OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Millions of NASCAR fans watched a history-making, double-overtime win at the Daytona 500 on Sunday.
The trophy Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. hoisted overhead was made in Omaha by sculptor, John Lajba.
His relationship with NASCAR is decades old. It started in Shalimar, FL, at Bob Hope Village — after Lajba finished a sculpture of the legendary entertainer.
"(Bob) had a show for the unveiling," Lajba recalled. "And he had Phyllis Diller, and he had Reba McEntire, and he had Miss America at the time. And here I am, you know?!"
The Frances, the family behind NASCAR, also attended the event and connected with Lajba's work. In 1995, they asked him to design a permanent Harley J. Earl Trophy for the Daytona 500.
Lajba showed 3 News Now Anchor Mary Nelson his prototype.
"The Firebird was a rocket car, and this was made out of balsa wood and Bondo," he explained. "Its tail broke off — my son painted it and made it like a rocket ship."
These days, creating the trophy for The Great American Race is a pursuit unto its own. Lajba says the final stages include diamond files and emery cloths. It takes him and his team six months to create two Daytona 500 trophies: one for the driver, one for the owner.
"I have to be the last person and it's all my responsibility to make sure it's perfect," he said.
Lajba also designed the Daytona 200 and College World Series MVP trophies. But to baseball fans, he sculpted something even more recognizable: "The Road to Omaha" statue outside TD Ameritrade Park.
"My wife and I like to go to the College World Series games. We go there and I kind of spy a little bit," Lajba smiled. "I'm up there and I see people interacting with my sculpture and they really don't know who I am, but the point is, they're making that sculpture a part of their life."
Lajba also created several pieces for the Durham Museum. During our visit, he was working on a large project for St. Columbkille.
His wholesome nature engenders trust — whether with NASCAR or a Papillion parish.
"I like to approach my work initially with not having any answers," said Lajba.
"It's fun to discover stuff. Isn't it fun to learn things?" he continued.
Lajba's next work to debut locally is his piece for St. Columbkille, which will be installed this spring.