As the recent winner of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, Josef Newgarden has savored the ceremonial bottle of milk in Victory Lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, kissed the track’s historic bricks and, since the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season ended, reflected on what he and Team Penske accomplished in May.
But the latest moment in the celebration – the gift that keeps on giving – was more moving than Newgarden expected. On Sept. 22, he visited William Behrends’ workshop in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, where the image of every “500” winner since 1990 has been sculpted. Soon, that likeness in sterling silver will be affixed to the prestigious Borg-Warner Trophy, affirming Newgarden’s motorsports immortality.
Newgarden, who needed 12 starts to win Indy, got to see how Behrends crafted his image first in clay. It was more personal than he could have imagined.
“The first thing is, I had no expectations,” Newgarden said. “I didn’t know what this process would be like or what to expect from seeing myself (sculpted). It’s strange at first because I’ve never seen myself in that perspective, a 3D image of my head. It’s different than looking at yourself in the mirror; it’s a totally different feel, a real-life thing looking at you. It’s amazing.”
Behrends is one of the top sculptors in the world, with impressive commissions. He has sculpted full statues of U.S. vice presidents and some of the most famous athletes in history, including golfers Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones, and baseball players Pee Wee Reese, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Tom Seaver and Tony Gwynn.
Behrends said Newgarden offers much to work with. He noted the character in the driver’s chiseled physique, a determined but inviting appearance that many find attractive. If Behrends hadn’t previously seen Newgarden’s handsomeness, he joked his daughter and two granddaughters certainly had. It’s not the first time Newgarden has been likened to a Greek god.
“A sculptor looks at bone structure, the basic structure of the face and the head – that’s the foundation we use – and Josef’s got a strong jaw, strong cheek bones, really distinct, good features,” Behrends said. “He’s just an ideal subject in that respect.
“He’s also got a great deal of personality in his face, a good smile – he smiles with his whole face. I’ve (sculpted) a lot of athletes over the past 25 years – (in) baseball, golf, basketball – and Josef’s definitely an athlete. As I said, he’s an ideal subject.”
The likeness will undergo several molds before it is publicly unveiled this winter. But Newgarden now has an appreciation for the work that will have gone into it.
“Will is remarkable, and when you see Will’s (craft) up close and personal, you can see he’s one of the best of the best, which is fitting for a trophy like the Borg-Warner Trophy,” he said. “Honestly, this is one of the coolest parts of winning the race. People have been asking me what I’ve done, what’s been exciting about (winning the race), and I think this definitely is top of the list.
“You already have a lot of respect for the trophy, but being able to learn more about the process and how detail it is, it’s incredible.”
All of which has Newgarden craving a second “500” victory.
“As we all know, there are no guarantees with the Indy 500,” he said. “In a lot of ways, I’d mourned the possibility of winning the race because it doesn’t matter how bad you want it or how good you can be around the Speedway, it might never work out. I think you’ve got to come to terms with that reality, and I did in a lot of ways. And after winning it, there are no guarantees that you’ll ever win it again. That’s also OK.
“It’s a big deal to be a part of the race, and it’s a big deal to qualify for it. That’s already a tremendous honor. I enjoyed that part of it more than anything this year. But I will say this: I am more motivated than ever to win it again, which was a surprising reaction to me. I didn’t know what the reaction would be, but I think you want to win it more after you’ve won it once.
“It’s kind of like trying to explain to someone what the Indy 500 is like. You just don’t know until you go there and see it, and I think winning has shown that to me, too. I’d been there 11 years prior and thought I knew what it would be like to win it. I didn’t. That’s a deeper appreciation than you can imagine, and I now have that.”