Steeped in history: 5 great traditions celebrated for 100th Indy 500

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You can’t reach 100 races without establishing some traditions, and the Indianapolis 500 has plenty of them.

When fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway cheer on their favorite drivers for the historic 100th running of the race, they’ll enjoy an event steeped in tradition. Here’s a look at some of those traditions and the history behind them at the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

500 Festival Parade

For an event that’s 100 years old, the 500 Festival Parade is a more “recent” addition… if you consider something that started in 1957 recent. Organizers drew inspiration from the events leading up to the Kentucky Derby to craft their own tradition for the 500.

The parade is one of the nation’s largest, consistently ranking right up there with the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. The very first 500 Festival Parade started at 7 p.m. on the night before the race. It included 20 floats and all 33 pace cars along with high school marching bands, the Purdue University Marching Band, the Indianapolis Police Department’s Motorcycle Drill Team and representatives from several military organizations. Actress Cyd Charisse and actor Hugh O’Brien (“Wyatt Earp”) waved to a crowd estimated at 150,000.

The 2016 parade is expected to draw 300,000 attendees. About 3,000 volunteers help coordinate the event.

“Back Home Again in Indiana”

There are reports that the song, which was originally published in 1917, was played by a brass band as Hoosier driver Howdy Wilcox turned the final laps en route to victory in the 1919 Indy 500, but the song didn’t become part of the pre-race festivities until 1946.

James Melton of the New York Metropolitan Opera Company sang the race day classic 45 minutes before the race with the Purdue University Band providing the accompaniment that year. The performance was well received, and Melton was invited back to perform the following year. In 1948, the song moved up to its current position in the pre-race ceremonies.

Several different people have performed the song over the years, including Mel Tormé, Vic Damone, Dinah Shore, Ed Ames, Peter Marshall, Dennis Morgan and Johnny Desmond, but actor Jim Nabors (of “Gomer Pyle” fame) turned it into his signature race day song. Nabors first performed it in 1972 and missed only a handful of years until retiring in 2014.

Nabors said he was approached at the last minute to perform the song and loved singing it every year.

After Nabors retired, a capella group “Straight No Chaser” performed the song in 2015. Josh Kaufman, winner of “The Voice,” will sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” with help from the Indianapolis Children’s Choir for the 100th running.

Balloon Release

The year 1947 marked the inaugural year for the colorful balloon release on race morning. It’s believed that Tony Hulman’s mother, Grace Smith Hulman, made the suggestion. Just a few years later in 1950, the release was timed to coincide with the final notes of “Back Home Again in Indiana,” a tradition that lives on through the 100th running.

Drinking the Milk

When drivers win the Indy 500, they don’t reach for water or a sports drink like Gatorade. No, the only drink that satisfies after racing 500 miles around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on a typically hot May day is milk.

The tradition began with three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Louis Meyer, who found buttermilk rejuvenating in the hot weather. After winning the 1936 race, he sipped some of it on Victory Lane. The wheels started turning in the head of a Milk Foundation executive when he saw Meyer’s milk moment in the newspaper, and milk became a prominent tradition.

While milk didn’t feature in the race celebration from 1947 through 1955, the practice was revived in 1956 and has remained a unique staple of the Indianapolis 500 (although Emerson Fittipaldi spurned milk in favor of orange juice in 1993, much to the dismay of fans).

The tradition is getting even bigger for the 100th running, when 100,000 fans will have the chance to share in the milk-drinking experience. IMS will team up with the American Dairy Association and Prairie Farms for the “world’s largest milk toast.” Together they’ll distribute 100,000 bottles of milk so fans can share in the winning experience.

The Borg-Warner Trophy

The Borg-Warner Trophy is one of the most recognizable trophies in sports, with the winner’s face added after every Indianapolis 500. The tradition started in 1936, when the trophy was unveiled at a dinner in New York.

Made from sterling silver by Spaulding-Gorham of Chicago, the new winner is added every year. In 1986, the final spot on the original trophy became filled by Bobby Rahal. The original solution was to add a base, although that eventually filled up as well.

In 2004, a larger version of the Borg-Warner Trophy was unveiled and has enough spaces to last until the 2034 edition of the race.

The trophy also features a 24-karat gold likeness of the late Speedway owner and president Anton “Tony” Hulman Jr., who’s credited with rejuvenating IMS and the Indy 500 after World War II. Added in 1987, his likeness is the only one on the trophy that isn’t of a driver.