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Indianapolis 500 Race: Annual Traditions

Updated on May 28, 2012

Many annual traditions go along with the famous Indianapolis 500 race. From music to racing to activities in and out of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the month of May is filled with honor and tradition.

The entrance to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
The entrance to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway | Source
Pace Cars have started the Indy 500 since 1911.
Pace Cars have started the Indy 500 since 1911. | Source

Pace Car

Since 1911, a pace car has started the Indianapolis 500. A "rolling start" is considered safer than a standing start, so the pace car leads the drivers on a lap around the track before the race officially starts. This allows the drivers to warm up their engines and tires. When the lap is over, the pace car pulls off the track and the race begins.

Starting in 1979, the pace car was also used to slow the cars during any caution periods during the race. During the pace lap at the beginning of the race, the pace car is often driven by a popular celebrity or racing star. However, during caution laps, a professional driver is behind the wheel.

The pace car is generally an American-made vehicle, showcasing the American automotive industry. Automotive companies have the opportunity to showcase a car, and they usually sell replicas of the official pace car to the public. Only one make and model is chosen per year.

The Famous Yard of Bricks

The last remaining bricks from the track surface.
The last remaining bricks from the track surface. | Source

Kiss The Bricks

In 1909, the surface of the track was covered with over three million street paving bricks to add stability to the previous sand and gravel surface. The bricks remained the surface of the track until the 1960s, during which the track was paved with asphalt. However, a 36-inch strip of the original bricks was left at the start-finish line.

Although the track has been resurfaced several times since then, the Yard of Bricks remains to this day.

Since 1996, it has been tradition that winners of any race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway kiss the Yard of Bricks after their victory. After the race, the entire race team and driver lines up and kisses the bricks at the same time. This tradition began with NASCAR driver Dale Jarrett, who knelt and kissed the bricks after his Brickyard 400 victory to honor the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

2011 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon drinks milk after his victory

Winners Drink Milk

Along with kissing the bricks, another tradition is for the winner to drink a bottle of milk in victory lane. In 1936, three-time-winner Louis Meyer requested a bottle of buttermilk after the race, inspiring what became an annual tradition in 1956.

In 1993, Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi broke tradition and drank a bottle of orange juice instead of milk. As the owner of several citrus groves in Brazil, Fittipaldi wanted to promote the citrus industry. However, the snub of the milk tradition was controversial, and he was severely criticized for the incident. Although he later drank some milk, the orange juice event marred the historic portrayal of his winning.

Back Home Again in Indiana

In 1946, James Melton, of the New York Metropolitan Opera Company first sang "Back Home Again in Indiana" (at that time just called "Indiana") at the Indianapolis 500. Accompanied by the Purdue University band, the song was very well received! He was invited to sing it again the next year, and in 1948 it became the last song before the famed "Gentlemen and Ladies, start your engines!"

Jim Nabors (best known as TV's "Gomer Pyle"), has sung this song at the race for most years since 1972. He is still accompanied by the Purdue University band, and there is now a launch of multicolored balloons each year during the final notes of the song.

Jim Nabors sings "Back Home Again in Indiana" at the Indy 500

The Borg-Warner trophy bears the images of the winners of the Indianapolis 500.
The Borg-Warner trophy bears the images of the winners of the Indianapolis 500. | Source

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The Borg-Warner Trophy

Weighing in at a massive 110 pounds, the Borg-Warner trophy has been presented to the winner of the Indianapolis 500 race since 1936. At its unveiling that year, the trophy contained bas-relief sculptures of every 500 winner up until that date. A new winner has been added every year since.

The only image on the trophy that is not of a driver was added in 1987. Late Speedway owner Tony Hulman's likeness was placed on the base of the trophy in gold.

So what happens when the trophy has no more spaces left for winners? The first time that happened was in 1986, the trophy's 50th anniversary. In 1987 a base was added to hold more driver's images. But, that too was filled in 2004. Now an even larger version of the trophy is in use, with enough spaces to last until 2034.

Don't Miss These Other Indianapolis 500 Traditions!

Along with the more popular traditions, there are quite a few other events that coincide with the Indianapolis 500. Here are a few that shouldn't be missed:

  • 500 Festival Kids' Day - Indiana's largest outdoor festival for kids! Kids' Day has games, entertainment, rides, and even racing themed arts and crafts. Fun for the whole family, and it's free!
  • Mini Marathon - As the nation's largest half marathon, runners travel from across the US and many other countries to participate. The course starts in downtown Indianapolis, and travels west, including a complete lap around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway!
  • Rookie Run - The Rookie Run is a foot race for children ages 3-12, and goes along with the Mini Marathon. The event takes place in downtown Indianapolis, and the length of the run depends on the age of the participant, from two blocks to 1/3 mile.
  • Zoopolis 500 - Held at the Indianapolis Zoo, this race is a bit slower than the original. It is run by tortoises! The Zoo's radiated tortoises "race" to a plate of fruit, and one will take the checkered flag! The entire day is filled with race-themed activities.
  • Memorial Service - Soldiers and veterans are not forgotten on this Memorial Day weekend. On the steps of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in downtown Indianapolis, a memorial service is held. The service includes a wreath-laying ceremony in honor of falling Hoosier veterans and a special reading of the names of Indiana soldiers who have fallen in the past year.
  • Snakepit Ball - If you want to see celebrities, don't miss the Snakepit Ball on the eve of the race! The black-tie party includes dinner and dancing, complete with red carpet celebrity arrivals.

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    • Amy Gillie profile image
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      Amy Gillie 5 years ago from Indiana

      I'm glad you liked it, Mmargie! Sometimes the traditions are more fun than the race itself!

    • Mmargie1966 profile image

      Mmargie1966 5 years ago from Gainesville, GA

      Love this! My husband is a HUGH NASCAR fan and knows all of these traditions. I, on the other hand, am still learning and this hub was certainly helpful.

    • Amy Gillie profile image
      Author

      Amy Gillie 5 years ago from Indiana

      Nare, I'm glad you liked it. I hope you have a truck to carry around the trophy!

    • Amy Gillie profile image
      Author

      Amy Gillie 5 years ago from Indiana

      Thanks kittyjj! There is definitely more to the Indy 500 than just cars going around a track. Thanks for sharing!

    • Amy Gillie profile image
      Author

      Amy Gillie 5 years ago from Indiana

      Thanks dwachira! I'm glad you liked it. The video of Wheldon is a bit sentimental these days.

    • Amy Gillie profile image
      Author

      Amy Gillie 5 years ago from Indiana

      Angela - it's worth it to go at least once! There's nothing like it!

    • Nare Anthony profile image

      Nare Gevorgyan 5 years ago

      Great hub Amy. You have shared very intresting info in this hub. I wouldn't mind to get that throphy :D Good job!

    • kittyjj profile image

      Ann Leung 5 years ago from San Jose, California

      Great hub Amy! I knew nothing about Indianapolis 500 Race before reading your hub. It's an interesting way to celebrate the victory by drinking a bottle of milk in victory lane. Pinned and Shared!

    • dwachira profile image

      [ Danson Wachira ] 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      Interesting hub about an interesting race, i like this line [A "rolling start" is considered safer than a standing start]. and one of the video is awesome, Wheldon drinking milk after a victory. Thanks for sharing.

    • Angela Kane profile image

      Angela Kane 5 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      I have never been to the Indianapolis 500, but I would love to go one day. I watch it every year on TV. I like when they kiss the bricks and drink the milk.

    • Nettlemere profile image

      Nettlemere 5 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      I liked the drinking milk too one that's very random! and I love the sound of the tortoise race.

    • Amy Gillie profile image
      Author

      Amy Gillie 5 years ago from Indiana

      Thanks Marcy! I love all the traditions, but I don't think I would kiss the bricks myself...kinda gross!

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

      Wow - I had no idea of these rich traditions! I've certainly heard of the Indianapolis 500 Pace Car, but not the tradition of kissing the bricks or drinking milk. I have to think that's going to be one huge trophy someday, though!

      Fascinating hub - voted up and up, and shared with followers.