You Just Won The Indy 500, Now What?

Illustration by Michael Byers

Hold your nose. The 500 victor’s celebratory sip of milk is one of Indy’s most hallowed traditions. It’s also—not surprisingly on a hot day in late May—one of the smelliest. Inevitably, the driver or a teammate will dump the bottle over the winner’s head, and in the ensuing media onslaught, there’s no break for a shower. “You sit in front of the cameras in a suit that smells like rotten milk and sweat,” says Alexander Rossi, who raced in 2016 as a rookie and won. “I’ll be honest—it’s pretty gross. But it’s such a cool tradition. It’s a nice problem to have.”

Say goodbye to your crew. You’ve just won the biggest race of the year; you want to celebrate with the team, the people that helped make it happen. Yeah, not so much. By the time you’re done with sponsors and media, it’s already 8 p.m. “It was dark. The team had already packed up,” says Rossi. “I didn’t get to see the mechanics or any of the crew. They were done with their celebratory dinner and such. And I couldn’t stay out late because I had a five-hour, 6 a.m. photo shoot at the Yard of Bricks. You don’t really get to catch your breath until noon Monday.”

Don’t sweat your answers—you’ll get the same questions again and again. And again. During the ensuing media tour, you’ll talk to dozens of outlets—morning gabfests, late-night talk shows, magazines, radio programs, newspapers, and websites from all over the globe. But despite the variety of media, the queries will become pretty repetitive. “Trying to have the same energy level answering the same questions over and over is very difficult,” says Rossi. “It takes its toll on you, for sure.”

Yes, it’s surreal to become instantly famous. While IndyCar’s renown might never return to its former heights of worldwide recognition, the 500 still manages to transcend the niche notoriety of the sport. Thus, winners still get the star treatment on the worldwide media tour. And in certain instances, they can even catch the eyes of foreign dignitaries. “I got a letter from the prime minister of New Zealand,” says Scott Dixon, the first Kiwi to take the checkered flag. He was also named a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. “I didn’t know too much about that,” he says.

Brace for an emotional roller coaster. You’ve not only fulfilled your childhood dream, but that of kids grown and growing up all around the world. You’ll be elated, tired, excited, nervous, eager, impatient, overwhelmed, and more than a little surprised and confused. But there might be something else. “The emotional side was quite different than what I thought it would be,” says Dixon. “I felt something that most people would not expect: I felt relief.”

Sit very, very still. The dirty duties of winning don’t stop in May, either. For instance, before you can have your face on the Borg-Warner, you have to sit for sculptor William Behrends, who has studied and shaped 29 grinning mugs thus far. Behrends works for months on the full-sized clay bust on which the silver likeness is based. That includes an in-person sitting by the winner in Behrends’s studio for about five hours.

Pace yourself. The immediate aftermath of the race is a whirlwind of wreaths and rewards for the winner—but the benefits don’t all come at once. You don’t get your “Baby Borg” miniature of the trophy until the following January. The commemorative ring arrives in April or so. And you may not get to see your picture on the following race’s ticket—a huge thrill for most drivers—until spring. “You’ll be celebrating,” says Rossi, “for 12 months.”