Few sporting events are as steeped in tradition as the Indianapolis 500. What was started in 1911 by track founder Carl G. Fisher has bloomed to what is now the largest single-day sporting event in the world.
Over the first 101 races, the Indianapolis 500 has had a slew of traditions from opening day for the month of May, all the way until after the checkered flag flies and a winner is crowned.
Some of the race’s most storied customs stem from the 1936 race. This week on IndyCar Flashback, we take a look at that race and how its impact is still felt 82 years later.
Meyer Storms from 28th to Win Record 3rd Indianapolis 500
The buildup to the 1936 running of the Indianapolis 500 began in earnest during February of that year. A new trophy for the winning driver – the first since the Strauss Trophy was given to Howdy Wilcox in 1919 – had been unveiled.
The Borg-Warner Trophy, named for the automobile supply firm, was introduced by track president Eddie Rickenbacker at a dinner in New York. The 51.5-inch sterling silver trophy displayed the faces of every Indy 500 race winner to that point.
Change was found at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as well. The inside walls at each of the four turns were removed and the outer walls were strengthened to keep cars from flipping out of the facility. The process of removing the famed paving bricks from each of the four turns also began.
The requirements to be able to drive at Indianapolis were also modified.
For 1936, drivers were mandated to complete 10 laps at speeds between 80 and 110 miles per hour. The sanctioning body would ask for drivers to increase their speed in a 10 MPH increment from 80 to 90 MPH and then two 5 MPH increments from 100 to 105, the 105 to 110 miles per hour.
Of an interesting note, this was the fourth year in which qualifying runs were 10 laps in length. This is a contrast to the single-lap qualifying procedures utilized from 1912 through 1919, and the four-lap average format that has been used since 1939.
One last rule change for the 24th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing was that fuel load limits had decreased to 37.5 gallons.
Rex Mays picked up where he had left off in 1935, qualifying on pole for the second consecutive year with a 10-lap average at a record speed of 119.644 MPH.
Mays would become the second driver to accomplish back-to-back pole positions, joining Ralph de Palma who grabbed the top starting spot in 1920 and 1921.
Once the race started, Mays would pace the field for the first 12 laps, though the event quickly became a two-man battle between 1935 runner-up Wilbur Shaw and Babe Stapp. Always the bridesmaid but never the bride, it was Stapp who had led laps in three of his previous eight starts but had been plagued by mechanical gremlins.
After Shaw and Stapp lead the race for 76 laps, both encountered issues. Stapp would be sidelined for the remainder of the race with crankshaft trouble, while Shaw lost 17 in the pits trying to fix a loose hood on lap 83.
The race lead is quickly assumed by two-time winner Louis Meyer, who himself had troubles throughout the month. The Miller engine on Meyer’s Stevens chassis was found to have two cracked cylinder heads, and a replacement had to be flown in for qualifying.
The night before the race, his crew worked feverishly to repair a valve problem.
On race day, Meyer had worked his way up from 28th on the 33-car grid to lead in pursuit of his record third Indianapolis 500 win. The Manhattan native would take the lead on lap 89 without looking back.
Meyer would only surrender the lead for 16 laps, when Ted Horn took over on lap 131 during pit sequences. From there, the experienced Meyer averaged 14.5 miles per gallon and conserves enough fuel to cruise to a two-minute, seventeen-second victory over Horn.
Meyer breaks a tie with Tommy Milton for most career wins in the 500, becoming the race’s first three-time winner.
In victory lane, Meyer is greeted by the brand new Borg-Warner Trophy. Continuing a post-race ritual from his win in 1933, a serving of ice cold buttermilk is presented to the winner. Instead of a sip, this time Meyer drinks a full bottle.
The last of Meyer’s spoils from his record victory would be the pace car. The race was paced by a Packard 120 driven by the previously mentioned Milton. It was at the two-time race winner Milton’s insistence that the Indianapolis 500 victor be given the car.
The 1936 Indianapolis 500 set the stage for the race to become an American institution. Here’s a look at how some of its biggest players and traditions have progressed in the years since.
One of the race’s first legends, Meyer would run three more times at Indianapolis, retiring in 1939. Meyer’s three wins at Indianapolis are equaled by Mauri Rose and Wilbur Shaw by 1948 and in 1977, while A.J. Foyt surpasses the quartet by conquering his fourth win at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing in 1977.
Al Unser and Rick Mears would eventually equal Foyt’s record, while five drivers have added their names alongside Meyer, Shaw and Rose in the three-time winners club.
Horn’s runner-up finish would begin an incredible run for the sophomore driver. Over his next eight starts in the race, Horn would finish no worse than fourth, but did not equal or better his second place finish from 1936.
Less than five months after leading 74 laps at the 1948 race, Horn was killed in a crash at DuQuoin State Fairgrounds.
Shaw would finally break through in 1937 and win three of the next four Indianapolis 500’s. Following his last start in 1941, Shaw became a test driver for Firestone and met track president Eddie Rickenbacker.
During World War II, the Speedway began to deteriorate and Rickenbacker informed Shaw the track would be demolished to make room for a housing subdivision.
After unsuccessfully seeking assistance from the automotive industry, Shaw convinced Terre Haute businessman Tony Hulman to purchase the track from Rickenbacker for $750,000.
Shaw would become track president until his death from a plane crash in 1954.
After being the first driver to celebrate with the Borg-Warner Trophy, Meyer likened the reward to winning an Olympic medal.
Following the 1986 race, a second base was created to accommodate additional winners of the Indianapolis 500. Now standing at 64 inches tall, the trophy is valued at more than $1.3 million.
In 1988, drivers began getting replica trophies known as “Baby Borgs” and owners would receive the trophy as well.
Ceremonial Sip of Milk
Meyer’s celebratory drink caught the eye of local dairy executives in 1936, and the following day photographs of him with buttermilk appeared in the nation’s newspapers. Since 1956, it has become a yearly tradtition for the winning driver to take a drink from their choice of whole, two percent or skim milk.
Pace Car and Rookie Test
After Milton’s Insistence, the winning driver has received the pace car from the Indianapolis 500 each year since the 1936 race.
Additionally, there are still testing procedures that each rookie must endure before they can compete in the world’s greatest auto race. Now known as “Rookie Orientation”, drivers competing at the Indianapolis 500 for the first time must now complete 10 laps at speeds between 205 and 210 MPH, 15 laps at 210-215 and 15 at 215+.
Exactly 82 years and 77 Indianapolis 500’s have passed since 1936, but the traditions started that year helped lay the foundation for the race’s place in popular and motorsport culture today. The traditions are part of what keeps long-time ticket holders and the sport’s legends coming back to Indianapolis each May.