By Kelly Crandall – It’s nearly 90 degrees at Atlanta Motor Speedway on a Friday afternoon.
The NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series are back in town for three days of events before Labor Day and the face of NASCAR, that being the artistic face of NASCAR, Sam Bass is making his rounds throughout the facility. In jeans and a tee the heat doesn’t bother Bass, he’s still smiling ear-to-ear just being at another track because something he loves to do gets to be highlighted again.
“It’s just the coolest, I never a day take for granted having this career,” said Bass, who knew what he wanted to do in life since he was seven-years-old. “That’s the God’s honest truth. I went to my first race when I was seven and I was just immediately hooked and blown over by the color and the speed.”
Color, speed and Bobby Allison, who happened to be visiting the local short track Bass and his uncle were at that night. The rest as often said, is history, as Bass has become a big part of NASCAR. Fans have seen his work everywhere, whether they know it or not. He’s designed programs, trophies, paint schemes and even mascots such as Lug Nut, who resides at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
For Bass, his work is for the fans by a fan.
“I’ve always looked at the whole sport from a fan’s perspective, I’m very passionate about this,” he said. “I’ve always loved this, it’s all I ever wanted to do, so if I keep painting and drawing and always keep an eye on the fans and trying to do things that excite them and please them, then I’m doing my job. And as a fan first, who happens to be an artist, it’s a cool thing.
“So I’m never anything but blown away when I see people looking at my artwork or looking at a program cover or coming to my gallery to visit me. That’s a true honor, you never take that for granted and you always keep working hard to make them come back.”
The smile remains on his face the rest of the weekend while he greets old and new friends in the media center, does an autograph session in the fan zone and especially as he talks about his work and history in the sport. Quite a history it is, too. For Bass is more than just an artist or someone who wants to make money from his work, this is not just a business opportunity.
He’s determined to produce only the best and in order to do so one must be a student of the sport. His first lesson began in 1969 when he watched those bright colored cars going around the track to now having those cars feature his designs. Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Sr. have driven numerous Sam Bass paint schemes, while both Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car featured his design in 2000. Even Ricky Bobby’s cars in Talladega Nights were a Bass creation.
“One of the things I think helps me as a car designer is that I have followed every single car that’s been out on the track for all those years,” Bass revealed. “I know what’s been out there before. I know what worked, what didn’t work. I know what excited the fans color wise, visually. Drivers – I always wanted them to know I enjoy doing what I’m doing, I only want to present them in the best light, I always want to make them happy with what I’m doing.”
Even when he’s not at the track, Bass knows what’s going on. He’s always connected, watching the races at home while he works. Hey, he’s a fan as he continually reiterates. NASCAR is it for him, something he’s been adamant about since the very beginning.
“All of my professors were very discouraging to me about doing only NASCAR artwork,” Bass recalled. “They said if you want to be a sports artist be a stick and ball guy, do some football stuff. I had one instructor, God bless her, and she really encouraged me, she said if you’re passionate about it and if this is what you want to do, do as much as it as you can and build your portfolio.
“And years later  when I did the Wheaties box with Dale Earnhardt, I sent her that box of cereal and I said, ‘I’ll never be on a Wheaties box as an athlete but here’s my artwork and that’s pretty cool.’ She really appreciated that and that was very meaningful to me.”
Yes, cereal boxes have felt the Sam Bass touch, too. Bass knows, and enjoys, that he’s covered a lot of territory. As for what’s next, first he’s going on a trophy tour for Richmond; he’s designed what the winner of the Sprint Cup race will receive on Saturday night.
He describes how it’ll come with an insert for a personalize painting he’ll do. The winning driver then has something they can keep and know what they looked like and what they were driving. It’s an artistic approach to something 43 drivers want to win, which is why Bass always tries to make his trophies different. He will also get to speak at his alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University, this week.
Then Charlotte comes early next month, a race most in NASCAR look forward since it’s in the backyard. With his gallery local, Bass hopes he’ll be plenty busy as fans come visit and he partakes in other racing plans.
Friday is normally an open house as he entertains VIP guests. There’s hope that some drivers will do an autograph session while there will be contests and giveaways for the fans as well.
“I’m going to be releasing my 74th cover in a row for Charlotte. I have posters and prints for that,” a proud Bass said. “We try to really care of the fans during the weekend and do a bunch of tours and stuff.”
Bass will continue to take care of fans, drivers and all others as long as he’s in this sport. And for those lucky enough to come across him at the track or gallery, don’t shy away from picking his brain and having a good old racing conversation. He’s just as comfortable talking about paintings as he is in saying Jimmie Johnson has become human the last few years or revealing whom his favorite for the championship is. That being Kyle Busch, who’s primed to go on a hot streak at the right time and make 2013 his year and that was before Busch went out and won Sunday night’s AdvoCare 500, his fourth victory of the season which locked him into the Chase.
“Honestly, I wish more people would talk to me about the sport,” he said because while it’s nice to come across those who want to help his business or talk about his work, “I like [the racing] too and when people say, ‘Who do you think is going to win the race?’ or ‘Who do you think is going to make it into the Chase at Richmond?’ because one of the things that I think makes my work good is that I am knowledgeable about the racing.”
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