Renowned artist Sam Bass has been painting and drawing the biggest names in motorsports for 30 years…
Sam Bass is an unabashed fan of the sport that he documents. Race cars, drivers and speed are his subjects and he displays his love of all of it with each work of art he completes. Over a 30-year career of painting and drawing the biggest names in motorsports, his passion for the roar of the engines is undiminished.
“It’s been an amazing journey. My career has been a long evolution. There’s definitely not been one straight line,” Bass said. “A lot of curves and journeys off the road here and there. One thing that has remained consistent through my life has been the love of this sport. Whenever you love something so much, it helps you persevere when there are disappointments along the way and it keeps you motivated.”
From the first race he attended he has been inspired by the color, speed and excitement that surrounds the race tracks. His challenge has been to bring that sense of wonder he feels, when he sees the high-powered NASCAR action, to the canvas. To do the work he calls upon his artistic influences — Leonardo Da Vinci, Salvador Dali and Norman Rockwell.
Drawing from Da Vinci’s technical drawing skill, Dali’s sense of surrealism and using Norman Rockwell’s ability to convey the humanity in his driver subjects, Bass composes artworks that are more than just reflections of the fast-paced racing world.
“The biggest challenge is in the composition of the paintings. I challenge myself to portray the sport in a way that you couldn’t just necessarily sit down and take a picture of,” Bass said. “I combine a lot of images together. I try to create different
compositions that really make you think twice about what you’re looking at.
“To me it’s always exciting to have someone say that they’ve owned one of my pieces of artwork for several years and just saw something in it that they’d never seen before,” Bass said.
Bass works almost exclusively in water colors, a choice made not so much by preference but by necessity. Early in his career he discovered that the fast pace of the motorsports events he was capturing and the demand to get his artwork finished
didn’t lend itself to the leisurely pace of oil painting.
“I found myself at every presentation standing over this wet painting the day before with a hair dryer, just trying to rush it to dry,” Bass said. “After a while it became, ‘Wow, I need to find a different medium.’ And rather than go from oil to acrylics, I went from oil to water color.”
Bass uses very little water so the colors in his art work vividly echo the intensity of the action he is capturing.
Bass treasures the contact he has had with the drivers, none more so than the late Dale Earnhardt. One of the first commissions Bass completed was for an Earnhardt sponsor, Wrangler Jeans. He approached the driver and asked for his blessing and approval of the project. Bass recalls that Earnhardt, who could be a tough customer, was “just incredibly nice, gracious and supportive.”
Bass said Earnhardt was the type of person that knew exactly what he wanted and knew exactly how to make you give it to him.
“That was just one of his qualities you learned to appreciate. He put you through the paces and told you how he saw things and just pushed you.” Bass said. “But there was no bigger feeling of elation whenever he liked something that you did.”
It’s clear that Bass had a special relationship with Earnhardt, who was the subject of countless numbers of paintings and someone who Bass worked hard to please.
“You get Dale Earnhardt to punch ya’ in the arm because he’s excited about something you did. That’s something that lasts a long time,” Bass said. “Not only the pain from the punch but just the sheer gratitude and emotion that you feel knowing that you made him happy. You really really felt good about it and that is something that I tremendously miss.”
The work Bass did on a special project involving Earnhardt has led him to one of the most well-known of his accomplishments. The hand-painted Gibson guitar trophy that he produces for Nashville Superspeedway has its origins in one he produced in 1998 for a television special honoring the 50th anniversary of NASCAR. Musicians Brooks & Dunn asked Bass to work up a guitar to present to Earnhardt. After working with Gibson on that and some other successful projects, the deal was struck to produce the special trophy.
Now, after some 55 guitars made for trophy use, Bass estimates that it takes 150 hours from start to finish to produce the one-of-a-kind trophy awarded to winners at Nashville Superspeedway.
“That’s a lot of time to see that guitar and trophy destroyed in four and a half seconds,” Bass said, laughing and sighing while referring to the infamous incident when Kyle Busch was awarded the trophy after winning the Federated Auto Parts 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Nashville Superspeedway on June 6, 2009. Busch smashed the guitar in Victory Lane, acting like some petulant rock star.
“It was one of the toughest nights of my life. That night when Kyle picked that guitar up and started to come down with it to the pavement I thought until the very last minute that he was going to stop short,” Bass said. “And I was as shocked and surprised as anybody in the victory circle that night when I heard that God-awful noise of that guitar hitting that pavement.”
Busch later explained he meant no disrespect to anybody, and has ordered more guitars from the artist. From the standpoint of being a rock-n-roll aficionado, Bass gets the Jimi Hendrix/Pete Townshend connection that Busch was emulating.
“I think the only thing was, though, that he did not think it out all the way through in that by doing that he was not just destroying a guitar he was destroying a trophy,” Bass said. “So I could see it from both sides. But I just think if he had it do over again I really think Kyle would have thought it through a little bit more and it probably wouldn’t have happened.”
Bass said he respects Busch as a driver and knew that it would only be a matter of time before he was in Victory Lane at Nashville Superspeedway again.
Sure enough in 2010 Busch won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Nashville 200.
Bass recalls holding the guitar trophy and waiting for Kyle to get out of his truck.
“It was like a surreal, out of body experience,” Bass said. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. What’s gonna happen here?’ Kyle accepts the guitar from me and then tells me quietly, ‘Hey if you want to take that guitar and beat my truck up I don’t blame ya.’
“It was kinda funny and I tell people that it was the closest thing to an apology I ever got. But, hey. It was good enough.”
Bass has seen other artwork that he worked on destroyed. In 1990 at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, one of the most famous wrecks in NASCAR history saw Michael Waltrip walk away after his Busch Series Kool-Aid car (with a Sam Bass paint scheme) was completely destroyed.
“I told Michael, ‘Gosh if you didn’t like the paint scheme you could have just told me. We would have come up with something different,’” Bass said. You can see remnants of that car in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in
“They are heaped up in a big pile in the corner,” Bass said. “It’s not the most common way to get your artwork in a museum but it worked for me.”
Bass hopes to portray the drivers as he sees them, bigger than life. A race fan who happens to be an artist, his biggest thrill is still to meet a driver and get to work on a project with them.
“They’re just so darn cool whenever they strap on those helmets and have on those colorful uniforms and climb down into the cockpit of that race car,” Bass said. “I used to tell everybody that when Earnhardt Sr. got inside that black car and put
on that black helmet he became Darth Vader. The only thing that was missing was all the lasers from Star Wars.”
With his artwork gracing every conceivable item from foosball tables to a Lionel train set, Bass’s products are everywhere. In a recent Ebay search, more than 700 items were found for sale bearing his unique style, which he characterizes as just natural.
“I just know that I paint and draw the way I paint and draw,” Bass said. “I just love the sport and I feel like that passion and the love comes through in what I do. I hear from fans that they see in my work that I love doing what I am doing. That is the
biggest compliment I can get.”
Bass, NASCAR’s first officially licensed artist, works out of a gallery across the street from Charlotte Motor Speedway which is open to public with free admission.
A continually updated collection of his works can be viewed at . www.sambass.com
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