July 27, 2021

4 Traditions of The Greatest Spectacle In Racing

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On Sunday we will have something unprecedented in motorsport: the one hundredth running of a single race.  At 10:19 AM, the green flag will drop for the one hundredth running of the Indianapolis 500.  NASCAR doesn’t have a race approaching it’s hundredth running, nor does Formula 1, Rallying, or anything else.  This is truly the greatest spectacle in racing.  In the 105 years since the first race, some traditions have come.  Interesting traditions.  Here are four traditions, and how they came to be.

“Back Home Again In Indiana”

Before the race, and fairly consistently since 1972, Jim Nabors has sang “Back Home Again In Indiana”.  Forty-four years is a long time for Gomer to be belting out that song, and he’s only missed out on a few 500’s.  But he definitely wasn’t the first to sing it to the crowd.

There are a few reports that indicate that the song was played in 1919 by a brass band as Howdy Wilcox won the race.  Back then it was simply titled “Indiana”, and was maybe the first time the song was played at the speedway.

The first time it was played before a race was in 1946, by James Melton and the Purdue University band.  Melton was a member of the New York Metropolitan Opera Company, and also a car collector.  He provided several cars for the race-morning lap of classic cars.  He and the band performed 45 minutes before the race, and it went over well.  Really well.  So well in fact that he was invited back the following two years.

Eventually the performance was moved up to it’s current slot, and it hasn’t moved.

Balloons Before the Start

If you watch the race, you’ll notice thatballoons are released  as “Back Home Again In Indiana” ends.  Festive!  The balloons will rise for the sixty-ninth time this year, and all because someone listened to their mother.

There weren’t any races held from 1942 until 1945, due to the second World War.  This lack of racing, and general attention, meant that the track fell into disrepair.  In November of 1945, a business man from Terre Haute, IN bought the track for the princely sum of $750,000.  That man was Tony Hulman, and his family still owns the track to this day.  He bought it at the urging of Wilbur Shaw, winner of three of the previous five 500 mile races.  After the track was Hulman’s, he named Wilbur as president and GM of the track.

Before the 1947 race, Tony’s mother Grace suggested that they release some balloons before the drop of the green flag.  And the tradition stuck.  In 1950 they moved the balloon release to the end of “Back Home Again In Indiana”, and it’s been that way ever since.

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The Trophy and The Milk

1936 saw the beginning of two of the longest standing traditions: it saw the debut of the Borg-Warner Trophy, and it was the first time someone drank milk in Victory Lane.  The fellow who drank the milk and won the trophy was Louis Meyer.

See, Louis Meyer (winner of three Indianapolis 500’s) had this odd habit.  On hot days he’d drink buttermilk to refresh himself.  And since Memorial Day tends to be hot, Louis cracked open a bottle as he pulled into Victory Lane.  A news photographer snapped a photo of him drinking the milk.  An executive at the Milk Foundation saw this, and was elated!  MILK HAS HIT THE BIG TIME!  He vowed that there would be milk for the winner of the race from then on.  And so it was… until the war started.  And then from 1947 until 1955, milk wasn’t an option.  It cam back in 1936, and has stayed.  Now on to the trophy Louis received.

The Borg-Warner Trophy was made by Spaulding-Gorham of Chicago, and was unveiled at a dinner in New York in February of 1936.  The Sterling Silver trophy features a bas-relief sculpture of every winner of the race.  This continued until 1986, when they ran out of space on the trophy.  Fitting this happened on the 50th anniversary of the trophy.  The powers that be added a base to the trophy, which provided enough space through 2004.  And when that was filled, they replaced it with an even larger base!  A base that’ll have enough space for every winner until 2034.

All of the faces on the trophy are of race winners, and they’re all done in silver.  All of the faces, except one.  In 1987 the face of Tony Hulman was added in gold.

And there you have it, four traditions surrounding the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.  I’ll be watching the race on Sunday, like I do every Memorial Day Weekend.  Watching the race is my tradition, and has been for decades.  Hopefully you’ll be watching this historic running, and hopefully this becomes one of your traditions as well.


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