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Mark Bennett B-Sides

May 24, 2012

MARK BENNETT: 500 history runs in her veins, but she’ll pass on the buttermilk

Katy Balch appreciates tradition.

The 20-year-old from Terre Haute understands how neatly her role as one of 33 Indianapolis 500 princesses fits her family. Her great-grandfather won the race three times. Her grandfather built the engines for 15 winning Indy 500 cars. Every Memorial Day (except for her fifth-grade year when she broke her arm), she and her family have occupied ideal seats, directly across from the pits at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Her dad’s office contains lots of memorabilia from their exploits. A book about their racing heritage will be published next year.

Indy, she said simply, “has been a huge family tradition.”

That said, Katy is content to simply admire some elements of that tradition.

That includes race-car driving and buttermilk.

Katy, a sophomore at Indiana State University, plans to become a lawyer. She can’t picture herself driving a race car, a vocation that made Louis Meyer Sr., her great-grandfather, a Speedway legend. He won the 500 in 1928, ’33 and ’36. In qualifying for his last Indianapolis 500 in 1939, Meyer set a four-lap record by touring the 21⁄2-mile oval at 130.067 mph. The pole-sitter for this Sunday’s race, Ryan Briscoe, averaged 226.484 mph in quals.

“I cannot imagine driving that fast,” Katy said, chuckling as she greeted visitors last week at the 500 Museum of Wheels on Ohio Street in Terre Haute.

“No, I’m safe driving 70 mph on the interstate. Those drivers have so much courage. I would be so scared. I just enjoy watching.”

Which brings us to the buttermilk.

Even casual observers of the 500 know the winner, by tradition, drinks a bottle of milk to toast the victory. A few years ago, Sports Illustrated labeled that practice as the “sports world’s coolest prize.” Katy’s great-grandfather started that routine after the second of his three Indy 500 wins in 1933.

Sort of.

Modern Indy winners are sipping straight-up, pure, ice-cold milk.

By contrast, Meyer did something that few subsequent winners would emulate. The American Dairy Association’s recount of that moment says it all: “Meyer pulled into Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Memorial Day 1933 and asked for a cold glass of buttermilk to quench his thirst after 500 grueling miles.”

That is one tough hombre.

In our conversation last week, Katy and I agreed that buttermilk is an acquired taste. But buttermilk as a thirst-quencher? Well, let’s just say Meyer stood alone in that category. After Meyer was photographed drinking buttermilk, again, following his third Indy win, the post-race Bottle of Milk celebration gradually became official, earning Speedway owner Tony Hulman’s approval. The beverage in those later bottles, though, was regular milk, not buttermilk.

The routine has been in place for the past 57 years, with only a couple exceptions. Most recently, Emerson Fittipaldi infamously broke with the tradition in 1993, swigging orange juice instead.

This year, quart bottles of milk will await the winner — whole, 2-percent and fat-free, depending on pre-race preferences submitted by all 33 drivers. Alas, buttermilk did not make the list.

“I think hardly anyone else asked for buttermilk,” Katy said of her great-grandfather’s trend. “I certainly wouldn’t want that.”

Yet, she loves the idea that it is unique to her family, and one of their many niches in Indy history. Her grandfather, Louis “Sonny” Meyer Jr. and her grandmother, Sue, “still drink buttermilk every day,” Katy said. “They just truly enjoy it.”

Sonny and Sue live in Crawfordsville and play a big role in the family’s Memorial Day rituals. Sonny crafted engines that gave milk-drinking opportunities to drivers of 15 Indy-winning cars. In a half-century as a master builder and mechanic, Meyer Jr. worked with Mario Andretti, Tony Bettenhausen, Chip Ganassi, Scott Brayton, Roberto Guerrero, Eddie Cheever, Fittipaldi, Buddy Lazier, Gordon Johncock, Arie Luyendyk, Tom Sneva and John Andretti before retiring.

With such deep roots at Indy, Katy and younger family members have listened to countless fascinating tales.

“It’s been just such a privilege to hear all the stories and lore, and be able to attend all these events with the Meyer family,” said Brad Balch, Katy’s father and Sonny’s stepson.

Katy and her immediate family made their share of Indy memories, too. One year, just as the race was about to begin, Katy had a loose tooth needing immediate attention. “So we waited for a parade lap to pull that tooth,” said Brad Balch, dean of the Bayh College of Education at ISU.

The Meyer family’s racing connection dates back to a generation beyond Louis Meyer Sr., whose father raced bicycles. Their saga will be captured in a book, Brad Balch said, with a deal on a publisher and author planned for this month.

Katy’s link to that history was well-known to her school classmates while growing up in Covington, where the Balches lived prior to moving to Terre Haute 21⁄2 years ago. “Everyone knew,” she said, “just because it’s a small town.”

Like Katy, Louis Meyer Sr. missed only one Indy 500, either driving or watching, from his first appearance there as a mechanic in 1926 until reaching his late 80s.

On Sunday, Katy, now a 500 princess, and her family will continue that legacy. They plan to sit, once again, across from the pits, near where Louis Sr. crossed the finish line and drank that buttermilk all those years ago.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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