We're counting down to the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 with a series of fascinating insights on “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in RACER magazine and on RACER.com. In conjunction with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its incredible collection of photography and race records, we're exploring some of the stories behind the traditions and showcasing the heroes, the groundbreaking machines and the epic races that made the Indianapolis 500 the most important race in history.
This week, we take a look at the Borg-Warner Trophy, one of the most recognizable and iconic sporting prizes on the planet.
THE BORG-WARNER TROPHY
The art deco marvel known as the Borg-Warner Trophy is more than just a sporting prize – it's a big, bold, beautiful symbol of a nation's self-belief and confidence in its ability to grow and prosper after the hardship and austerity of the Great Depression.
In 1935 – just about the time that America was beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel after the stock market crash of 1929 and the deep, debilitating recession that followed – the Borg-Warner Automotive Company commissioned designer Robert J. Hill from the Gorham Manufacturing Company to create a trophy to be awarded annually to the winning driver of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race.
The Speedway had seen some big trophies in its time (none more imposing than the Wheeler-Schebler Trophy awarded to the leader at the 400-mile mark until 1932), but the Borg-Warner would be something else. In the brief to Hill, the guidelines stated that it had to represent the spirit of world-class racing, be constructed of precious metal and be built to heroic dimensions.
With a budget of $10,000 to work with, Hill delivered a trophy that exceeded all expectations. Some five feet, six inches tall and weighing 110lbs, the sterling silver creation was at once imposing, yet graceful, too. From the Greek-style, naked athlete waving a checkered flag on top of its dome to the wings of victory handles on the sides of its exquisitely proportioned and highly stylized body, the finished piece was very much of its time, but timeless, too.
Central to the concept was that every winning driver would become part of the trophy in perpetuity. The face of each winner, alongside their name, date of victory and winning speed, would be placed on the trophy as a small, bas-relief sculpture on a background of checkerboard squares. When the trophy was first made, Gorham's sculptors worked from contemporary photography and illustrations to create the faces of the previous winners, up to and including 1935 winner Kelly Petillo.
Originally, there was enough room for 80 faces on the trophy, but two new bases have since been added – the first, in 1986, to take an extra 18 winners, and the second in 2004, which will be good until 2034. After that, one assumes the Borg-Warner Trophy will add another base – one, perhaps, to take it in to the 22nd Century.
The first driver to be presented with the Borg-Warner Trophy was 1936 winner Louis Meyer (RIGHT) – but not in Victory Lane, as became the norm in subsequent years. Instead, the trophy was unveiled and presented to him at a dinner hosted by then-Speedway president Eddie Rickenbacker. As he looked at the trophy, Meyer would have seen two sculptures of his own face already on it, celebrating his wins from 1928 and '33. Later, he would say that, “Winning the Borg-Warner Trophy is like winning an Olympic medal.”
The trophy quickly became a storied part of raceday at the Indy 500. During the race itself, it would be displayed trackside, before being brought to the winner's enclosure and hoisted on to the back of the winning car, while the victorious driver drank his milk (another of Meyer's firsts), talked to the world and posed for the pictures. Later, as racecar bodywork became ever more delicate and complex and the trophy became heavier with the addition of its extra bases, it would be placed behind the car.
The highly valuable trophy was never taken home by a driver, but kept at the Speedway. Instead, until 1988 the winner was presented with a two-foot tall relief of the trophy mounted on a walnut plaque. Then came the “Baby Borg” – a perfectly-formed, 18-inch replica of the trophy, of which one is presented to the winning driver and one to the winning team owner in a ceremony held in Michigan every January.
Also in January, the newest face on the trophy is unveiled in a ceremony at the Speedway's Hall of Fame Museum. 2010 winner Dario Franchitti's (LEFT) will be added for a second time in January of 2011. Each new face doesn't just provide a permanent reminder of the latest chapter in Indy 500 history, but also an ever-changing snapshot of current hairstyles and, in Tom Sneva's 1983 likeness, the state of the art in spectacles.
As well as Sneva's “greatest spectacles in racing,” other rarities include co-winners Lora L. Corum and Joe Boyer sharing a square in 1924 and Floyd Davis and Mauri Rose doing likewise in 1941, while 1950 winner Johnnie Parsons is the only misspelled driver on the trophy. He became Johnny Parsons during the engraving, but it was decided not to rectify the by-now-historic mistake during the trophy's first major renovation in 1991.
A Borg-Warner Trophy recipient who didn't get his likeness on one of its squares is Frank Capua, aka Hollywood legend Paul Newman, who wins the 1968 “500” in the movie Winning. The trophy also appears in the 1950 action-romance To Please a Lady, starring Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck. In it, hard-faced racer Mike Brannon (Gable), fails to go to Victory Lane, but lands his lady (Stanwyck) after crashing out in this classic tale of redemption.
During the Month of May, the Borg-Warner Trophy is much in demand in the buildup to the Indianapolis 500 and is taken off permanent display. But during the rest of the year, visitors can pore over this truly amazing piece of Indy 500 lore and legend at the Speedway's Hall of Fame Museum.
Next week: How Louis Meyer and Wilbur Shaw both nearly became the first man to win four Indy 500s – and why they didn't...
• For tickets to the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2011, CLICK HERE.
For more insight on the history and heritage of the Indianapolis 500, check out legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson's blog HERE on Indianapolismotorspeedway.com.
To get up close to racing history, visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Hall of Fame Museum. Find out more HERE
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