BRISTOL — When Bristol Motor Speedway contacted noted NASCAR artist Sam Bass about creating a special poster to celebrate Speedway in Lights, he jumped at the chance.
The Virginia native faces deadline pressure and his creativity is often pushed to the limits when designing covers for the programs sold at major NASCAR races. This latest project was all fun, an opportunity to combine his racing-inspired works with his love for the holiday season.
Out of it comes a painting which Santa Claus leads a pack of cars around Bristol with a snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and a penguin following suit.
“I enjoy so many of the different aspects of artwork in the sport,” he said. “For the program covers, they’re real intense and real detailed. Then, I’ll go off and design a race car, design a guitar or do this Christmas art for the poster. That keeps things fresh for me.”
If the new painting looks somewhat familiar to BMS fans, it is no accident. Bass used the centerpiece of the August program cover he designed and reworked it with the holiday characters.
There was no one whom BMS trusted more with such a project. Bass, 50, has 30 years of experience as a NASCAR artist. His first painting was a gift presented to his favorite driver, Bobby Allison, at a fan club meeting in 1981.
Allison was also the first driver, whom Bass designed a race car for. It was the gold No. 12 Buick which Allison drove to his third Daytona 500 victory in 1988.
“Growing up a Bobby Allison fan, the first time your hero races a car with your paint scheme and wins the Daytona 500, that’s about as good as it gets,” Bass said. “I was very lucky to have that car to start my career.”
As his career has progressed, Bass estimates he has designed between 300 to 400 race cars in NASCAR’s national series. He’s designed race cars for 27 of the top 43 drivers in the Sprint Cup Series, including the first race cars of Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In addition, he’s designed every Sprint Cup car throughout the career of four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon.
“It’s been really amazing. I love working with Jeff Gordon,” Bass said. “I met Jeff Gordon before he was Jeff Gordon. I’ve known him since he had a mullet and a mustache.”
An old-fashioned artist, Bass uses sketches instead of computer designs. The average painting takes two weeks to complete from the time a vision pops in his head until it’s splashed across the canvas. Each work is important as Bass tries to convey his love for the sport and a respect for his subject.
It is a sincerity which helped him develop a nearly 20-year working relationship with the late Dale Earnhardt. Bass documented many of the greatest moments of Earnhardt’s career including the “Pass in the Grass” at the 1987 All-Star Race, which inspired Bass’ most famous piece of artwork titled “The Wild Side.”
A decade later, Bass designed an orange No. 3 Wheaties Chevrolet that Earnhardt drove in the 1997 All-Star Race and was featured on cereal boxes across the country.
His favorite illustration of Earnhardt, however, was a design he did for the 1996 Food City 500 race program at Bristol titled “Ready to Rumble.”
“It has him standing in a leather coat against a brick wall with graffiti on it,” Bass said. “He’s standing beside his car. It was one of my favorites and one of his favorites.”
In his book, “The NASCAR Art of Sam Bass,” the author describes “Ready to Rumble” as 100 percent pure attitude. “It’s Earnhardt in all his glory: that iconic lean against his car with his arms folded, and the leather jacket nobody could wear quite like Dale that gave him a look of someone you didn’t want to mess with.”
Well established, Bass has produced the covers for 68 straight Sprint Cup race programs at Charlotte and his artwork adorned the Gibson guitars given as trophies to race winners at Nashville. In addition, he’s the owner of a large gallery located outside of turn two at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
However, he holds the same passion for the sport he held as a 7-year-old watching Allison duel with Richard Petty on the old Richmond Fairgrounds track.
“I knew from the first time I saw the races this is what I wanted to do,” Bass said. “Forty-three years later, here I am. I’ve been in the sport 30 years and I absolutely love it. I am a huge race fan and I get to work with the drivers as friends and business associates. It’s literally a dream come true.”