IRL: Indianapolis 500 milk: an international flavor

The Indianapolis 500, while as American as apple pie, is a truly international event, and Gil de Ferran's victory today is the third straight "500" win by a Brazilian. The last American-born driver to win the Indianapolis 500 was Eddie Cheever Jr...

The Indianapolis 500, while as American as apple pie, is a truly international event, and Gil de Ferran's victory today is the third straight "500" win by a Brazilian. The last American-born driver to win the Indianapolis 500 was Eddie Cheever Jr in 1998.

Wins by non-Americans are not unusual. In the early years, it was part of the Grand Prix circuit, and European stars Jules Goux, Rene Thomas and Dario Resta won 500s in the pre-World War I years. Speedway builder Carl Fisher would invite Europeans to enter the race, and in the late 1930s, car specifications were changed to match the 4.5 liter international formula, in the hope of attracting the powerful Grand Prix teams of the era. No teams took the challenge, but Wilbur Shaw won two races in a modified Maserati Grand Prix car. European Grand Prix teams did invade Indianapolis in the 1960s, but by adapting their ideas to the American specifications.

When Europeans were not available in those early years, the illusion of Europeans was welcome. Pennsylvania-born winners Peter DePaolo and Kelly Petillo were thought by many fans (and some members of the press) to be Italian. In the 1920s and 1930s, driver Leon Duray was presented as being French, and would have public difficulty speaking English. In truth, he was an American whose real name was George Stewart. Wilbur Shaw found "Monsieur Duray" to be of no use as a translator when the two went racing in France.

Today, there is no need for promoted or fabricated international participation. This year's 500 had thirteen foreign drivers. All five continents plus New Zealand were represented. As the race was telecast on ABC TV in the United States, it was telecast live by ESPN in over 140 other countries. Coverage in Europe will be expanded by tape-delay on Eurosport. When the ratings are in, the 87th running of the 500 is expected to have the greatest worldwide television audience in the history of the event.

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Toyota is the first Japanese engine to win the 500. The race has been won by engines built in several European countries, as well as in the United States.

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The beverage of choice for the winner is, as everybody knows, milk. The tradition began in 1936 when Louis Meyer asked for a bottle of buttermilk - his favorite beverage - in Victory Lane. The dairy industry very quickly turned that into a tradition instead of a one-time occurrence. The strength of the tradition was brought home in 1993, when Emerson Fittipaldi asked for orange juice - his favorite beverage - in Victory Lane, and wound up facing widespread disapproval. Last year's winner, fellow Brazilian Helio Castroneves, brandished two bottles of milk. He drank from one and happily poured the other on his head. This year's winner took a more traditional sip, but proclaimed "I love milk" as he hoisted his bottle.

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There was no negative reaction in 1913 when Jules Goux consumed seven bottles of Champagne on his way to victory. He did not bring the wine himself, but mooched it from a group of fellow Frenchmen attending the race.

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Much pre-race attention focused on Helio Castroneves being only the fifth back-to-back winner in the history of the race, and the possibility of him becoming the first three-peat winner. Three of the four prior back-to-back winners did not complete the distance the following year. The most recent prior double winner, Al Unser Sr., finished second in the following year. Unser's second place finish came from a 19th place starting position, so he had to work more than three times as hard as his two wins, where he had started first and fifth. Castroneves' second place finish matches Unser's 1-1-2 record, but he had the advantage of starting from the pole.

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New York City police officer Dennis Rodriguez sang the National Anthem in today's pre-race ceremonies. He captivated the United States with his rendering of "The Star Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America" in the aftermath of 911. He electrified the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics when he sang the National Anthem in the presence of the tattered American flag that had been rescued from the World Trade Center rubble.

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Florence Henderson and Jim Nabors returned again to sing in the opening ceremonies. Miss Henderson sang "God Bless America," while Mr. Nabors sang the long-standing traditional "Back Home Again in Indiana" prior to Mari Hulman George's traditional call "Lady and gentleman, start your engines" and the release of the balloons.

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Pre-race ceremonies included a flyover by B-2 bomber "The Spirit of Indiana," from the 509th Bomer Wing, based at Whiteman AFB, Missouri. The two man crew consisted of Major Keith Reeves, a native of Indianapolis who went to North Central High School, and Major Greg Guest, who attended Purdue University.

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The Chevy Super Sport Roadster that paced today's race is the fourteenth Chevrolet to perform such duty. The first was a 1948 Fleetmaster, driven by thre-time winner Wilbur Shaw. In 1986, Gen. Chuck Yeager drove a Corvette. The Chevy SSR is the first truck-based Chevrolet to pace the 500. For the start of the race, it was driven by Herb Fishel, who is retiring as executive director of GM Racing. During today's caution periods, the vehicle was driven by three time Indianapolis 500 winner Lone Star JR, Johnny Rutherford.

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Firestone, whose Firehawks were the only tires used in this year's 500, produced more than 6000 tires for the race. For the first time since Firestone's return to Indy racing in 1995, all tires were produced in Akron, Ohio, instead of Tokyo, Japan. Firestone had forty engineers, technicians and service people at the Speedway today to cater to the tires every need.

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Success breeds sponsorship. PDM Racing, whose Dallara-Chevrolet was put into the field on bump day by veteran Jimmy Kite, announced that Denny Hecker's Auto Connection of Central, MN has joined PDM as the team's primary sponsor for the race. PDM Racing co-owner Larry Arnold also announced associate sponsorship from Energetics of Huber Heights, Ohio, Midas, and Active International of Atlanta. The sponsors got their money's worth of exposure, as Kite ran to a solid 13th place finish, completing 197 laps and taking the checkered flag.

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Relief drivers were common in the early years at Indianapolis. In 1911, Cyrus Patschke drove relief for the two Marmon team drivers: winner Ray Harroun and teammate Joe Dawson. Patschke is credited by some as the co-winner in 1911, as the Wasp moved into the lead during his relief stint. Patschke, a Pennsylvania native, was the first American to lead a Grand Prix in an American car. The only other relief driver to perform double relief was Lou Wilson, who relieved Leon Duray (the famous French driver) and Harlan Fengler (who went on to become Chief Steward) in 1923.

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Relief driving had its time well before car-to-pit radio communication. If a driver needed relief, he would pat the top of his helmet as he entered into the pits. It was not unheard of for a driver whose car was finished to pat his head as he coasted in, just for the fun of seeing a relief driver have nothing happen. Today, the only real planning for relief is among those drivers doing both the 500 and the NASCAR 600. The signal for "relief" then is based on the pace of the 500 and the complex logistics of getting the driver from Indianapolis to Charlotte. No more simple head pats.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Eddie Cheever , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Jimmy Kite , Al Unser Sr. , Jules Goux , René Thomas , Emerson Fittipaldi , Dennis Rodriguez , Johnny Rutherford