You don't normally think of art when talking NASCAR.
Unless you're referring to the art of driving, maybe — really, really fast driving in tight groups around a track, where a hair's movement can mean life or death. But for Hopewell's Sam Bass, the two always have gone hand in hand.
Bass, 51, is the first officially licensed NASCAR artist, having received the designation in 1997. He studied art at Virginia Commonwealth University, graduating with a painting and printmaking degree in 1984. But his lifelong passion started at Southside Speedway at age 7, when his uncles took him to meet driver Bobby Allison.
"I came home and immediately started drawing race cars and drivers, and really knew from that night what I wanted to pursue," Bass says from his gallery in Charlotte, N.C., across from the speedway. "It's been a 44-year journey to this point."
Bass designed the Federated Auto Parts trophy for the most recent race at Richmond International Raceway, the site of a controversial finish that made national news.
"To have any actions on track lead to questions about the integrity of the sport and or the morals and ethics of the teams and drivers is just something NASCAR doesn't need," he says. "I applaud NASCAR for their quick and immediate response. ... They had a lot of things to consider and [I] feel they did their best given the circumstances. There were still lots of upset people and hurt feelings, unfortunately."
Bass lost half his leg to diabetes five years ago, but it hasn't slowed him down one bit. Style Weekly spoke with him about his unusual career.
What was your big break with NASCAR?
One of my big breaks came at Richmond fairgrounds raceway — then track president Paul Sawyer allowed me to hang a display of my artwork in 1981. It got noticed by the media ... [and] that's when I started doing commissioned paintings.
Do you have a favorite job?
I enjoy all aspects — original paintings used as posters, prints and program covers. But I also design a lot of the race cars. Over the years I've designed for the Allisons, the Pettys, Jeff Gordon, the DuPont and Exalta cars. Generally the sponsors send me the logos, I submit four or five layouts, then I'll get their feedback and make minor adjustments. Then we either paint or full-vinyl wrap the car. The car designs are more complex, you've got to keep a lot more people happy. If you come to my gallery in Charlotte, I've got sheet metal of all the designs hanging on the walls by the paintings and guitars I've done.
What's the prettiest car you've ever done?
[Laughs] Things are memorable for different reasons. But the rainbow car for Jeff Gordon that I did at the end of '92, that paint scheme was run for nine years and became really iconic in the sport. I was very proud of that one, and am still proud to create for him to this day. I did a special paint scheme for Dale Earnhardt and Wheaties, they put that design on millions of boxes of Wheaties. ... I've done custom guitar designs for Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, Lenny Kravitz, Sheryl Crow, Blake Shelton, Foreigner, Peter Frampton. Second only to NASCAR is my love of music. If I ever don't show up for work at NASCAR one day, you'll find me out on the road playing guitar for somebody [laughs].
How did your teachers at VCU respond to you drawing racecars?
Not all of my professors were supportive of my NASCAR dream [laughs]. But one professor in my lithography class encouraged me to follow my passion. All of them had my best interests at heart, though, they thought I should do stick and ball sports to vary my portfolio to work in all genres. But I was hard-headed. ... Overall it was a great education.
Do you have an official Sam Bass sponsor?
[Laughs] No, unfortunately I don't. I work with a bunch. But maybe I need to look into that. S