Legendary car designer Harley J. Earl led a charmed life. A Stanford dropout, Earl was famously discovered by a Cadillac executive while working with his father in the family’s coachwork shop building custom vehicles for the Hollywood elite. The first president of design at General Motors, Earl accomplished many things: the Buick Y-Job, the introduction of tailfins, and shepherding the Corvette into existence, just to name a few highlights. But it’s his styling contributions to the Firebird I prototype—GM’s aircraft-inspired single-seat, gas-turbine-powered research vehicle—that will forever link his design legacy with NASCAR’s “Great American Race,” the Daytona 500.
He was a close associate of NASCAR founding father Bill France Sr. At some point in the mid-1950s, Earl commissioned a 24-inch-long replica of the Firebird I prototype car and presented it to NASCAR for use as a trophy. In honor of and out of respect for Earl’s contributions to the advancement of the automobile, France designated it the Harley J. Earl Perpetual Trophy and named him commissioner of NASCAR in 1960. As with the Indianapolis 500’s Borg-Warner Trophy, the intention is for the name of each year’s race winner to be affixed to its base in perpetuity.
Although the exact sequence of events is imprecise, photographic evidence confirms that the trophy predates the inaugural 1959 Daytona 500 by at least two years. It was awarded to Cotton Owens for winning the 1957 Grand National race on the Daytona Beach and Road Course; the photo above clearly shows the full-size Firebird trophy being ceremonially presented to Owens—with Earl, France, and General Motors’ Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen and Ray Nichels along for good measure. (Owens was driving for Pontiac at the time, which explains the presence of the Pontiac execs.) At that point, the trophy was mounted to a simple decorative base but still weighed reportedly in excess of 100 pounds. From there, the trophy only made cameo appearances in Daytona 500 winner’s-circle photographs, including with Junior Johnson in 1960, Tiny Lund in 1963, and Richard Petty in 1964, all images that are included in our photo gallery. After that, it seems to disappear from post-race celebrations, its presence eventually superseded by the Harley J. Earl “Award,” a more traditional—and likely easier to transport—trophy that stands approximately three feet high and has silver figurines on a wooden base.
As NASCAR’s popularity skyrocketed in the 1990s and the organization looked inward to mine its own legacy, the decision was made, not only to return the Harley J. Earl trophy to the winner’s circle but also to create smaller replicas that drivers could take home to add to their hardware collections. In the ensuing years, the “real” trophy has been mounted to a new base standing about four feet tall and five feet wide, crafted in the tri-oval shape of Daytona International Speedway. The massive trophy is kept on display at the Daytona 500 Experience museum near the Speedway but makes an annual appearance in victory lane with the winner of the Daytona 500.
To create the miniature replicas that NASCAR started awarding the race winners in 1998, the sanctioning body turned to Nebraska sculptor and NASCAR fan John Lajba. Handcrafted in bronze and sent out for plating before being returned for polishing, each miniature Firebird I replica requires at least six weeks of work to complete. The tri-oval base also mimics that of the official trophy but is made of Lucite. Although only 22 inches long overall, each replica and its base weigh in at 54 pounds. Lajba says the design has evolved a little over the years, enabled in part by sticking to his one-per-year production schedule.
For additional evidence of NASCAR’s and Daytona’s dedication to the legacy of Earl’s Firebird I, look no further than the infield grass, which was cultivated in the image of the car for the 2018 Daytona 500. The iconic Firebird I profile was selected by fans via a contest on social media over two other design contenders.
As for the original 1953 XP-21 Firebird I, the actual prototype? GM is still in possession of the fiberglass-bodied vehicle, its care entrusted to GM’s Heritage Center. For the 2018 running of the Daytona 500—the event’s 60th—General Motors shipped the original Firebird I concept to Florida, where it was on prominent display at the Chevrolet Daytona Experience near the track’s pit lane. We photographed the dazzling, decades-old jet-age concept car extensively, and General Motors even brought it out onto the track on Friday night for a photo shoot under the lights.
As the first gas-turbine vehicle ever to have been built and tested in the United States, Firebird I’s significance, thankfully, was not lost on GM—or on the Daytona 500.