Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson was ready for his clay close-up on Borg-Warner Trophy
TRYON, North Carolina – The life of a famed artist is similar to that of an actor on Broadway. It’s not about the money as much as the self-gratification of the crowd reaction.
Many famous actors will say they prefer acting on stage in live theater productions because they get the immediate gratification of hearing the response of the audience. To a film actor, it might be one year from the time they film a movie until it is actually completed and released to the public.
To an artist and sculptor, they may toil at their craft for endless hours, creating a work of art that takes time, precision, and skill. It’s when the wraps come off and the artist sees the reaction of his subject that provides the ephemeral thrill that it is a job well done.
That is true for William Behrends, the sculptor for the Borg-Warner Trophy since 1990, when he performs a live study with the winner of the Indianapolis 500.
Although Behrends has created the face of the winner that goes onto the permanent Borg-Warner Trophy since Arie Luyendyk in 1990, the live study is fairly recent.
It began when Juan Pablo Montoya came to Behrends’ studio in the mountains near the North Carolina-South Carolina state line in 2015. Since then, it has become an annual ritual.
On Sept. 20, it was Marcus Ericsson’s turn to see his life-size “Clay Head” that Behrends has created. It’s a crucial step of the long process that ends up as a sterling silver casting of his face that is about the size of an egg and is attached to the Borg-Warner Trophy.
When Behrends took the wrap off Ericsson’s “Clay Head” the anticipation of the Swedish winner’s reaction is almost as strong for the artist as it was for the subject.
It’s something money can’t buy for an artist.
“That’s exactly right,” Behrends told NBC Sports. “It’s something you can’t assess the value of. It’s invaluable to me. As far as the driver is concerned, it’s his first look at what the image will be.
“It’s very personal and very special to me because I want the driver to like what I do and for his loved ones and fans to say, ‘You nailed it.’
“Later on, the second most important point is when the silver is unveiled on the trophy itself. Then the fans get to see the finished product. That is important to me, too.”
Since Montoya, Alexander Rossi (2016), Takuma Sato (2017, ’20), Will Power ('18), Simon Pagenaud ('19) and Helio Castroneves ('21) have come to this beautiful community. It’s a home to artists, golfers and even actors.
Famed British actor David Niven was a regular visitor to Tryon during his life and often stayed at the Pine Crest Inn when he was in town to relax and see his friends.
One day every year, it’s the winner of the Indianapolis 500 that has his name in bright lights on the marquee of the Tryon Theater.
This year included an extra dynamic for Behrends.
In addition to seeing the reaction of Ericsson when his “Clay Head” was unveiled, he also got to see the reaction from Ericsson’s girlfriend, Iris Tritsaris, a college student, and model from Denmark.
After Ericsson won the 106th Indy 500 on May 29, Tritsaris appeared in Victory Lane, at the Yard of Bricks and in the pace car ride around the track.
Her presence at Behrends’ studio gave the sculptor an extra sense that he had created an outstanding likeness of the Indy 500 winner.
“It made it much more exciting,” Behrends said. “That’s the first time we’ve had the loved one, the wife or girlfriend, with the driver since Simon Pagenaud. It adds so much to it. We want them to enjoy fully with the people they love.
“To see her reaction, too, was great for me.”
On this day, Ericsson came face to face with himself when he saw his life-sized head sculpted in clay.
“Marcus, this is the clay study I did of you from the photographs we took the day after the race,” Behrends said as he removed the wraps. “We’re going to work on this together.”
A big smile came across Ericsson’s face. Tritsaris’ eyes grew with amazement.
“That is great,” Ericsson said. “Amazing. Good job. I think it’s amazing. It’s a bit weird seeing myself. I can definitely see that it’s me, but it’s amazing to see it.
“I think that is so cool.”
Said Tritsaris: “It’s so good. It is definitely you.”
“This looks better than real,” Ericsson said. “That’s amazing. It looks really, really good. It’s amazing.
“It looks better than the real Marcus.
“I don’t want to say better than expected because I expected it to be great. I think it’s amazing. It’s even more real than I expected. I know how good William is, but it’s not until you see one of yourself that you realize how very good it is.
“It’s really good.”
Tritsaris even kissed “Clay Marcus” and suggested he should, too.
“Now, that’s a bit weird,” he said.
On this day, Tritsaris would leave a trail of kisses, from the clay head to Ericsson’s cheek, to the top of the Borg-Warner Trophy itself.
After the live study was completed, Ericsson headed to the Tryon Theater, where his name was in lights on the marquee, along with his team and sponsor.
Ericsson posed for photos in his driving uniform alongside Tritsaris in a black dress.
To complete the theater theme was a giant box of popcorn. The two playfully tossed popcorn at each other, one kernel at a time, shooting for each other’s mouth like a basketball going through the hoop.
When it was all over, Tritsaris planted a kiss on top of the Borg-Warner Trophy, leaving a lipstick stain on top of the famed sterling silver trophy.
It was hard to say who -- Ericsson or Tritsaris -- made the most out of this trip to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
But the winning driver was soaking it all in, enjoying the accolades that come with winning the biggest race of his career when he outdueled Pato O’Ward in the final five laps of the Indy 500.
“I was very impressed,” Ericsson said of the ‘Clay Marcus’ and Behrends’ work. “Just being here and the whole experience, meeting Will and getting to know him more has been incredible. I was a bit nervous coming here this morning to see the sculpture for the first time.
“It’s not something you do every day, seeing a sculpture of your own face. But he’s an incredible artist and I expected it to be good. It was very impressive.
“Even my girlfriend said, ‘It’s better than the original.’
“I thought it was better than I expected. It was very impressive.”
Behrends believes Ericsson has all the qualities a sculptor needs to create an accurate likeness.
“He has a wonderful face, a great face for a sculpture,” Behrends said. “He is very expressive. A nice smile. A good-looking young man. He’s a new winner, which I really like. I like a new challenge. Doing the repeat winners is also a challenge, another type of challenge, but I always like to see a new face.
“Also, a younger face to look at the future of IndyCar.”
It was the first new face sculpted by Behrends since 2019.
In 2020, Sato won the Indy 500 for the second time in his career. In 2021, Helio Castroneves became the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.
Castroneves became the first driver whose face Behrends sculpted for four Indy 500 victories.
“Every year, I try to do something different to it,” Behrends said. “This is the only thing I do that occurs more than once. Everything else is one of a kind. I want to bring something different and distinct to the driver.
“On the Borg-Warner Trophy, I always try to do a better job than the one I did last year. But every one of these that I do is unique. I want each one to be very distinctive in their own way.
“I want somebody standing 10 feet away to look at the trophy and say, ‘That’s Marcus Ericsson’s face.’ It has life, it has the exuberance he felt when winning the race. It has everything that win was to him.
“I want it to stand out.”
From the egg-sized faces on the Borg-Warner Trophy, Behrends also has created larger-than-life statues that stand outside of Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants.
Those include Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda and Gaylord Perry. At Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres, Behrends has sculptures of Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman.
The statues immortalize the great players from those teams.
His latest baseball statue was unveiled April 14 when Behrends created a statue of New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver at CitiField in Queens, New York. It was Opening Day for the team.
“It was a really nice ceremony,” Behrends said. “Of course, Tom Seaver has passed away, but his wife was there and his two daughters. The Mets were there, and it was a really great day.
“It was the culmination of a three-year project. I was relieved and quite proud when it was unveiled. Nancy Seaver (Tom’s widow) loved it. I was in constant communication with her and was very excited and offered me some real insight. One of the daughters, Sarah, came down here and told me stories about her father and that really enriched my work and I got to know him better as a man.
“That was really something I was proud of.”
Behrends has also been commissioned to create busts of U.S. vice presidents that are on display at the United States Capitol Building, including Spiro Agnew, Al Gore and Dick Cheney. Behrends has a saying that he keeps on the whiteboard in his studio, “Inspiration comes during work; not before work.”
That is why he puts so much time and effort into his art.
“It’s not going to do itself,” Behrends said. “I owe it to myself to get in there and give it my best. Some days you feel like it and some days you don’t, but you still have to get back into the game.”
When it comes to the Borg-Warner Trophy, it’s a labor of love for Behrends and BorgWarner, which has been his client since since 1990. He’s the longest-running sculptor in the history of the trophy that began in 1936 when it first appeared in Victory Lane at the Indianapolis 500 with winner Louis Meyer.
In an era of sports sponsorships that come and go, BorgWarner’s relationship with the Borg-Warner Trophy makes it the longest-running sponsorship in sports history.
“It’s a company that has been around for more than a century,” Behrends said. “Their commitment to this trophy and supporting this race has been constant over those years. It’s unusual in today’s world.
“I work hard and try to be smart in my profession, but I’m fortunate to be able to do this every year. It does not get old. My wife and I are fortunate to be part of this.”
What is most valuable about Behrends’ relationship with the Borg-Warner Trophy is the realization that long after he is gone, his faces of the winners will be on that historic trophy in perpetuity.
“Just proud, very, very proud,” Behrends said. “I really try every year to put in my best and as a collection, I hope it holds up over time.”
Being part of history on a trophy that was there before he was even born, is something that humbles Ericsson, 32.
“That’s the crazy thing,” Ericsson said. “Winning the Indy 500, you get to do all this cool stuff, but the coolest is having your face on that trophy.
“To be part of that group of winners on the trophy is one of the coolest things ever. To know your face will be there forever, it’s hard to take in. It’s pretty incredible to know that. William Behrends had done an amazing job and has replicated my head and my face in a very good way.”
It was extra special because Ericsson got to share the experience with his girlfriend on a memorable trip to the North Carolina mountains.
“It’s been great, we’ve had a great time up here,” Ericsson said. “It’s very cozy and quiet up here in the woods up in the mountains, it’s been a great few days for the two of us.”
Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500