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Photo: Bret Kelley/INDYCAR

Indianapolis 500: Traditions and Superstitions

by Frank Santoroski           @seveng1967 

With more than a century of racing in the history books, the Indianapolis 500 holds more tradition than, perhaps, any other motorsports event on the planet. The 500 also has its share of good luck/bad luck omens as race drivers are sometimes known to be rather superstitious.

Some of the traditions and superstitions have solid origins, while others have a clouded history. Let’s take a look back on some of these and see how it all started.

Drinking the Milk

Photo: Chris Owens/INDYCAR

When he was a young boy, Louis Meyer was told by his mother that the proper way to refresh on a hot day was with an ice cold glass of buttermilk. Meyer stuck to this, and would often request buttermilk after a long day of racing. He drank buttermilk after winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1928, and again in 1933, although it went on almost unnoticed. When he took his third 500 win in 1936, a newspaper photograph of Meyer in victory lane with the glass bottle of buttermilk caught they eye of a marketing executive for the American Dairy Association.

Sensing a marketing opportunity, he made sure that a member of the Dairy Association was on hand in victory lane to hand ice-cold milk to the winner. This was abandoned when Wilbur Shaw took over as president of the Speedway in 1946. The winner was presented with a large silver chalice filled with ice water. The phrase “Water from Wilbur” was engraved on the cup that now resides in the IMS Museum. This tradition was retired when Shaw passed away in 1954.

In 1956 the Dairy Association struck back by offering a check for $400.00 to the winner of the 500 if they would drink milk. Since racing is expensive, a monetary award appealed greatly to the drivers, and solidified the tradition of drinking the milk.

With cost of living adjustments and inflation, that $400.00 check has now ballooned to $10,000. Every winner since 1956 has embraced the tradition of drinking the milk, save for one.

In 1993, Emerson Fittipaldi brashly pushed the milk away, instead deciding that it was a good idea to swig orange juice. Fittipaldi, who had a large business interest in the Brazilian citrus industry, severely underestimated the backlash from the Indianapolis 500 fans.

Triskaidekaphobia

Photo: Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR

The origins of the number 13 being considered unlucky has a number of questionable explanations. Theories range from Mathematical (Since 12 is considered a perfect number, 13 must therefore be imperfect) to Astronomical (The uncommon occurrence of 13 full moons in a calendar year caused problems for early astronomers mapping lunar cycles) to Biblical (Judas was the 13th guest to sit down at the Last Supper) to Historical (the arrests, disbanding, and executions of the Knights Templar began on Friday the 13th).

Whatever the case, most folks tend to shy away from the number 13. High-rise buildings have no 13th floor and many airplanes do not have a 13th row on the seating chart. And, in motor racing, the number 13 is sparsely used. For the inaugural Indianapolis 500, car numbers were based on the timing of the entries and the number 13 was assigned to Billy Pierce of the Chicago-based Fal Car Team. Pierce, however, failed to make the field based on the qualifying procedures of the time.

George Mason started the Indianapolis 500 in a car with the number 13 in 1914. He dropped out of the race after 66 laps. The Indy 500 would not see another No. 13 for 89 years. It was, in fact, prohibited in the rule book to assign the 13 to a car for decades.

Greg Ray took his No. 13 to a top-ten finish at the Speedway in 2003. He returned with the unlucky number the following year and crashed out just shy of the halfway point. E.J. Viso ran the 13 in 2009 at the 500, and dropped out with suspension failure.

Other forms of racing have minimal use of the No. 13 as well. Between 1950 and 2014 there was only one occasion where a No. 13 qualified for a Formula One Race. In 2014, when the process of drivers selecting their own number was instituted, Pastor Maldonado opted for the 13. Since he already had a reputation of being crash-prone, he figured he had nothing to lose.

In stock car racing, the 13 has been used more frequently, but the results haven’t been much better. The only time a No. 13 took a checkered flag in the Cup level, it was at a qualifying race for the Daytona 500. The driver was Johnny Rutherford, who is better known for his success at Indianapolis.

There is one driver in this year’s field who could care less about the superstition. Danica Patrick will line up in position Seven (lucky number?) in her No. 13 on Sunday.

Eleven Rows of Three

Photo: Jason Porter/INDYCAR

The sight of eleven rows of three on the Indianapolis starting grid has been a common sight for ages, but that had not always been the case. The inaugural running of the event saw 40 starters lined up in rows of five. Because the pace car occupied the spot on the inside of row one, it was Billy Knipper starting in 40th position all by himself in row nine.

In later editions of the race, Carl G. Fisher opted for a 30 car maximum, although 1914 was the only occasion that actually saw 30 cars qualify for the event. The other races had fewer, with the low being 21 cars in 1916 before the track closed down during WW1.

When the track reopened in 1919, the Speedway adopted the AAA’s recommendation of one car per 400 feet of track length. The equation came up with the number of 33, and 33 cars started in 1919. Through the 1920s the field size varied from 23 to 33 cars with 1927 and 1929 being the only years to see the field filled to the 33 car maximum.

In the 1930’s the 33 car limit was lifted and 38 cars roared off the grid in 1930. 40 cars started 1931-1932 and 42 cars took the green in 1933.

The 1933 race turned out to be rather disastrous, with a total of five drivers or riding mechanics losing their lives in crashes. For 1934 the 33 car limit was reinstated, and it has been in place ever since, with a full field of cars running each year.

On two occasions, the field was expanded to 35 after controversy in qualifying. In 1979, arguments and protests over loopholes in the rules regarding the turbocharger’s wastegate prompted USAC officials to allow a special qualifying session for the eleven cars that got bumped. They would be given one attempt to post a time faster than the slowest car. With the 33 locked in, this had the potential to bring the field to 44 cars. Only two cars, driven by George Snider and Bill Vukovich II, had the speed and were added to the field.

In 1997, controversy over the 25/8 rule that locked in full time IRL participants prompted officials to add the bumped cars of Lyn St. James and Johnny Unser back to the field because their times were actually faster than eight of the 25 locked-in cars. This was done in the interest of having the “fastest 33 cars” start the 500.

Peanut Shells and Green Cars

Photo: Steve Shunk/INDYCAR

These are two age-old superstitions that were once prevalent in motor racing, but have calmed down over the years. The backlash against peanut shells dates back to the 1930s. The earliest mention of peanut shells bringing bad luck to racing is attributed to Vernon Orenduff who expressed his superstitions about peanut shells in a 1933 newspaper interview.

In the aftermath of a multi-car wreck in 1937 at Langhorne, PA, and another later that season at Nashville, there were, reportedly, peanut shells found either in the cockpit of the wrecked cars, or stuck in the grill.

A scouring of newspaper articles reporting the incidents finds no mention of peanut shells, so it remains unclear how and when the superstition grew.

Green cars, and the bad luck associated with them, are commonly attributed to the death of Gaston Chevrolet. In 1920 Chevrolet had made headlines by winning the Indianapolis 500 in a bright green Monroe-Frontenac. Later that fall, he lost his life in the same green car on the wooden plank racetrack in Beverly Hills.

After that, the superstitions about green cars began to grow. In fact, anything green was avoided by drivers at the track including articles of clothing, pencils, notebooks, etc.

Not every driver, however, was spooked by the color green. When the track reopened in 1946 following WW2, a privateer named Jimmy Jackson purchased an old Miller-8, retrofitted it with an Offenhauser engine, and sanded away the old red paint. He gave it a fresh coat of paint utilizing his favorite color, emerald green.

Jackson qualified fifth and finished second in the race. He brought the green Miller back in 1947 and finished fifth. He continued to race green cars until he retired, and he lived to the age of 74.

Despite Jackson tempting fate, and getting away with it, green cars remained unpopular and scarce at the Speedway.

With no such superstitions in England, Team Lotus arrived at Indianapolis in the 1960s with their cars adorned in British Racing Green. Jim Clark won the 1965 race and dispelled much of the ‘green-car’ myth.

The years following Clark’s win saw a massive increase of corporate sponsorship, which did more to dictate the car’s color than any old superstition. Sponsors like Skoal, Quaker State, 7-11 and GoDaddy have made green cars much more commonplace at the Speedway.

The fact should not be overlooked that, since Clark’s win in 1965, there hasn’t been another green car to win the 500. In 1983, Teo Fabi put his green and white car on the pole, and dropped out of the race in the early stages. Roberto Guerrero won pole position with a green car in 1992, and crashed on the pace lap. Paul Tracy thought he won the 2002 Indy 500 in a green and white car (entered, coincidentally by Team Green) only to find that the timing of a late yellow flag denied him.

Tony Kanaan ran a car with green in the livery at the 500 from 2003-2012. He always ran well, but couldn’t seem to win the thing. In 2013, he showed up with a black and purple car and won. Ed Carpenter has been bringing a green car to the Speedway since 2012. He won the pole twice, but hasn’t been able to finish higher than tenth. He will start from pole again this coming Sunday with one noticeable difference: he has swapped out the green paint in favor of metallic black.

With Carpenter in black, and Kanaan sporting red, white and blue, there will still be four entries featuring the color green prominently in their livery. The cars of Kyle Kaiser, Carlos Munoz, Jay Howard and Danica Patrick will all be looking to break the green car jinx.

Kissing the Bricks

Photo: Bret Kelley/INDYCAR

This is one of the stranger traditions out there, and one of the most recent. When the last of the bricks were paved over at old Brickyard, they left a three-foot wide strip across the start/finish, now known as the ‘yard of bricks’.

In looking at the bricks after a long day of racing, covered with dust, dirt, debris and tire rubber, I can’t fathom the thought, “Hmm, that looks interesting. I think I’ll put my lips on it.”

However, that is exactly what happens this day and age. Part of the winner’s photo session after the race includes the driver, crew members, and family members leaning over and planting a kiss on the bricks. You will notice fans at the Speedway also kissing the bricks, while their friends take pictures.

It’s a bit of an homage to travelers that kiss the ground upon debarking a ship after a long voyage at sea, but its origins at the Speedway date back just 22 years, and it didn’t even begin at the Indianapolis 500. It was Dale Jarrett and his crew chief Todd Parrott that first kissed the bricks after winning the NASCAR Brickyard 400 in 1996.

Subsequent winners of the NASCAR event repeated Jarrett’s move, and the practice then spread to the IndyCar guys when Gil deFerran opted to kiss the bricks after winning the 500 in 2003.

Back Home Again in Indiana and “Start Your Engines”

 

The most endearing tradition in the Speedway’s pre-race ceremonies is the singing of Back Home Again in Indiana, accompanied by the balloon launch James Melton performed the song for the first time in 1946, albeit much earlier in the program. The song was received so well, that it was moved to its current spot in the lineup.

Over the years, the song was performed by a variety of celebrity guests, or members of The Purdue Varsity Glee Club. In 1972, Jim Nabors, best known for his television work on The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle USMC, was invited to sing the song. His version was so spot-on that the Speedway invited him back over and over again. Nabors performed the number a total of 36 times between 1972 and 2014, when he announced his final performance.

Filling the void left by Nabors, who passed away in 2017, was no easy task. He had become part of the Speedway lore himself.  The A Capella group, “Straight No Chaser” appeared in 2015, followed by Josh Kaufman in 2016. Jim Cornelison, an Indiana University alumnus, did a fine job in 2017, and will return this year.

The command to start engines dates back to sometime between 1948 and 1950. Historians are at odds whether the phrase was first said by Seth Kline in 1948, or by John Francis Horan in 1950. They do, however, agree that the original wording was “Gentleman, start your motors.” The word ‘motors’ was replaced with ‘engines’ in 1952 at the request of several competitors who preferred that terminology.

Wilbur Shaw, then track president, gave the command in 1953 and 1954. Speedway owner, Tony Hulman, took over the duties in 1955. The honor of giving the command has belonged to a member of the Hulman family ever since.

The phrase remained unchanged until 1977 when Janet Guthrie, who could hardly be considered a gentleman, qualified for the race. Initially, the Speedway stated that they would not change the command. Their logic was that the cars were started via an outboard starter by crew members, and not by the drivers.

Incensed at the stupidity of the excuse, Guthrie’s crew chief, George Bignotti, assigned his wife Kay the starter’s duties. On race day, Mary F. Hulman made the command as such: “In company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis, Gentlemen, start your engines.”

In later years the phrase was shortened to “Lady and Gentleman,” or “Ladies and Gentleman” on the occasions where multiple female drivers have made the show. In 2017, when Tony George took over the duties, he used the gender-neutral phrase “Drivers, start your engines” which, in a way, is kind of funny considering the Speedway’s original argument against Janet Guthrie that the drivers don’t actually start the engines.

 

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