INDIANAPOLIS

Last May, at the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, Whiteland native Joe Kelsay had the honor of serving as the Rookie Milk Man, handing milk bottles to both the winning team owner and chief mechanic.

On Sunday, Kelsay will be tasked with passing off a bottle of cold milk to the winner of the race.

Being able to lean on last year’s experience, he said, will be helpful now that he’s going to be center stage in his second go-round.

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“People all over the world are looking to you not to mess up,” Kelsay said Tuesday following the American Dairy Association Fastest Rookie Luncheon, “so having a little practice is a good thing.”

Having the role of Milk Man means a little bit more this year. His father, Merrill, who had been the Rookie Milk Man at the 2006 Indy 500 and the Milk Man for the 2007 race, passed away last fall.

Being able to go to Merrill for advice about the job last year was a plus for Joe, but he views this weekend’s race as a chance to cement a special bond with his late father.

“That really makes this experience a special way to have a wonderful memory and a very close bond,” Joe Kelsay said, “and really a neat way to remember our relationship and our time together, in business, on the farm in dairy and here at the Indianapolis 500.”

Both Merrill and Joe earned the Milk Man honor by being selected from among the American Dairy Association Indiana board members. Joe Kelsay, a 1999 Purdue grad, was also formerly the director of Indiana’s State Department of Agriculture before taking a job with Dow AgroSciences, where he is currently a government affairs manager.

Kelsay Farms is a sixth-generation dairy farm with approximately 450 cows. The farm, in operation since 1837, attracts more than 20,000 visitors each year — most coming in the fall, when area families are drawn by such attractions as the seven-acre corn maze, hay rides, bale mountain and corn crib play area.

It may turn out that Joe isn’t the last Milk Man in the family — he and his wife Amy had the youngest of their three children, Jack, with them at Tuesday’s luncheon.

“I should ask him whether he’s going to beat out his sisters (Jenna and Josie),” Joe Kelsay said, “because there might be a battle royale that has to go on if that should happen.”

That’ll be a fight for another time several years down the line. This week, it’s Joe’s time in the spotlight — a place he’d never imagined he’d be when he was a child coming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to watch the race with his family.

“We used to come as a family every single year, had our traditions that we did, and all the memories that are a part of this track and this event,” Kelsay said, “and then to think that maybe in some small way, to become a part of the history of the Indianapolis 500 is just a surreal kind of realization that you go through when you’re in a spot like this. It’s very humbling and just an exceptional experience for life.”

When asked if he had any particular driver he’d prefer to be handing that bottle off to after Sunday’s race, Kelsay had a diplomat’s answer at the ready.

“I don’t have a favorite driver, but I do hope they all run a safe race, we have a great day and an exciting race,” he said. “Whoever shows up in Victory Circle, we’ll be there to celebrate with milk.”

If you go

101st Indianapolis 500

Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

When: Sunday, 12:19 p.m.

Parking lots will open at 5 a.m. and public gates open at 6 a.m.

The live television broadcast of the race on WRTV-Channel 6 will be blacked out locally. A tape-delayed broadcast will air at 7 p.m.

The Kelsay File

Name: Joe Kelsay

Hometown: Whiteland

Family: Wife Amy; children Jenna, Josie and Jack

Occupation: Co-owner of Kelsay Farms; government affairs manager for Dow AgroSciences

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Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.