Recalling the Race — and the Milk — at the 100th Indy500
By Sherry Bunting
Wait for it… The powerful and patriotic blend of freedom and speed that ensues after the recognition of our military, the moment of silence for fallen heroes, the singing of America the Beautiful, the National Anthem followed by the Blue Angels flyover, the singing of Back Home in Indiana, the anticipated “Gentlemen Start Your Engines”, the breaking free of the pace cars as the field of Indy cars passes the paddock with Old Glory in tow!
Then their off. ….. It’s a roar not soon forgotten when the field of 33 drivers rounds the curve to the paddock straightaway and the pace car exits the track. The thrill of the Indy500 is unmatched in motorsports, and the refreshing, replenishing, revered beverage associated with this great race is ICE COLD REAL DAIRY MILK. Thank you Louis Meyer — 3 time winner 1928, 1933, 1936 — for starting over 80 years of “the coolest trophy in sports for the greatest spectacle in sports.”
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — After 500 miles, 200 laps, 54 lead changes and 13 different leaders, the winning of the 100th Indy500 last year came down to a fuel strategy that put Alexander Rossi — the 9th rookie ever, and the first since 2001 — into Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the sweet taste of victory — the 80th traditional ice cold drink of milk, delivered in 2016 by milkwoman Janet Dague, a dairy farmer in Kewana, Indiana and rookie ‘milkman’ Joe Kelsay with a dairy farm in Whiteland.
(Kelsay delivered the 81st cold drink of milk at today’s 101st Indy500.)
Nearly a half million people turned out for the 100th running of the Indy500 in 2016. It was the first time that all seats and the infield were completely sold out in advance, with no walkup sales on the day of the race. As such, the media block was lifted for Indiana so locals were, for the first time, able to view the race on television — live.
The 2016 customary #winnersdrinkmilk moment was accompanied by the distribution of commemorative bottles of milk in special packaging made available by Prairie Farms, the American Dairy Association Indiana (ADAI) and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS).
Dague, the Indiana dairy producer with the honor of presenting the milk to the 100th winner has been a longtime avid fan of the race, and she had been hoping the winner would be a rookie, or someone who never won before.
“I was so very excited to see our rookie win the 500,” said Dague afterward. “I was jumping up and down, cheering in Victory Circle, when Alexander Rossi crossed the finish line. I even said to Joe ‘I told you I wanted a rookie to win!’
By “our rookie,” Dague was referring to Rossi earning the 42nd Fastest Rookie award given annually by the ADAI at a special dairy-and-racing-focused luncheon on the Tuesday before the race. There, Rossi was honored as the qualifying rookie with the fastest 4-lap average speed on qualification day, at an average 228 mph.
Dague described Rossi as “so gracious about winning. I think because of the rookie luncheon that just took place, he understood how important this was for the ADAI and every other dairy farmer around the world,” she explained. “In every picture, he made sure to take a drink of the milk and even made sure our logo was facing front and center. We couldn’t ask for a better spokesperson.”
Rookie ‘milkman’ and dairy producer Joe Kelsay’s excitement was obvious.
“To have the spotlight shine on the nutrition of milk in this way is just awesome,” he said during the 500 Festival Parade that Saturday. “It is an honor to represent fellow dairy farmers who are back home milking and feeding and listening to the race on the radio. It has been a humbling experience so far.”
“It was so amazing to see the large number of fans that showed up to see the 100th running of the Indy 500,” observed Dague, who has been going to the race for 21 years. “I have never seen such a crowd. People were just happy to get in the gates and sit in their lawn chairs on the Plaza and watch it on the big screen on the Pagoda. They just wanted to be there and share in all the festivities and celebrations of such a special day.”
(Given the unprecedented crowd, traffic was a crawl and even a standstill coming in. Even at 4 a.m., the wait was four and a half hours to travel the last three miles to the media parking lot and once entering the media-fast gate with credentials, the crush of wall-to-wall people made it obvious the afternoon was going to be one for the history books of this largest single-day event in the world of sports and motorsports.)
To put it in perspective, the largest-ever attendance of the NFL Superbowl was just over 100,000 people. The 100th running of the Indy500 in 2016 clocked in at 350,000 in the gates and another estimated 100,000 outside the gates just wanting to “be there.”
The traditional military tributes during the 500 Festival parade on Saturday and again in the pre-race festivities on Sunday were awe-inspiring as the Memorial Holiday reverence is always part of the experience. The crowd was visibly moved.
While the pre-race attention on crowd participation in the “milk toast” was reliant on electronic screen messages and announcements over the loudspeaker, fans were spotted mostly on social media Twitter and Facebook toasting with their milk before, during and after the race, versus one large crowd simultaneously lifting their bottles.
Mostly at that final moment, spectators were lifting cameras and either intent on the driver who had just won or attempting to beat the crowd to their cars.
Certainly, the crew was celebrating — milk in hand and mouth — in Victory Lane. Owners Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta were toasting each other, drinking their milk. Andretti, in particular, was happy to taste the elusive beverage right from driver Rossi’s official bottle while Rossi did his victory interview with ESPN. “The milk in Victory Circle seemed like a time honored tradition to the team, the owner and Rossi,” noted Kelsay. “There seemed to be quite an appreciation for what it means to toast the milk to one another, and many of the crew shared a drink after Chief Mechanic had his sip.”
Kelsay said the most memorable part for him as a ‘rookie milkman’ was their recognition and appreciation of the tradition.
“It seems as important to the fans as it is to dairy farmers,” he said. “Even one of the police officers mentioned what an honor it was to meet me (the rookie milkman) and he continued by quipping that he would be sure to keep me safe if something happens. We just thank Louis Meyer for starting this trend 80 years ago that we can highlight the healthy choice of milk and deliver that message to a global audience here at the Indy500.”
The main value of this tradition and the expanded ‘milk toast’ for the 100th Indy500 was the opportunities it provided on race day and for months leading up to race day — to share the good news about dairy milk’s superior nutrition.
After all, #winnersdrinkmilk and #milkalwayswinsatIndy500