By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
Son, I think you’ve hit a homerun. – Bruton Smith
It’s one of the most unique trophies in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series — Texas Motor Speedway’s wooden double cowboy boot trophy. What you may not know, is that it was created by renowned Fort Worth, Texas wood carver Robert Cortez.
Cortez, 61, was gracious enough to take time out with Tribute Racing to talk about the origins of the trophy, that now sits on the mantle of some of the greatest NASCAR drivers in history.
The story, as most great ones do, started with a phone call.
“Well in 1999, I got a call in December from Eddie Gossage, President of the Texas Motor Speedway to come visit him,” Cortez recalled. “[When I arrived] he showed me the silver cup trophies that the city had bought for the Texas Motor Speedway, because it was new back then. But he didn’t like the trophies, and they wanted to create something that really said Texas.”
Naturally Cortez, who had been carving wood seriously since the age of 12 when he was in the Boy Scouts, asked Gossage what he wanted the trophy to feature.
According to Cortez, Gossage said, “We like what you’ve been doing at the Stockyards. Anything that has to do with hats, cowboys, guns and stars.”
Cortez immediately quipped, “How about a whole combination?”
The overwhelming project of creating a trophy that would make Gossage, and Gossage’s boss Bruton Smith happy began for Cortez. According to the artist, he pulled from his own wardrobe for reference.
“I’ve always dressed in and worn western cowboy boots all my life. I already had plenty of boots in the closet. So I grabbed some, and he had already gave me some ideas like ceramic pieces, plastic boots and stuff like that. We had a basic idea, and I told him to write me a check, and I’d take a couple of days off of work, and I’d be more than glad to create it for them. And if he didn’t like it, thanks for the time. That’s what it came down to.”
Cortez finished the trophy, and loaded it up in his car and took it to Texas Motor Speedway. Nervously he placed it in front of Gossage, and Smith and awaited their approval of his design.
Smith, one of the most powerful men in motorsports, walked up to Cortez’s trophy and didn’t say anything for what seemed like an entire minute. Finally, Cortez recalls Smith turning around and saying, “Son, I think you’ve hit a homerun.”
A weight the size of Texas fell off of Cortez’s shoulders, and just like that the trophy you see handed out every spring at Texas Motor Speedway was born. As the legend of the trophy grew, so did the legend of Cortez’s non-NASCAR art.
“[My art has been] all over the world,” Cortez said. “I’m one of three people that I know, that carves full-size carousel horses in Texas. The ones that I’ve done, I’ve shipped as far as England, and several places. I just put them in a crate and ship them Federal Express.”
Cortez has also been commissioned to do commemorative pieces, like a huge long horn steer on the wall of the 100th Home Depot store, and he has done the trophies for the quarter horse nationals at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas in the past.
According to Cortez, the driving force of his art came from his best friend, who was also his wife of 42 years, Cindy Ann. Tragically Cindy Ann passed away in September of 2014.
The artist, who is as likable as he is talented, was left with a huge void in his heart.
“It’ll be two years in September. She was a great influence to me. She was my biggest critic. She always said, ‘Don’t do it if it’s already been done. Make sure it’s something that you create out of your mind,’ She was always my drive to me, and I thought I lost that when she went,” Cortez admitted.
As you would imagine, Cortez was deeply saddened for a long while. It’s just now that Cortez is now beginning to turn his life around from the tragedy of losing the one person he loved more than life itself, and a lot of that healing process has stemmed from his art work.
“Everytime I think about it, when I’m feeling down about something or missing my wife, or feeling sad about something, something will come up,” Cortez said. “Like the other day the 10 o’clock news comes on, and they interviewed Jeff Gordon, and low and behold there in the trophy case was the damn boots. I thought that was frickin’ awesome.”
When a driver crosses the line first after 500 miles of racing in Saturday night’s Duck Commander 500, just remember they aren’t being handed just any old trophy. They are being handed a piece of Cortez’s heart, mind and soul. It’s not just a trophy, it’s a work of art.
Image: Sarah Glenn/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway