Visual Arts » 3D

Trophy Lives

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Sculptor William Behrends has been using the same piece of clay to create the 3-D faces on the coveted Borg-Warner trophy since 1990. But he doesn’t exactly start from scratch each year.

Instead of smoothing out the clay and “erasing” the image of the previous year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Behrends morphs one face into the next one using miniature sculpting tools to whittle, reshape and contour the clay likeness.

Behrends adds detail to the clay version of the sculpture of Ryan Hunter-Reay. - COURTESY OF THE INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY
  • Courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
  • Behrends adds detail to the clay version of the sculpture of Ryan Hunter-Reay.

He has skillfully turned a long-haired Arie Luyendyk into Al Unser Jr. into Helio Castroneves into Tony Kanaan, often by reshaping the eyes and nose, adding depth to the cheekbones and chin, or creating more or less hair, depending on the driver.

He does it using a clay blend he created, and he transforms it into sculptures about the size of a silver dollar.

“I use an oil-and-water-based clay because it doesn’t dry out, and I have just under enough to do two sculptures,” says Behrends, who makes one for the Borg-Warner trophy (which is housed inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum) and a duplicate for the Baby Borg, given to the winning driver. “I have molds of every year’s previous winner and plaster casts of all of those. I’m not destroying the only copy of the ones that I’ve done.”

As anticipation mounts for the 2015 running of the Indianapolis 500 this Sunday (May 24th), Behrends is more than prepared to create his 26th face for the Borg-Warner trophy, which features images of all 101 winners. That’s when he will have to turn 2014 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay into ... well, he'll just have to wait and see, as he does every May.

Wearing a pair of head-mounted magnifying glasses, sculptor William Behrends leans into a clay model of Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 winner of the Indianapolis 500. Since 1990, Behrends has created the miniature silver sculptures of the winners of the Indy 500 that are affixed to the coveted Borg-Warner trophy. - COURTESY OF THE INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY
  • Courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
  • Wearing a pair of head-mounted magnifying glasses, sculptor William Behrends leans into a clay model of Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 winner of the Indianapolis 500. Since 1990, Behrends has created the miniature silver sculptures of the winners of the Indy 500 that are affixed to the coveted Borg-Warner trophy.

For drivers, having their face on the trophy seems to bring as much excitement and satisfaction as winning the actual Indy 500.

American sculptor William Behrends is known for his large-scale sculptures of historical figures and athletes, including the Willie Mays sculpture outside of the San Diego Giants stadium.  - COURTESY OF THE INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY
  • Courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
  • American sculptor William Behrends is known for his large-scale sculptures of historical figures and athletes, including the Willie Mays sculpture outside of the San Diego Giants stadium.

“It’s a special moment when you get to see your face on the trophy,” says Hunter-Reay. “It gets you choked up the first time you see it. It’s one of the greatest trophies in sports.”

However, the buildup to the unveiling can be somewhat nerve-wracking for the winner. Will the sculpture, which serves as a visual reminder of the race’s history and of the athlete who conquered the 2.5-mile oval track, accurately depict the driver?

For Hunter-Reay, it was a big relief when he saw his image on the trophy for the first time.

“(Will) nailed it,” he says. “He got my jawline, which is pretty accentuated, and he even got my cheeks. It’s astounding how accurate he gets it. To nail it in 3-D is pretty unreal.”

The true test, though, came when Hunter-Reay’s family saw his face on the trophy.

“My likeness is so accurate that my then 2-year-old son Ryden pointed at my face and said, ‘Dada, Dada,’ “ says Hunter-Reay.

That kind of feedback means everything to Behrends, who has spent most of his professional career creating life-size or monumental sculptures of historical figures, athletes and businessmen.

“You can’t fool a 2-year-old,” says Behrends, with a chuckle. “It makes me feel very good to know that (the work is appreciated). That’s what I do it for, for that kind of reaction.”

Ryan Hunter Reay, his wife, Beccy, and their son, Ryden, pose next to the Borg-Warner trophy. - COURTESY OF THE INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY
  • Courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
  • Ryan Hunter Reay, his wife, Beccy, and their son, Ryden, pose next to the Borg-Warner trophy.

The process to create the sculpture of the winning driver begins with a series of photographs that Behrends takes the day after the Indy 500, on Media Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. With Hunter-Reay, it was about 25 images taken from various angles to offer a 360-degree view of his face.

“Those photographs are really key to what I do,” says Behrends, 69, who spends about three minutes with the driver each year. “That short amount of time is just invaluable. It’s golden because I really get the measure of them as it were. So when I receive the photographs, I kind of reconnect what I’ve observed in person with the photos.”

It isn’t until Behrends is back inside his home studio in Tryon, North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, when he’s reunited with the images of the driver. The pictures are lined up on a wooden display rack that sits on a table in the middle of his studio.

“I’m working from the left side, panning all the way to the right profile, and that is the second best thing to having (the driver) in the studio right there with me,” says Behrends, who began sculpting in his twenties.

Surrounded by larger-than-life commissioned sculptures in various stages of design, along with arms, legs and busts encased in plaster, Behrends begins shaping the clay into the driver’s image using miniature versions of the sculptor tools he prefers for his large-scale pieces (including a few dental tools) while listening to chamber music.

The sculpture starts out in clay, then is coated in a high-density plaster, and finally gets dipped in silver. The time it takes from beginning to end to complete the image, which is hollow and mounted to the trophy by a brace and screws, varies because Behrends is also working on other projects simultaneously.

American sculptor William Behrends works on the clay version of the Ryan Hunter-Reay sculpture inside his home studio in Tryon, N.C. While working, Behrends often has chamber music playing in the background and is usually surrounded by other commissioned works, including large-scale sculptures. - COURTESY OF THE INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY
  • Courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
  • American sculptor William Behrends works on the clay version of the Ryan Hunter-Reay sculpture inside his home studio in Tryon, N.C. While working, Behrends often has chamber music playing in the background and is usually surrounded by other commissioned works, including large-scale sculptures.

Over the years, his process has become faster than the first time he created a sculpture for the Borg-Warner trophy in 1990, which was also his first time working on such a small scale.

“Life-size is the smallest I usually work in,” says Behrends. For his first sculpture for the famous racing trophy, Behrends considered making it in life size and then reducing it down, because that’s what he was used.

"But I went ahead and did it in the actual size, and I just got used to working in that scale," he says. “My eyes were also a lot better then, and I didn’t have to use a magnifier.”

Behrends works diligently to create the most accurate likeness (not a caricature) of the winning driver.

“You know, some I think are a little more vivid and better than others but ... as many hours as I spend with them, I pretty much am assured that when it goes out of here, I’ve given my best effort,” says Behrends, an avid sports fan who watches the Indy 500 each year. “It’s not like it’s a day project and I have it back that day. I spend a lot of time with them and don’t leave anything on the table.”

There is one image that he did tweak one year.

“The one that I went back on once was Eddie Cheever. That one, I think the sculpture itself was good, but I didn’t like how I finished the silver after it got back from the silver caster,” he says. “I mounted it on the base and sent it off and either the next year or the year after when the base came back, I took it back off the base and refinished it. I refined it a little bit more.”

The sterling silver sculpture of Reay is affixed to the Borg-Warner trophy. The sculpture, which is actually hollow, is mounted onto the trophy using a brace and screws. - COURTESY OF THE INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY
  • Courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
  • The sterling silver sculpture of Reay is affixed to the Borg-Warner trophy. The sculpture, which is actually hollow, is mounted onto the trophy using a brace and screws.

Behrends says that when the base comes back each year for him to affix a new face to the trophy, it’s like a reunion. “I get to see all these faces again, and I’ll often polish them up, check ’em out and see how they’re aging.”

Although he has been creating the miniature sculptures for more than 20 years, he doesn't take his job for granted.

“I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to do something this prominent and to be able to do something year after year and therefore build a body of work on that trophy,” says Behrends. “I don’t want to be falsely modest or anything, but I’m the sculptor who has the out-of-the-way studio on a hilltop in Western North Carolina, and I have this opportunity somehow to do these very prominent sculptures -- this and others that are very high profile. I just think I’m blessed to be able to do that. I can’t explain why, I just try to live up to the opportunity.”

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