This Sunday at the completion of the Daytona 500, the winning driver will head to victory lane to receive the accolades of fans, lots of money and a special delivery from Omaha — the Harley Earl Trophy.
The winning driver will have traveled 500 miles. As for the trophy, or should we say trophies — there are two, one for the owner and one for the driver — they will have completed a 1,400-mile journey to Daytona Beach, Fla., from a downtown Omaha studio of artist John Lajba.
For the past 17 years, Lajba has crafted Harley Earl trophies. Each weighs 54 pounds, stands 18 inches tall and is 22 inches wide and 12 inches deep. The process takes several months and involves several Omaha companies.
Trophies and sculptures are nothing new to Lajba. You've probably seen his work.
In Omaha, he created the “Road to Omaha” sculpture that greets College World Series fans at TD Ameritrade Park. If you go to the Durham Western Heritage Museum, you will see the sculptures he created representing train travelers to Omaha. There's the World War II Memorial sculpture he created for the City of Omaha in 1995 that can be seen in Heartland of America Park. For NASCAR fans, his statues of Bill France Sr. and his wife, Anne; Bill France Jr.; and Dale Earnhardt greet you when you visit NASCAR headquarters in Daytona.
The body of the car on the Harley Earl trophy starts as a 115-pound block of bronze. Under the caring hands of Lajba, the transformation in Omaha begins. It gets carved at Herman Engraving Co. on Cuming Street. Along the way, many other pieces need to be made, hand finished and buffed. Lajba will assemble them all at a later date.
Another stop for the trophy is at Koley's Inc. on Harney Street, where it will be plated.
At the same time, the acrylic base is being created by Acrylicon in north Omaha. The base is shaped like a tri-oval to represent Daytona. When the lucite is heated, Acrylicon has only a short time to get it correct or it has to start over. After it's formed, much time is devoted to hand buffing the base until it's near perfection.
About all the individual pieces, Lajba says, “I have to worry them along and make sure everything is as perfect as it can be.”
When he has all the pieces, Lajba will spend up to two days assembling the trophies, wearing special gloves that don't leave marks. After Lajba finishes the assembly and makes sure everything is just right, Packages Plus, yet another Omaha company, takes over. It places the trophies in a special crate with special lining and then places them onto a special pallet. Then and only then are the trophies sent to Daytona.
“Through the years the process has changed somewhat,” said Lajba, who has been making the Harley Earl Trophy since 1996. “We strive to make the trophies as close to perfect as possible.”
So when the checkered flag falls on the Great American Race on Sunday, most fans will wait to see a driver and his crew celebrating in victory lane. Some will see the Harley Earl Trophy hoisted in the air and will say to themselves, “Made in Omaha, with tender loving care.”
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