Indy 500 sculptor gets his own ‘Baby Borg’ after completing his 33rd winner’s face
INDIANAPOLIS – When Marcus Ericsson’s sculpted, bas-relief face cast in sterling silver was attached to the Borg-Warner Trophy, it was the 33rd face of an Indy 500-winning driver that had been created by sculptor William Behrends.
It’s Ericsson’s lasting tribute for winning the 106th Indianapolis 500, joining the legends of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway such as four-time winners AJ Foyt, Al Unser, Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves, and Ray Harroun, the first winner of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911.
The number “33” is important at the Indianapolis 500. For much of its history, with a few rare exceptions, that is the number of cars on the starting grid for the world’s biggest race.
That got Michelle Collins, Global Director, Marketing and Public Relations, BorgWarner, thinking of honoring Behrends with his very own “Baby Borg” Trophy.
The actual Borg-Warner Trophy is on permanent display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Baby Borgs” are smaller versions of the larger Borg-Warner Trophy and awarded to the winning driver and winning team owner at a special ceremony sometime before the next Indianapolis 500.
“We realized that the last face Will did for us was the 33rd face, and we know that has significance in IndyCar for the 33 drivers in the starting lineup for the Indianapolis 500,” Collins told NBC Sports. “We thought that would be a really neat tie-in to do something very special for him.
“There is nobody outside of the driver that has the love and passion for the trophy like Will Behrends does. We had the idea, pitched it to (Indianapolis Motor Speedway president) Doug Boles, asked if he would be open to us weaving it into the Indianapolis 500 Victory Awards Celebration. He said, of course and we were able to make it happen.”
The next step was keeping it a secret.
Behrends and his wife, Charlotte, live in Tryon, North Carolina – a beautiful community in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the North Carolina/South Carolina state line. They attend the Indianapolis 500 every year with a few friends as BorgWarner’s guests -- a working trip for the sculptor because he meets the winner the morning after the Indy 500 to size up their face.
Photos are taken from different angles as the artist looks over the winner’s face, the first step in the lengthy process of placing the actual image on the permanent Borg-Warner Trophy. In the past, Behrends has departed for home after the live study with the winner.
Collins and BorgWarner publicist Steve Shunck came up with a plan to surprise Behrends at the Indianapolis 500 Victory Celebration with his Baby Borg.
“It was a hard secret to keep,” Collins said. “Will was honestly completely shocked. It was so fun for me to watch his reaction, once he realized what was going on. Even at that point, once they queued the video up, I don’t think he realized getting the trophy was even an option. He thought it was a nice way to thank him for the work he has done.
“We had to keep it on the down low.”
To make the plan work, the “Baby Borg” was put in the center of the BorgWarner Table at the ceremony that honors every driver in the race, culminating with the winning driver held the Monday night after the Indianapolis 500 at the JW Marriott.
It was just the trophy, without the marble base and inscription. Shunck had that hidden in a bag underneath the table so the Behrends or any other guest seated would not realize what was going on.
One of the drivers that Behrends has sculpted is Tony Kanaan after he won the Indianapolis 500 in 2013. Because this year’s Indy 500 was announced as Kanaan’s final NTT IndyCar Series race, Boles paid special tribute to the most popular driver in the field. Four-time winner Helio Castroneves would join Kanaan during this part of the ceremony.
After the Kanaan tribute was complete, the televised program paused for a commercial break. Those in the ballroom are usually shown a video or someone is honored for their contributions to the Indianapolis 500.
This was the moment when Behrends was honored without knowing about it in advance. “My big concern was that Will or Charlotte didn’t get up or go to the bathroom,” Collins said. “I was trying to keep them in their seats and make sure they were there for that part.
“The funny thing is, though, when the video was being taped, we sent a lot of B Roll of the sitting that Will does at his studio with the drivers in Tryon, North Carolina. I think somehow the drivers thought he was retiring.
“To set the record straight, Will is not retiring. He is doing it as long as he would like or as long as he is willing to do this for BorgWarner and for IndyCar.
“No retirement, this was a way to recognize him for all the hard work he has done for over three decades for us.”
As an artist, Behrends takes pride in his precision, calculation, and steadiness.
But the honor of getting his own “Baby Borg” left him shocked.
“I was stunned,” Behrends told NBC Sports. “I had no idea they were doing this. It was a lot of people at BorgWarner and others who were working a while on that, and I had not a clue. I really was stunned.
“Michelle Collins said they had an opportunity this year to go to the banquet and asked if we would like to go. I said, of course, never been to the banquet. I thought it was something we would do to experience and enjoy. When the video came on, I was like what is this? I had no idea.”
Behrends is not just an artist, he is a longtime fan of the Indianapolis 500 and auto racing. He realizes that keeping a secret in the auto racing paddock is nearly impossible, but this was one secret that didn’t leak out.
“I’m very surprised,” Behrends said. “Everybody who had the secret did a very good job. On Friday night, there was someone who spoke to my wife and maybe knew about it, or misinterpreted it, but they said congratulations on your husband’s retirement. She was like, ‘What retirement?’
“This person was associated with a driver. It would have made a fantastic retirement gift, but I don’t want to retire. I’m glad it’s not.”
When a driver gets a Baby Borg, the base features another sculpted face that is identical to the one attached to the permanent Borg-Warner Trophy.
In Behrends’ case, it has an engraved plate on the marble base thanking him for his years of service to the Borg-Warner Trophy.
After all, it would be hard for the sculptor to sculpt his own face.
“I told someone I’m glad it doesn’t have a face on it,” Behrends admitted. “If you put my face on that, it would ugly it up. In 50 years of sculpture, I’ve never done a self-portrait and have no interest in doing that.”
Originally from Wisconsin, Behrends and his family moved to Tryon, North Carolina, between his freshman and sophomore years in history school. After finishing high school in Tryon, Behrends attended North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina and studied design with the goal of being an architect.
“Before I finished that course, I realized I wasn’t meant to be an architect, so I went a different direction, got my degree, and went to the University of North Carolina to study sculpture and fine art,” Behrends said. “I enjoyed that, but when I was out of school in my mid-20s, I did a lot of painting and when I started working in three dimension and clay, I was hooked. I was captivated.
“This summer will mark 50 years that I’ve done this full time as a sculptor for a living. So, there we are.”
Behrends doesn’t like the term “starving artist” but when he first started as a sculptor in 1973, he didn’t know anyone who made their living by making sculpture.
“It was the hubris of youth,” he recalled. “You think you can do what nobody else can. It was taking a chance. It’s a profession where you have to work very hard, be very smart and learn how to rub two nickels together for a while.”
Today, his studio is part of his home on a beautiful mountainside that overlooks the Brushy Mountains and a golf course in the valley below.
He is an artist who made his life’s work a rewarding career.
“Old habits die hard,” he said. “I’m a frugal person and try to live modestly. That’s a habit borne out of necessity from early in my career. From every year I started doing this, I’ve had someone to support from my work. I have responsibilities and I take those very seriously. I’m able to do that now, and I’m very grateful for that. I consider myself very lucky that I’ve been able to do this as a profession.”
Commissioned since Arie Luyendyk won in 1990, Behrends soon will start on his 34th face to adorn the trophy. It will be Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, the winner of the 107th Indianapolis 500.
Behrends has nearly one-third of all the faces on the Borg-Warner Trophy and its base and Newgarden will be his next challenge. The work already had begun on the morning after the race.
From an artist’s point of view, Behrends believes Newgarden makes a perfect model.
“He’s got good teeth,” Behrends said of the driver. “He’s a handsome man. He has a good smile. Nice, structured face. A lot to work with. It’s going to be enjoyable to do his image.
“He has a very winning smile.”
As for Behrends, he is a part of Indianapolis 500 history. He is the man who immortalizes the drivers on the trophy that will honor the winners of the Indianapolis 500 for the rest of time.
“I told the BorgWarner people I am so happy and privileged to do this because the Borg-Warner Trophy is a priceless piece of racing history, Indianapolis 500 history,” Behrends said. “Coming up on one-third of the images on the trophy are my work, I feel very fortunate. I’m very proud of it and very grateful, too.”
So far, however, the artist has yet to find a proper and appropriate way to display his “Baby Borg.”
“I’m still trying to find a place in my home where it will stay permanently,” he admitted. “My wife said it can’t continue to remain in bed between us.
“It’s just not going to work.”