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Carey: Sam Bass, NASCAR’s First Licensed Artist, Deserves A Proper Induction Into the NASCAR Hall of Fame

HAMPTON, GA – FEBRUARY 24: A sticker in memory of Sam Bass is seen during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on February 24, 2019 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Every major athlete shares similar goals when it comes to game day/race day. Everybody wants to be a champion, and have their name enshrined in their respective sports’ history forever. What better place to be forever remembered than a Hall of Fame.

Since 2010, NASCAR legends across multiple disciplines have had their name and story etched into the sport’s final destination – the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Drivers, Owners, Engine Builders, and even broadcasters have found their rightful place in NASCAR’s own Hall of Fame, first established in 2010.

Outside of the walls of the Hall on NASCAR Plaza, five metal art fixtures can be seen from blocks away. A plaque accompanies the pieces of art – dedicating the pieces to the hall from the artist. Such a commanding, and assortment of art – with little view and publicity on who the designer was.

“I am very proud of the fact that on the outside of the Hall of Fame, on the stonewall street side of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, I have five huge murals made out of stainless steel that is on the outside of the Hall of Fame that tell the story of NASCAR,” the artist told TobyChristie.com in 2017.  “It’s the biggest project I’ve ever done, actually. Each one of the murals is 14 by 18-feet and weighs about 2,500 lbs. and are three-dimensional layered pieces of stainless steel artwork. They turned out just incredible and they adorn the outside the Hall of Fame and they kind of tell you what you’re going to see when you get in there.”

Sadly – this is a recurring part of what you are about to read. The artist, designer, and creative mind behind these pieces, and many on-track icons – though few realize the scope of his work.

Sam Bass, NASCAR’s first officially licensed artist, is a name many know, but many don’t understand how big of a reach his work had on the sport over multiple decades.

I’ve followed Sam’s work for years since I was a kid – many of the paint schemes that he created, I never even knew were his work. Chances are, a paint scheme that you remembered as a child or young adult – came from the creative mind of Sam.

Sam’s first big break came in the mid-1980s when he got to design for his hero, Bobby Allison. His first paint scheme turned out to become a trend of Sam’s – crafting generation-defining paint schemes that would become enshrined in history, and the memories of fans forever. His design would immediately head to victory lane in the 1988 Daytona 500, with Davey Allison behind. All that started back in 1981, when he attended a Bobby Allison fan club meeting and presented Bobby with his first full watercolor painting of Allison’s Grey Ghost.

Among his work during the 1980s, Sam got together with fellow Cup champion Darrell Waltrip on his Western Auto Parts days in the No. 17 Chevrolet.

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. first made his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the late ’90s, he created Dale’s first car – his Budweiser No. 8 Monte Carlo. What you probably didn’t know is that Sam was the one who was behind the multiple versions of the Dale Earnhardt Incorporated “E” stripes that were used well into the mid-2000s. Along with this, Michael Waltrip, and Steve Park received the same continuity with the classic stripes.

Not only that – but he helped design the full-time debut schemes for a variety of drivers, including past champions. Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson just to name a few.

His most prestigious work is with 4-time NASCAR Cup Series champion  Jeff Gordon.

Sam was the one responsible for the iconic Rainbow Warrior paint scheme. Any special DuPont / Axalta Coating Systems Chevrolet – Sam was likely the one who made it. From Jeff’s Rainbow Warrior in 1994, “Hot New Look” in 2001, “Firestorm” in 2009,  to “Brilliant Flames” in 2014 – Sam did it all and help make the NASCAR legend an icon with his on-track designs.

Sam’s work with NASCAR’s most legendary drivers didn’t stop at Jeff Gordon. He worked closely with Dale Earnhardt Sr. In Dale’s final years, Sam designed the haulers for the Intimidator and helped Dale to establish the Dale Earnhardt Incorporated team from a design perspective. Sam had the privilege of designing the Wheaties box for the first NASCAR  race car driver to ever appear on the cereal box – which ended up being Dale himself. Sam and Dale were a tight duo, as many stories told in “The NASCAR Art of Sam Bass”, a full book detailing the life and work of Sam.

A special moment was told by Sam when he hung his creation of Dale Earnhardt, entitled “Above The Rest!” A towering Dale Earnhardt painted in black and white shows the commanding presence that Earnhardt was known for. Not many artists could capture that side of Dale, but Sam was apart of the fraternity of artists that could.

“My most significant memory about “Above The Rest!” is that Dale’s mom, Martha Earnhardt, came into the gallery shortly after I hung the painting. She looked it over and declared ‘You got him!’Hearing those three words has got to rank as one of the all-time crowning achievements of my career. Everybody knows what a true fan of Dale’s I was, but to have his mother tell me that she was proud of what I captured in her son was the ultimate approval. Martha’s feelings about the painting are why the first thing a visitor to the Dael Earnhardt Tribute Center in Kannapolis encounters is a column with a 9-foot tall reproduction of ‘Above The Rest!’ Doing the tribute is a big project and a monumental part of my career, but I thought there could be no better way for people to enter this work in progress than for one image that meant so much to his mom to be the first thing they see!”

– Sam Bass,  The NASCAR Art of Sam Bass

Remember when Kyle Busch smashed that guitar at Nashville Superspeedway over a decade ago? Sam was tasked with making the winning guitars, which served as trophies for the winner of the race. Sam had a partnership with Gibson guitars that started in the early 2000s. In later years, he worked with Off Axis Paint, and owner Greg Stumpff to produce the finished project for the winning guitar. OAP has gone on to create hundreds of helmets for NASCAR’s biggest stars and winning drivers.

Those guitars Sam spent months working on designing were a side-passion of his. Sam had a love as much for design, as he did for music. He designed many guitars for the yearly Daytona 500 performer,  including Keith Urban’s and Brad Paisley’s.

Some of his work remained on the track up until the 2021 season. The Axalta duo of Cup Series drivers William Byron and Alex Bowman piloted variations of Sam’s “Brilliant Flames” and “Flashpoint.” In 2021, Axalta replaced Sam’s work, marking the first time in nearly 30 years that an Axalta Coating Sytems primary scheme will not come from the creative vision of Sam.

Sam’s work didn’t just stretch to the big-name stars of NASCAR. Being an officially licensed artist for NASCAR, he worked with a multitude of teams – both big and small until the late 2010s.

But there are also on-track and even off-track accomplishments that few know Sam was the one who penned them all. Who could forget the countless Christmas die-cast he custom made, and the collection of Christmas artwork every holiday season that he would post so proudly?

He worked together with multiple big-name bands and artists including KISS, Brooks and Dunn, and Van Halen just to name a few. He helped propel NASCAR into a variety of “niche” markets. Shot glasses, blankets, zippo lighters – if it had his work on it, it was a seller.

Since the mid-1980s, Sam designed the program cover for every Cup Series race weekend – including the All-Star Race up until 2018.

Remember “Talladega Nights – The Ballad of Ricky Bobby?”That No. 26 Wonder Bread Monte Carlo, the No. 26 Laughing Clown Malt Liquor Chevrolet? How about the No. 62 “ME” Chevrolet? That was all Sam. He was tasked with the art direction of the now-iconic film that helped extend the reach of NASCAR to millions more.

His work has been featured everywhere – from the big screen to the posters that hung on your bedroom wall as a kid, and maybe even what is your current phone background. Even in college, I had an autographed poster from him when he was commissioned to bring back the iconic Rainbow Warrior for Jeff Gordon in 2015.

His work even crossed over into the world of Baseball when he was tasked, working next to Dale Earnhardt Sr., to create a logo for a new Single-A team – the then named Kannapolis Intimidators.

As I sit here and type this article – I’m surrounded by a number of his pieces of work. Above me sit two die-cast cars – a 2015 Jeff Gordon Homestead Raced Version die-cast, and a prototype Jeff Gordon 20 Years of DuPont Fantasy diecast. The latter is particularly special to me – as the prototype came from Sam’s personal collection. To never meet the man behind so many generation-defining designs is a personal void. But to hold onto multiple pieces of work from his collection is a surreal feeling in itself.

Sam passed away on February 16th, 2019 after a battle with kidney disease. The NASCAR world lost its creative icon – its licensed artist, an honor only held by one in NASCAR history. A special decal ran at Atlanta the following week, designed by former NASCAR Graphic Designer and current Graphic Designer of Stewart-Haas Racing, Harris Lue. He later penned an emotional letter to his hero on NASCAR.com. 

“More recently, we began sending each other the pieces we were working on or getting ready to release. We’d text for hours. Whenever I employed some of his techniques, he noticed before anyone else, and his advice and critiques were always held with the highest regard. He trusted me as much as I trusted him and treated me like an old friend. No matter what was going on in his life, Sam was happy to drop everything and talk design for a bit. Eventually, after telling my girlfriend (and fellow NASCAR artist) Emily Butler the story of that first meeting in the gallery, she commissioned him to do pen and ink drawings of my Mustangs that matched his. They were a surprise birthday gift last year. No matter where Sam was in his health journey, he always made sure to ask how I was and how my life was going. He kept me informed on his condition, but never wanted it to seem like a burden. That’s who Sam was.”

-Harris Lue to NASCAR.com on his friendship with Sam Bass

The problem stretches into NASCAR today. We see so many beautiful paint schemes on track – but who is the creative mind behind them? Who is spending hours designing every line, stroke, gradient, shape, and color? Designers are the unsung heroes of NASCAR – and the lack of recognition from teams and drivers – quite frankly – is infuriating. I’ve been an advocate for the recognition of designers for years – because it’s their livelihood. Every tweet, mention, like can lead to another client for them. One designer, in particular, told me before that after I tagged him in one of my tweets about a paint scheme design, he gained over 100 followers from it and couldn’t thank me enough for the recognition. It’s nice to feel appreciated, isn’t it?

This is especially important for the next generation of designers – already hard at work creating concept paint schemes on iRacing, hoping to get a glimmer of sight from potential sponsors and drivers. That practice has paid off for some designers including Kyle Sykes, a Wisconsin-based graphic designer. Back in February of 2020, he has posted a scheme and tagged Chase Elliott and Hooters, as he prepared to fight for the $100,000 bounty that was placed on Kyle Busch for any driver to beat him. The scheme went viral, and almost immediately, Hooters contacted Kyle about the design, and the scheme was greenlit to become a real deal. The COVID-19 pandemic put the Atlanta race on hold for a few months, but eventually, the scheme came to life. All because of a little recognition, and a tagged tweet. Sykes went on to become the full-time designer for Trackhouse, working with Justin Marks, Pitbull, and Daniel Suarez.

Designer recognition, even a tweet about an up-and-coming designer, can go a far way. In Sam’s case, he let his paint schemes do the talking and garner publicity.

As Leavine Family Racing prepared to close their doors in 2020, the team decided to run its first paint scheme at Texas this past season, which was designed by Sam Bass. The team even put Sam’s logo on the car in honor of him, something that few teams to run a throwback paint scheme even do.

So why am I making this case that he deserves a proper induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame? Personally, I never felt that Sam got a proper send-off and a proper thank you – and that is something that always bothered me. Sam poured his life and soul into NASCAR to create a collection of paint schemes that have been permanently etched in our memories and he created paint schemes that became symbolic across multiple generations.

I’m not even the first person who wants to see Sam deserve more recognition. NASCAR Youtuber Danny Baldwin, also known as DannyBTalks, produced his own video on the life of Sam, and his influence in NASCAR design.

When the Final Lap Podcast from TobyChristie.com spoke to Sam a few years ago, we presented the idea to him.

“Oh my gosh. That would be such an incredible honor,” Sam said. “I would only hope that one day maybe some of the things I’ve done within the sport, as far as my paintings and design work would be honored in such a way. There could be no greater honor for me than to be inducted into the Hall of Fame one day. I mean, that would be an incredible dream.”

What’s puzzling, is that some examples of Sam’s work are in the Hall already, however in one particular case, his name is nowhere to be found.

A copy of the Wheaties box featuring Dale Earnhardt, the first time a race car driver ever appeared on the box, features zero credit to Sam Bass for drawing Dale and his Wheaties sponsored No. 3.

Sam’s decades of NASCAR work is being kept outside of the walls to the hall – both figuratively, and physically with the aforementioned metal fixtures on the building’s exterior.

Within the design community, Sam is looked up upon even today, with designers seeking inspiration from his hundreds of examples from paintings, to paint schemes. The earlier mentioned group over at Off Axis Paint has the very same desk and art supplies that Sam used up until his passing two years ago. Stumpff, in honor of Sam, reconstructed the same desk layout using photographs as a museum piece for Off Axis Paint.

With NASCAR making its return to the Nashville Superspeedway – the design community feels the same way as I do. Giving Sam a proper tribute and returning to the track where he spent a vast amount of time designing for. What if Nashville somehow honored Sam for his work to the sport in some way?

Some members of the next generation of NASCAR designers are standing at the ready with concepts and designs for his proper tribute -from the race program to even the custom guitar.

He, quite literally, created one of the most visually impressive generations in NASCAR. Without Sam, those generation-defining schemes would not have existed, and fans likely wouldn’t have the same love and comfort towards cars and drivers had it not been for his work. When an older fan sees Jeff’s Rainbow, it could take one back to memories of playing with those die-cast cars as a kid, or that poster that hung up in their bedroom. Or, perhaps a deeper connection with a family member who is no longer here.

At the NASCAR Hall of Fame, nearly every inductee has some sort of connection to Sam, whether it’s a commissioned painting, a firesuit design, or a paint scheme on-track. Glory Road would not look so glorious without Sam’s creative vision producing Gordon’s Rainbow Warrior, to Dale Sr’s Goodwrench Chevrolet.

While the Hall of Fame Committee has sent drivers, owners, builders, and broadcasters to the hall – it’s time to add a new category for the upcoming class with a fraternity of one – “Designer.”

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