Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson was ready for his clay close-up on Borg-Warner Trophy

Marcus Ericsson Borg-Warner Trophy
Scott R. LePage/BorgWarner

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.

Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson sits at sculptor William Behrends’ North Carolina studio for his Borg-Warner Trophy scuplting (Scott R LePage/BorgWarner).

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.

(Scott R LePage/BorgWarner)

“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.”

William Behrends works on his clay sculpture of Marcus Ericsson (Scott R LePage/BorgWarner).

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.”

Marcus Ericsson watches as girlfriend Iris Tritsaris plants a kiss on ‘Clay Marcus’ (Scott R LePage/Borg Warner).

“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.

(Bruce Martin)

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.

Marcus Ericsson at the Tryon Theatre (Scott R. LePage/BorgWarner)

“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.

(Steve Shunck)

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.

Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson and girlfriend Iris Tritsaris with the Borg-Warner Trophy (Scott R LePage/BorgWarner).

“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 

Heart of Racing program aims to elevate new generation of women to star in sports cars

women sports cars
Mike Levitt/LAT Images/Heart of Racing

(Editor’s note: This story on the Heart of Racing sports cars shootout for women is one in an occasional Motorsports Talk series focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)

Heart of Racing driver and team manager Ian James says his daughter, Gabby, isn’t so interested in auto racing. But she is interested (as a New York-based journalist) in writing about the sport’s efforts and growth in gender equality

It’s a topic that also was brought up by James’ wife, Kim.

“They’re always saying, ‘Hey, you manage all these guys, and you help them, so why not a woman?’ ” Ian James told NBC Sports. “And I feel like there are a lot of women that haven’t had a fair crack at it in sports car racing.

Our whole DNA at Heart of Racing is we give people opportunities in all types of situations where there’s been crew personnel or drivers. And I felt like we hadn’t really addressed the female driver situation. I felt like there was a void to give somebody a chance to really prove themselves.”

During the offseason, the team took a major step toward remedying that.

Hannah Grisham at the Heart of Racing shootout (Mike Levitt/LAT)

Heart of Racing held its first female driver shootout last November at the APEX Motor Club in Phoenix, Arizona, to select two women who will co-drive an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the SRO SprintX Championship.

The season will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway with Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt behind the wheel. The team also picked a third driver, 17-year-old Annie Rhule, for a 2023 testing program.

The Phoenix audition included 10 finalists who were selected from 130 applicants to the program, which has been fully underwritten by Heart of Racing’s sponsors.

“We didn’t want it to be someone who just comes from a socio-economic background that could afford to do it on their own course,” James said. “We can pick on pure talent. We’re committed to three years to do this and see if we can find the right person. I’m very hopeful.”

So is Grisham, a Southern California native who has been racing since she was 6 in go-karts and since has won championships in Mazda and Miata ladder series. She has several victories in the World Racing League GP2 (an amateur sports car endurance series). The last two years, Grisham has worked as a test driver for the Pirelli tire company (she lives near Pirelli’s U.S. headquarters in Rome, Georgia, and tests about 30 times a year).

Starting with the Sonoma during SprintX event weekends (which feature races Saturday and Sunday), she will split the Heart of Racing car with O’Meara-Hunt (a New Zealand native she got to know at the shootout).

“It’s huge; the biggest opportunity I’ve had in this sport,” Grisham, 23, told NBC Sports. “Now it’s up to me to perform how I know I can. But I’m super lucky to be with such an amazing team and have a good teammate. The Heart of Racing has a family vibe and energy to it that’s really amazing. It’s super exciting. It’s hard to put into words.”

Grisham is hopeful that a strong performance eventually could lead to a full-time ride with Heart of Racing. The team has full-time entries in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and won the GTD category of the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 piloted by James, Darren Turner, Roman DeAngelis and Marco Sorensen.

James said “there’s no guarantee” of placement in an IMSA entry for Grisham and O’Meara-Hunt, but “if they prove themselves, we’ll continue to help them throughout their career and our team. The GT3 program is an obvious home for that. If they get the opportunity and don’t quite make it, we’ll be looking for the next two. The next three years, we’ll cycle through drivers until we find the right one.”

Grisham described the two-day shootout as a friendly but intense environment. After a day of getting acclimated to their cars, drivers qualified on new tires the second day and then did two 25-minute stints to simulate a race.

Hannah Grisham reviews data with Heart of Racing sports car driver Gray Newell during the team’s shootout last November (Mike Levitt/LAT).

“Everyone was super nice,” she said. “Once everyone gets in the car, it’s a different level. A different switch gets turned on. Everyone was super nice; everyone was quick. I feel we had an adequate amount of seat time, which is definitely helpful.

“It’s always cool to meet more women in the sport because there’s not too many of us, even though there’s more and more. It’s always cool to meet really talented women, especially there were so many from all over the world.”

IMSA has celebrated female champions and race winners, notably Katherine Legge (who is running GTD full time this season with Sheena Monk for Gradient Racing). The field at Sebring and Daytona also included the Iron Dames Lamborghini (a female-dominated team).

The Heart of Racing’s female driver shootout drew interested candidates from around the world (Mike Levitt/LAT).

James believes “a breakout female driver will be competing with the best of them” in the next five years as gender barriers slowly recede in motorsports.

“It’s been a male-dominated sport,” James said. “It’s still a very minute number of women drivers compared to the guys. I’m sure back in the day there were physical hurdles about it that were judged. But now the cars are not very physical to drive, and it’s more about technique and mental strength and stuff like that, and there’s no reason a girl shouldn’t do just as well as a guy. What we’re just trying to achieve is that there isn’t an obvious barrier to saying ‘Hey, I can’t hire a guy or a girl.’ We just want to put girls in front of people and our own program that are legitimate choices going forward for people.”

“There’s been some really good female drivers, but a lot of them just haven’t been able to sustain it, and a lot of that comes from sponsorship. I think (with the shootout), there’s no pressure of raising money and worrying about crash damage. We’ve taken care of all that so they can really focus on the job at hand.”

Funding always has been a hurdle for Grisham, who caught the racing bug from her father, Tom, an off-road driver who raced the Baja 1000 several times.

“I don’t come from a lot of money by any means,” she said. “So since a young age, I’ve always had to find sponsorships and get people to help me, whether it was buying tires, paying for entry fees, paying for the shipment of a car to an actual race. Literally knocking on the doors of people or businesses in my town.

“So yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve always struggled with and held me back because the sport revolves so much around money. So again to get this opportunity is insane.”

Rianna O’Meara-Hunt was one of two women selected by the Heart of Racing to drive in the SRO SprintX Championship this year (Mike Levitt/LAT).

Grisham credits racing pioneer Lyn St. James (an Indy 500 veteran and sports car champion) as a role model who has helped propel her career. She was hooked by the sights, smells and sounds of racing but also its competitive fire.

“There’s a zone you get in, that subconscious state of mind when you’re driving. It’s like addictive almost. I love it. Also I’m just a very competitive person as I think most race car drivers are.

“For sure I want to stay with the Heart of Racing. Obviously, I’m still getting to know everyone, but it’s a super family vibe. That’s how I grew up in the sport with just my dad and I wrenching on the cars. That’s what I love about this sport is all the amazing people you meet. And I think this is one of the most promising teams in this country. For sure, I want to learn as much as I can from them and hopefully continue. I feel so lucky and grateful to be one of those chosen.”