By Sherry Bunting
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – 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 Indianapolis 500 is unmatched in motorsports, and the refreshing, replenishing, refueling and revered beverage associated with this great race is MILK — Real Dairy Milk!
For 103 years, on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, a patriotic display, Blue Angels fly-over, recognition of our military and moment of silence for our fallen precede the 500-mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS).
And for 83 years, the legendary race is complete with the ice cold Drink of Milk in Victory Circle — deemed the “coolest trophy in sports”, awarded for the “greatest spectacle in racing,” also known as the largest single-day sporting event in the world.
Dave Forgey of Logansport was an Indy500 spectator for years before having the chance to be the ‘Milkman.’ As a dairy farmer he was enthusiastic when the Indiana milk promotion board began choosing dairy farmers, instead of executives, to be the ones to give the famed bottle of milk to the winning driver each year. After serving as the ‘rookie’ in 2011, he was lead Milkman in 2012.
“As dairy farmers, we bring a personal touch to the award, that brings it to the common level of the fans. At the end of the race, the Milk is always first,” said Forgey with a broad grin standing in front of the IMS Pagoda race day morning talking to fans in 2012.
The job of the Indy500 Milkmen (or women) begins long before Sunday, and continues throughout the year in venues such as Rotary Club presentations and small town parades, as well as other competitive events that capitalize on the Winners Drink Milk slogan of American Dairy Association Indiana.
By Sunday, the Milkmen are focused on keeping the Milk iced for Victory Lane and promoting milk and dairy farming to race-day fans. They ask all the drivers to choose between Whole, 2% and fat-free and have those selections ready since they don’t know who the winner will be. Whole milk has been topping the choices 2 to 1 over the past few years, and two top drivers, Ed Carpenter and James Hinchcliffe in 2019 said they would return to the buttermilk choice of 3x winner Louis Meyer in 1936, if it were an option!
In short, the Indy500 milkmen are charged with protecting the future of this unique sports award ruled tops for its “cool factor” according to Sports Illustrated writer Pete McEntegart, who in his si.com column ranked milk #1 among the Sports World’s top-10 unique trophies.
And in a recent interview, champions rate the Milk as the top tradition of this famed race that is certainly steeped in many traditions.
“It is certainly a tradition that everyone respects. What else can we do that is this national and international in scope?” Forgey observes. He said he came home to find an email from a friend in New Zealand who saw the whole thing on television.
“The fans are interested. They want to talk about our dairy farms,” says Forgey. When fans realized he was giving the bottle of mlk, they wanted to know how he qualified for the job. When Forgey explained that he and his rookie are Indiana dairy farmers, the fans were eager to know more. Of course, they also want to see the milk. Standing by the milkmen in front of the IMS Pagoda on race day morning, enthusiasm for “the milk” is evident. Fans paused to take pictures, and ask questions.
“There is always a lot of excitement for the milk among the racing fans,” says Forgey. “They know the tradition. They know about the milk. And when we can help them connect it back to the farmer, that generates interest.”
Initiated 83 years ago when the first three-time winner, Louis Meyer, asked for buttermilk to quench his thirst after the grueling 500-mile race, the Drink of Milk tradition has endured. Today, scientific evidence shows Louis Meyer knew what he was doing back in 1936, when he turned after that grueling race to the unique, natural and un-matched combination of hydrating re-fuel found in Real Dairy Milk with it’s healthy maitrix of fat, protein, carbohydrate, a dozen essential nutrients and refreshment. In fact, in those days, buttermilk was the name given to full-fat milk with extra heavy cream! Today’s drivers tend to choose Whole Milk (standardized at 3.25% fat) more than the reduced fat (2%) or fat-free options.
ADA Indiana coordinates the Indy500 Drink of Milk promotion today, and 45 years ago they added to the heritage by sponsoring the “Fastest Rookie” award on the Tuesday before the big race. The coveted award recognizes the first-year driver who achieves the fastest four-lap average speed from among fellow rookie competitors during time trials.
“The rookies are very interested in the milk and getting their pictures taken with the milk,” says Forgey.
Fast forward to 2016 with the 100th running of the Indy500 and what a celebration it was! Nearly half a million people attended in person. To put this into 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.”
Prairie Farms, American Dairy Association Indiana and the IMS together gave commemorative, specially-packaged bottles of milk to fans for a winning milk toast and they were available in stores throughout the region.
After 500 miles, 200 laps, 54 lead changes and 13 different leaders, the winning of the 100th Indy500 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 from Kewana, Indiana and rookie Joe Kelsay of Kelsay Farms, Whiteland.
“I was so excited to see our rookie win the 500,” said Dague, an avid race fan and dairy farmer after delivering the Drink of Milk to Rossi in Victory Circle. “I was jumping up and down, cheering when he crossed the finish line. I even said to Joe ‘I told you I wanted our rookie to win!’
By “our rookie,” Dague was referring to Rossi earning the 42nd Fastest Rookie award given annually by the ADA-Indiana 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 ADA-Indiana 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.”
The whole crew was celebrating that win with their milk, along with race fans given commemorative bottles on the 100th anniversary. 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, and their chief mechanic was next for the taste of victory!
Rookie Milkman Kelsay was excited to be there for the first time with the Drink of Milk in that 100th year of the Indy500.
“To have the spotlight shine on the nutrition of milk in this way is just awesome,” he said during the parade honoring military and the heritage of the race on the day before. “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 seems as important to the fans as it is to dairy farmers. Even one of the police officers mentioned what an honor it was to meet us, saying he would be sure to keep me safe if something happens.
“We just thank Louis Meyer for starting this trend over 80 years ago that we can highlight the healthy choice of milk and deliver that message to a global audience here at the Indy500,” Kelsay adds.
“What better way could we as dairy farmers promote our product than to be out in the forefront of this event, which is so significant worldwide?” says Forgey, who appreciated the honor of spending 2011 and 2012 representing the dairy farmers in Indiana and across the U.S., who work hard to produce a healthy product.
After all, #WinnersDrinkMilk because #RealMilkAlwaysWins #TasteTheVictory