INDIANAPOLIS – When dairy farmer Jill Houin of Plymouth, Indiana, was the “rookie” milk person in Victory Lane at last year’s 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, she soaked in the color, pageantry and excitement of Simon Pagenaud’s victory celebration.
That included the noise and excitement that came from the packed crowd of over a quarter-million spectators at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
As the “rookie,” she observed the veteran hand off the ice-cold bottle of milk to the Team Penske driver. Houin would get her chance in 2020.
Then came COVID-19.
Instead of handing the bottle of milk to the winner of the Indy 500 on May 24, the race was moved to Aug. 23. When it became apparent the COVID-19 positivity rate in Marion County, Indiana, was increasing, Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials made the difficult decision to hold the race without spectators in the interest of public health.
There won’t be hundreds of thousands of fans at IMS to see Houin hand over the milk to the winner of the 104th Indianapolis 500. She will be one of very few people that will be on Victory Podium to continue the iconic tradition that dates back to Louis Meyer in 1936.
Houin, however, believes there will be more focus on her role than ever. That will come from the millions of television viewers from around the world that will see this ceremony.
“It’s completely a huge honor to represent all of the dairy farmers in Indiana,” Houin said. “With this change, it’s more memorable because we are trying to find new ways to stay safe but still celebrate the iconic tradition of drinking milk in the Winner’s Circle.
“I realized how much of an impact this was going to make two weeks ago. I look forward to being able to represent, and I look forward to seeing all of the different things that are going to happen in the Winner’s Circle and that excitement that so many people can share on TV.”
An ice-cold bottle of milk is presented to the winner of the Indianapolis 500 as part of Victory Lane ceremonies for portions of nine decades, including the last 64 straight Indy 500’s.
Louis Meyer, the race’s first three-time winner (1928, ’33, ’36) is the driver that began the tradition of milk in victory lane when he asked for a cold glass of buttermilk after his win in 1936.
In 1956, the bottle of milk was made a permanent part of the Indy 500 victory celebration by Speedway owner Anton “Tony” Hulman.
Houin is the American Dairy Association Indiana’s 2020 Milk Woman of the year. Tim Haynes of Garrett, Indiana, is the 2020 “Rookie” Milk Man of the year.
“Last year, I was rookie, so I got to see the entire celebration with everyone in the winner’s circle,” said Houin, a dairy farmer from Marshall County in Northern Indiana. “This year, I’m the veteran milk person handing it to the winner. It will look different, but the excitement will still be there.
“I’m excited, nervous and a lot of pressure. I’m going to hand it off. I’ve been training. I’m ready to go. I want to make sure it is a clean hand off and the winner is as excited as every year.”
Houin is the calf manager of Homestead Dairy. There are 4,900 cows on the farm that are milked by 14 family members of the fourth-generation dairy farm. The cows are milked 22 hours a day with a staff that continues the process seven days a week.
But don’t expect a lot of mooing coming from their farm. The cows are much too contented for that, according to Houin.
“They are very quiet because they are so comfortable,” Houin said. “Cows are very quiet when they are comfortable, fed well and cared for well.
“We love the fact and we’re very passionate about caring for the animals, the environment and producing healthy milk. We have people on the farm 24/7 to make sure the milk is on the way to the pasteurizing plant to then be on the shelf.”
Born in New Jersey and never having been on a farm, Houin experienced culture shock when she married an Indiana dairy farmer named Brian Houin in 2004. Learning to adapt to the country lifestyle, she retired from teaching in 2016 and has become the calf manager at the family’s Homestead Dairy in Plymouth.
Houin also handles all the farm’s social media, manages its website and gives farm tours to people of all ages who want to learn more about life on a modern dairy farm. She has a passion for teaching consumers about the dairy industry and the way farmers care for their animals and for the environment.
Jill and Brian have two children, Wyatt and Jocelyn.
There are many iconic traditions that come with winning the Indianapolis 500, from the Borg-Warner Trophy to the winner’s wreath to the traditional bottle of milk that goes to the winner.
This year’s victory celebration will look a little different, but it may be more impactful than ever.
“I think it’s more important to carry on the traditions simply because people need some normalcy,” Houin said. “To be able to live through it and to represent the dairy farmers who also need some excitement to celebrate their hard work, as well as the drivers.
“As a milk producer, the iconic toast of the milk at the end and ability to be part of that is huge for the dairy community. We look forward to having the coolest trophy in sports.”