How Milk Became the Drink of Choice for Indy 500 Winners

by Culinary Spelunker / May 26, 2018 /
Culinary Spelunker's picture

A day before thirty-three racing cars charge through the speedway, ticking off 200 laps and 500 miles, the Milk People (yes, they're called "Milk People") prepare to make their special delivery. Chosen from among more than 1,000 Indiana dairy farmers, two "Milk People" are selected to award the Indianapolis 500 winner, and the driver's mechanic and car owner, a bottle of milk. They're offered one of three varieties – skim, 2%, or whole milk.

Chocolate is a no-go.

Today, no Indy winner would think of drinking anything else. And yet the tradition started as simple advice from a mom to her son: Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, Louis Meyer, drank buttermilk after his second win in 1933. But it wasn't until he won an unprecedented third time and a photographer captured the moment he drank a glass of milk to celebrate the victory that the Indiana Dairy Association saw an opportunity.

The tradition has evolved over the years but still maintains its humble roots – offering some of Indiana's finest to the winner of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

This Memorial Day weekend as millions of viewers from across the world tune in to watch – and around 300,000 cheer on the racers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – there are a couple of fans who'll be paying close attention: this year's Milk People, including senior milk deliverer Kim Minich, and rookie Andrew Kuehnert.

For Kim, who'll be carrying the prized award into the Victory Circle this year, it's an especially humbling – and nerve-wracking experience.

How Milk Became the Drink of Choice for Indy 500 Winners

From the Farm to the Racetrack

"The cows get milked at 7 a.m., 3 p.m. and 11 p.m. every day," explains Kim of a typical day on the farm. Everyone pitches in to help – including her five children ages 12 to 5.

"When they turn 6 years old they get to pick out a heifer and help out raising it and taking care of it," notes Kim, who says the money from their entrepreneurial effort goes right into their college account.

Unlike many of the farmers selected to deliver the winning bottle of milk, Kim isn't a lifelong dairy farmer, but came to farming later in life. In 2009, she and her husband decided to move back to his family's farm, which had been passed down since 1909. She also became active in the Indiana branch of the American Dairy Association, who selects the Indy milk deliverers each year.

Kim was more than surprised when she received the call.

"I was very, very excited and honored. I've seen other people selected over the years and watched them deliver the milk in videos but it never occurred to me they'd choose me."

How Milk Became the Drink of Choice for Indy 500 Winners

Ensuring a Safe Delivery

Over the years, the milk delivery has become the stuff of pageantry. Last year's senior milk deliverer, Joe Kelsay, went so far as to handcuff himself to the milk cooler to make sure it was kept safe and ice cold right up to delivery. And that cooler traveled via armored car into the speedway.

This year, the cooler will be ushered into the speedway by police escort. In fact, the milk people are the first to go into the main gate on race day, clocking in at 5:45 a.m.

How Milk Became the Drink of Choice for Indy 500 Winners

From there, Kim watches over the dairy prize until it's time for delivery – she'll be anxiously reviewing her list of each racer's preference as the winner emerges lap over lap.

Once the racer rolls into Victory Circle, Kim is ushered towards the winner to award the milk bottle.

How Milk Became the Drink of Choice for Indy 500 Winners

"It's nerve wracking," smiles Kim. "It can be really hard to get the bottle open and then you're fumbling around to get the lid off."

There's a lot of emotion tied to that final moment, too, when the racer realizes after 500 laps that he or she has won.

"It's a combination of two pretty incredible things," Kim says of the experience. "It's really emotional and there's a lot of feelings on both ends. They've just won the race and then they're holding a product that as dairy farmers we work so hard to produce. I'm just representing one of a thousand. There's a lot of raw emotion. It's so loud and yet it's quiet, too. Everyone's so focused within that moment. It's pretty unreal."

Racing – and Now Farming – a Family Affair

For Kim, her interest in racing goes back before her days as a farmer. Her dad used to take her to the time trails, bribing her and her sister to go with snacks.

"Starting when I was about 8 years old and I could sit still long enough for him to take me I would go," remembers Kim.

This year, Kim will be bringing along her children to watch the race and see her deliver that prized glass bottle.

"For me, including my family in this great tradition is really the best part, just to have them there with me on race day. It may very well be the last time my kids think I'm cool so I'm taking advantage of it," jokes Kim, who's quick to point out that she's humbled by the opportunity.

"It's supposed to be blazing hot for the race so my hands will be sweating. I just hope I do a good enough job to honor all the hard work of our dairy farmers and don't drop the bottle!"

How Milk Became the Drink of Choice for Indy 500 Winners

 

Kristen J. Gough is the Global Cuisines & Kids Editor for Wandering Educators. She shares her family's adventurous food experiences--and recipes--at MyKidsEatSquid.com.

All photos courtesy of the American Dairy Association Indiana

 

 

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