Every day for the past year, John Lajba would climb into his car, spark his engine and roll off to his studio in Omaha, Neb. During the familiar ride, his mind would wander, falling on the same topic and familiar image -- Bill France Jr.
His thoughts about "The Man Who Made NASCAR" consumed him, and in turn, inspired him.
That's the life of a sculptor. Your life quickly morphs into that of your work. It's hard not to be envious of Lajba, especially when you learn the subject matter of his latest sculpture -- former NASCAR chairman and CEO Bill France Jr., which was unveiled this afternoon at Daytona International Speedway.
"I've been working on this sculpture for over a year, and every day I'd come to my studio and think about Bill France and how much class and charm he had," said Lajba, who also sculpts the Harley J. Earl Trophy given to each year's Daytona 500 winner. "I also knew that he was the type of man who could bring [people] together and have them do their best. And I want to do my best for him, too, and that's what I did."
Daytona Beach, Fla., Mayor Glenn Ritchey came up with the idea, and Lajba was the easy choice to execute it. Lajba already had sculpted three statues that reside outside the World Center of Racing -- likenesses of Bill France Sr., Annie B. France and Dale Earnhardt.
So now, outside the speedway's tour and ticket office, France's larger-than-life figure stands watching as masses enter his second home. The statue shows Bill Jr. wearing a sports coat over a shirt with the top button undone -- relaxed, and ready to impart wisdom.
France's frozen-in-time look struck Daytona Itrack president Joie Chitwood III more than any other feature.
"It's phenomenal," Chitwood said. "It's Bill Jr. It's him. I can almost hear the words coming out of his mouth when I see his expression. I'm so proud we have this statue on our property and that fans are going to get to see it every day."
Bill Jr.'s brother Jim, the chairman of International Speedway Corp., was on hand for the unveiling. So, too, were his children Brian, NASCAR's current chairman and CEO, and Lesa, the chief executive officer of ISC. And, of course, his widow, Betty Jane, was there, offering a unique perspective held only to those who truly knew Bill Jr.
"Bill has a painting in his dressing room which always makes me smile when I walk by it," Betty Jane France said. "It's a young boy looking at his image in the mirror. But instead of seeing himself as a young boy that he is, he sees a mature young man -- all dressed exactly like he is -- staring back at him. I think that sums up the way Bill France was always looking forward into the future. The caption under the picture reads 'Clothes make the man' and on this day, John Lajba [showed] how he not only made the clothes, but he made the great image of a wonderful man who stepped out of a painting and made the world a better place."
The bronze likeness of Bill Jr. depicts him with his arms gently hanging at their side -- again, relaxed. He wears glasses in the sculpture, with his hair neatly parted to the right. His lips are parted, as if ready to speak. Those who knew Bill Jr. could only imagine what words eventually would tumble out.
After numerous visits with Betty Jane France, and digging through hundreds of photos, this was the image on which Lajba settled. Chitwood said it was the exact right direction, even though he could have gone any number of ways.
"We laughed about it," Chitwood said. "Everyone has their image of Bill and how he used to act. Of course, he was a favorite of hot dogs; we all thought about the things we would love to see Bill doing. But I think his expression is so perfect. It looks like he's thinking about something, and he's ready to tell you what he's thinking."