Sam Bass stops at a traffic light in Concord, N.C., grabs his pen and drawing pad and furiously sketches an idea that just popped into his head.
“You never know where you’ll be when an idea hits you,” says Bass, 45, a painter and designer who’s renowned for his auto racing art. “I use hotel notepads, napkins or whatever is handy.”
The sketch Bass begins at the stoplight may eventually turn into a paint scheme for a racecar, uniform, helmet, trading cards, watercolor painting or some other form of NASCAR-related art. At his Sam Bass Gallery in Concord, many of his preliminary sketches are framed alongside the finished piece so visitors can see the evolution of his work.
Bass gained notoriety in 1997 when he became the first artist officially licensed by NASCAR, allowing him to legally use the NASCAR logo on his artwork. Today, NASCAR and dozens of corporations, such as DuPont and Coca-Cola, hire Bass when they need art related to the sport. In fact, he’s become so synonymous with the sport that movie producers for last year’s NASCAR comedy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, hired him to design the paint schemes for the film’s cars and uniforms.
Bass is thrilled when he sees his designs on the big screen or on a racecar streaking around the track, but he favors his more stationary work. “The car designs require many levels of approval from lots of different people, but the paintings are much more personal,” says Bass, who may spend up to 400 hours creating a watercolor painting.
Bass began drawing racecars at age 6 while growing up in Hopewell, Va. (pop. 22,354). “I remember getting in trouble in history class for drawing racecars in my notebook,” says Bass, whose love of motorsports was fueled when his uncles began taking him to races.
Despite his artistic passion for cars, or maybe because of it, Bass received a fine arts degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. His big break into racing art came in 1981, when he drove to Talladega, Ala., to personally deliver a painting he’d done for his childhood hero, racing legend Bobby Allison. Allison and his team liked the painting so much that they commissioned Bass to do several more.
On his way home, Bass recalls thinking, “If I could string several of these commissions together, I might just be able to make a living doing this.” He did just that, and by 1988 Bass had designed the paint scheme for the car Allison drove to victory lane during that year’s Daytona 500.
“I liked him and his attitude when I first met him,” Allison says. “He’s one of my favorite people today. He studied, practiced and really applied himself because he knew what he wanted to do, and as far as racing artists go, he’s at the top.”
Through the years Bass has captured auto racing’s most memorable moments, along with racing icons such as Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon. To date, Bass has more than 2,000 NASCAR paintings, illustrations and limited-edition prints to his credit. His work, which has been featured on the shopping network QVC, is displayed in corporate offices and in NASCAR fans’ homes across the nation.
“Sam’s work habits are unbelievable,” says Scott Warfield, public relations manager for the Charlotte, N.C., division of NASCAR. “His attention to detail makes him unique among artists.” While he always tries to do his best, Bass knows he always can do better. “I don’t ever want to be complacent; I want to always be improving.”
Nonetheless, he’s delighted to have a career that allows him to illustrate his lifelong love of racing. “The fan in me is always really excited,” Bass says of his work. “I constantly have to remind myself that this is a real job.”