10Best Traditions at the Indianapolis 500

These traditions form an important part of racing culture.


If you haven’t attended the Indianapolis 500 or watched it on television, you probably still know the winner drinks milk. Or that Jim Nabors sings a song that makes people cry. Or that traditions and routines are a large reason more than 200,000 people assemble at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to watch an auto race every Memorial Day weekend. Just as people wear funny hats and drink mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby, people have similar traditions at Indy:Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway


During the “new mown hay” line in “Back Home Again in Indiana,” workers release thousands of colorful balloons from the infield, a tradition that began in 1947. Mary Fendrich Hulman, wife of the track’s owner at the time, Tony Hulman, suggested the balloon launch. It’s also a nod to the first race at the track -- a hot-air balloon competition in 1909.Photo courtesy of mikemeck

The 500 Festival Parade

The parade through downtown Indianapolis the day before the race started in 1957 and is thought to have been in response to newspaper columnists who praised the pageantry -- including a parade -- before the Kentucky Derby. Among the parade marshals through the years are Shirley MacLaine, David Hasselhoff and Mickey Mouse.

The Borg-Warner Trophy

One of the most impressive trophies this side of the Stanley Cup, the Borg-Warner was introduced in 1936. Made of sterling silver, likenesses of each winner are carved from silver and affixed to the 5-foot, 5-inch, 110-pound trophy. Fun fact: Built for $10,000, it is currently worth an estimated $3.5 million.

The pace car

Carl G. Fisher, an auto dealer who built the speedway in 1909 as a testing ground for cars, thought the first 500 in 1911 should be paced by a production car for safety reasons. That tradition -- along with the rolling start -- still exists today. Among the celebrities who have driven the pace car are James Garner, Chuck Yeager and Jay Leno."Pace Car Alley" at the National Corvette Museum — Photo courtesy of JaseMan

Thirty-three car starting grid

A 1919 mandate from the American Automobile Association, the race’s sanctioning body at the time, required one car for every 400 feet of the 2.5-mile track, which worked out to 33 cars. Since then, the race has featured at least 33 starters -- except for 1979 and 1997, when qualifying issues led to 35 starters.

Female drivers

Women weren’t even allowed in the pits at Indianapolis until 1971. Six years later, Janet Guthrie finished 29th. She was ninth in 1978 and 34th in 1979. Since then, eight other women have raced 38 times, with a best finish of third by Danica Patrick in 2009. Pippa Mann is this year’s only female driver. Sarah Fisher, who holds the women’s record with nine starts, now is a team owner.

“Gentlemen, start your engines.”

The origins of the command to start engines is unclear, but it’s thought that it was first uttered in 1948 as “gentlemen, start your motors.” Track owner Tony Hulman, a quiet speaker, took the microphone in 1955 and bellowed the command. The tradition continued with his widow, Mary Fendrich Hulman, and daughter Mari Hulman George.

Drinking milk to celebrate victory

It doesn’t sound like the best beverage to quench thirst, but it could have been worse: Louis Meyer drank buttermilk after winning the race in 1936. A photo of Meyer drinking buttermilk inspired a local dairy executive, who thought Meyer was drinking milk, to implement the post-race swig as part of a promotion in 1937.

Jim Nabors and “Back Home Again in Indiana”

The song, first played by a brass band as Hoosier Howdy Wilcox crossed the finish line in 1919, has been performed by Nabors 35 times since 1972. This will be the final performance by the 83-year-old singer and actor who starred as Gomer Pyle in The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle ,U.S.M.C. in the 1960s.

Innovation and invention

Ray Harroun affixed a crude but effective mirror to his Marmon Wasp before he won the first Indy 500 in 1911. It wasn’t long before rearview mirrors were common on passenger vehicles. Indy also was the birthplace of the SAFER barrier, a steel-and-foam “soft” wall now in place at most IndyCar and NASCAR oval tracks.

About Jeff Olsen

Jeff is a freelance motorsports journalist whose work has appeared in RACER and Autosport magazines, the Des Moines Register and USA TODAY.

Read more about Jeff Olsen here.

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