This coming May, Tauranga's Willie Kay will be making his 41st visit to the Indianapolis 500.

And this weekend, a small but vital element of the Indianapolis 500 has been in his care while making a visit to the Bay of Plenty.

The Green Flag Relay is a promotional world tour for the actual green flag that will start the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 27.

Starting in January, the flag has been part of a Nasdaq stock exchange opening ceremony in New York, visited Times Square and was taken to the National Hockey League All Star game in Florida by 2016 winner Alexander Rossi.


Its most recent destination has been South Korea with Indianapolis 500 announcer Dave Calabro, who has had Winter Olympic broadcasting duties.

Kay's connection to the Indianapolis began in the early-1970s when he worked as a crew member on Indy Car teams.

For the last 37 years, he has hosted tour groups that have put Kiwi race fans in prime seats between turns one and two on race day with Carb Day pit tours, a visit to the track's world-renowned museum, the 500 Parade in downtown Indianapolis and the Victory Banquet function.

"About five weeks ago I was preparing for this year's tour and I read about the Green Flag Relay on the Indianapolis 500 website," he said.

"So I enquired if the flag might be coming to New Zealand. They replied that they would love it to come here and asked if I could take care of it for them.

"Last week I got a tracking note and then it turned up in a courier parcel. I've got it for four or five days. It has to be in Florida for the first race of the IndyCar series at St Petersburg this weekend."

Following the Green Flag Relay protocols of visiting events and locations and documenting its travels, he has taken the flag to Bay of Plenty locations including a visit to Baypark Speedway last weekend and a Maori welcome in Rotorua. It also made a trip to Auckland for a photo with Glenys Dixon, Scott Dixon's mother.

"I've been amazed at the amount of interest. Once it got out on the racing grapevine that I had the flag here I've just had constant calls from people who'd like a photo taken with it," said Kay.

"One of the surprises is that along with the flag there was a quart-size glass milk bottle."

Illinois racer Zach Daum with his crew and the Indianapolis 500 green flag at Baypark Speedway on Saturday night. PHOTOGRAPHY INMOTION/Greg Henderson
Illinois racer Zach Daum with his crew and the Indianapolis 500 green flag at Baypark Speedway on Saturday night. PHOTOGRAPHY INMOTION/Greg Henderson

A unique Indianapolis 500 tradition sidesteps champagne and offers the race winner a bottle of milk.

"Plenty of people want a photo with the flag and the milk. It's something really special for a racing fan."

Kay said since the early 1980s he had introduced several hundred Kiwis to the spectacle and history of the Indianapolis 500.

"I've now done 33 or 34 tour groups and most years I have about 15 people.

"We missed one year after 9/11 when people weren't keen to travel and also a couple of years in the early 1990s when New Zealanders had the chance to watch the IndyCar series at the Gold Coast in Australia. But for the 100th running in 2016 I had a full busload of 40 Kiwis on tour."

Kay said there was a strong New Zealand connection to the Indianapolis 500.

"Of course, Scott Dixon won the race in 2008 while Denny Hulme and Graham McRae also raced there. And there have also been a lot of Kiwi crew members over the years as well as team owners like Steve Horne," he said.