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As we learned in Part One of this series, the famous Indianapolis 500, is steeped in rich tradition. Here is Part Two of the history of some of the most popular and enduring traditions of the great Indianapolis 500 race.

“Back Home Again in Indiana”

Although there are reports that “Indiana,” as the song was originally titled when published in 1917, In 1947, Hoosier driver Howdy Wilcox sang the song with the Purdue University band over the public address system. It was so well received that he was invited back the following year, and in 1948, it was decided to move it to its current slot just prior to the firing of the engines. Among Melton’s better-known successors have been Mel Tormé, Vic Damone, Dinah Shore, Ed Ames, Peter Marshall, and, of course, the ultra-popular Jim Nabors.

Releasing of balloons

As the final notes of “Back Home Again in Indiana” reverberate through the track just before the drivers fire up their engines, thousands of balloons are released. This tradition has been in place since 1950.

Military fly-by

Traditionally held during Memorial Day weekend, the Indianapolis 500 never fails to pay tribute to the American military. Taps is always played and military aircraft fly over the track in what Winner Hyundai (Dover DE) explains is a “missing man formation.”

Starting of engines

A member of the Hulman family has delivered the call for the engines to start since 1955. In 1977, Mary Fendrich Hulman took over the responsibility, and his daughter Mari Hulman George now steps to the mike to say “Gentlemen, start your engines!” (With females competing, the phrase is changed to Ladies and Gentlemen.)

Gasoline Alley

Although the term “Gasoline Alley” used to refer just to the area where drivers would fuel-up, it now encompasses the entire garage area. Emblazoned with big signs, Gasoline Alley is also more than just a housing area for the race cars. It also is a major tourist attraction as fans flock to see cars and drivers up close. 

Drinking of the Milk

Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Louis Meyer regularly drank buttermilk to refresh himself on a hot day and happened to drink some in Victory Lane after winning the 1936 race. An executive with the Milk Foundation say this and vowed to make sure it would be repeated in coming years. There was a period between 1947-55 when milk was apparently no longer offered, but the practice was revived in 1956 and has been a tradition ever since.

The Borg-Warner Trophy

The Borg-Warner Trophy has been awarded to the winner of every Indianapolis 500-Mile Race since 1936. Crafted out of sterling silver by Spaulding-Gorham of Chicago, it was unveiled in 1936, featuring bas-relief sculptures of every “500” winner up until that time. The new winner has been added every year since requiring additional layers to be added as the numbers of winners added up. The only sculptured face not of a winning driver is that of the late Speedway Tony Hulman whose likeness, in gold, was placed on the base in 1987.

“God Bless America”

Actress Florence Henderson has sung “God Bless America” most every year since the mid-1990s. Henderson is an Indiana native and a good friend of the Hulman-George family, the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Pace cars

The first pace car in racing history is believed to have been used at the inaugural Indy 500 in 1911. In 1909, Carl Fisher, who helped to found the track, was worried that the start of the race would be dangerous if all started from a standing position. He suggested driving them one unscored lap around the track to get speeds up before letting the race begin. Since then, the use of pace cars has expanded to many other motor sports. 

Winner’s wreath

Since 1960, a garland of flowers have been presented to the Indianapolis 500 winner. The tradition is believed to have been started in 1960 with Jim Rathmann, and the current design has been apparent since 1962 when Rodger Ward won. Famed floral consultant William J. “Bill” Cronin, whose pieces also graced the parades of the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl, designed the wreaths for many years before dying in 1989. His creation contains 33 ivory-colored Cymbidium orchids with burgundy tips and 33 miniature checkered flags, intertwined with red, white and blue ribbons.