The finish line for the trophy presented winning driver Jeff Gordon may have been Sunday's Daytona 500, but it started in Omaha.
Winning the race is the pinnacle for any professional driver. The Harley J. Earl trophy is NASCAR's crowning jewel. "It's an honor for me to give them something that will benefit their lives like that," said sculptor John Liba of Omaha. Nearly a decade ago, NASCAR asked Liba to redesign its most treasured trophy. He had been selected a few years earlier to create a bronze statue of Bill and Ann France, the founders of NASCAR. It sits at the entrance of the Daytona Speedway in Florida.
"The first one I did was out of marble. It had a marble pedestal and it was a little too heavy." The next year, Liba replaced the marble with a black acrylic base, but few other changes have been made to the classic Firebird Rocket car that highlights the trophy. Yet, every year, Liba creates the trophy from scratch by hand. "I worked so many hours on that. It took six weeks to do it. I probably worked at least, 12-hour days. All the race cars that you see are handmade and just the love that goes into making those cars. And they like it that I try to put that same amount time, love, and devoting into this as race drivers to their cars."
When Liba's work is done, the trophy is not quite ready for the winner's circle. It still needs to be silver-plated, which is done by another company in Omaha. "It is a real privilege to do that type of work," said Joe Chickinelli of A&J Plating, who took Liba's bronze sculptures, dipped them in silver, and then went through an elaborate polishing process. "It has to be an exceptional job, because it's being seen by hundreds of thousands of people," said Chickinelli. "This trophy has to reflect the integrity of that race, it's the greatest race ever," said Liba.
Liba's work is on display all over country. Locally, he may be best known for his "Road to Omaha" statue that sits out front of Rosenblatt Stadium.