drank the oj.) Many media folks were also calling that day to learn about the genesis of the drink of milk tradition. I had calls from as far away as London, England, Seattle, Miami, and New York.

    Now emerging research supports that drinking milk can be an effective way to help the body refuel and recover after exercise. Milk provides calcium, phosphorus, vitamin D, vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin B12, niacin and potassium — it’s also 90% water, which helps replace fluids and rehydrate the body.

    I heard the genesis story from Louis Meyer himself shortly before his death. He told us that his mother made the best buttermilk and that’s what he craved after the race. Mom was right—drink your milk—it’s good for you.

  6. Oh, the “Curse of the Milk”. Here is an interesting view point to take, though this year it could be disputed. When Emo snubbed the milk, the curse of the milk began. In 94′ Emo crashes with a handful of laps left. 95′ He misses the show, in 96′ Emo has a career ending crash at Michigan. In 97 he crashes his plane flying over his beloved orange groves.

    This brings me to Danica Patrick in 2005. For some unknown reason, besides her PR people telling her to do it, she pours the Milk on the ground during the pre race hype video. I have been told that other drivers refused to do the scene. Well Danica got suckered into it and has since had bad luck at the brickyard. In 2005 she stalls while leading, then later spins into the field on a restart, in 2006 she had a mid pack car all day and could do nothing. The same thing happend in 2007, in 2008 she was involved in a pit lane incident while having a race winning car. All of the while having bad luck scraps at other events.

    As for the pouring of the milk on the heads, I believe Helio is the only driver so far that has been able to do it twice.

    We will see if the “Curse of the Milk” continues.

  7. Hornish and Dixon I believe saw the milk as a Speedway-blessed miracle, and thus flinging it around was a way to share the glory with their team. Fittipaldi’s milk snub, however, was abhorrent. I’ve read that he regrets the moment, but I wonder just how much it haunts him?

  8. John McLallen Says:

    George you have written another great article and it has given me pause to drink,..er, think about the history of the Indianapolis 500. Bill Vukovich, it seems, was the last man since 1947 to not have a bottle of cold milk offered to him. Maybe its because since 1947 the winner of the Indianapolis 500 was offered a fabulous drink of water from a silver cup with the words “Water from Wilbur” engraved upon it. Wilbur, of course, was three time 500 winner Wilbur Shaw who was the president of the Indianapolis 500. The next winter, Mr. Shaw died in a plane crash and the silver cup was retired to the IMS Museum. I think that the milk is probably one of the best tasting of all drinks to the winner, but the cup of water offered by Wilbur Shaw was a mighty fine drink as well. Vuky enjoyed it and delighted in the fact that it was Wilbur Shaw who gave it to him.

  9. A day that will live in infamy!!! I still loathe Emmo!

  10. just found this as part of my “get psyched for indy” preparations… I Was there in 1993. Sitting on the back stretch going into 3. Well, the race ends and we are in delirious state–as usual. Then I remember this collective sort of gasp going through the crowd. Almost like during the race when there is a bad crash and everyone gets all freaked. I mean a palpable change of emotion. Then you could hear people passing along the news–the people with radios that always tell you what is going on when something happens you cannot see– “he’s not drinking the milk!” what?!?!?!?! “HE’S NOT DRINKING THE MILK!” WHAT?!?!?! “HE’S NOT DRINKING THE MILK!”

    And then the best part, going back the next year, the year they built the push-rod engines and called them “Mercedes.” Those things were bad ass, more HP I guess, so Penske running in front all day. Those engines making that cooler lower-pitched noise as they passed by… Emo in the lead late in the race, all alone on teh lead lap, looking like he’s gonna easily cruise to another win. Lap after lap, BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH… low pitched “Mercedes” push rod engine sound.

    Then, BAM! into the wall. Like the whole crowd looks at each other and somebody says what everybody was thinking “SHOULDA DRANK THE MILK!”

    God I love Indy.

  11. Why is it that America lets it be so easy to step all over OUR traditions, but yet we bend over backwards to instill and gladly endorse other’s traditions? Will something so simple be a wake up call? Honestly though, it isn’t that simple, is it??
    Damn, it’s 1 (ONE) gulp – 1 (ONE) time a YEAR!! Come on man, get real !!!

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