Motorsports artist and designer Samuel Mark “Sam” Bass, 57, died on the morning of Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019, after a long illness.
Sam’s love of stock car racing was born when the six-year-old met NASCAR legend Bobby Allison at Virginia’s Southside Speedway and joined the popular driver’s fan club. From that moment, the Hopewell, Va., second-grader dreamed of combining his interest in stock car racing with his natural talent for illustration.
The year 1981 was a pivotal one for Sam. The Virginia Commonwealth University freshman married his high school sweetheart, Denise, and took his first giant step toward a full-fledged art career.
“It was the hottest day of the year at Talladega,” Sam recalled during an interview for his 2004 book, The NASCAR Art of Sam Bass. “It took three hours, but I talked my way into the garage. I had this enormous painting with me that I hoped Bobby and his crew would sign.
“They loved it, and so did the p.r. guys for Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte, because I got two more commissions that day.”
In 1984, the recent college graduate was disappointed when a position he had been promised in the federal government’s art department failed to develop. Sam had some income from his racing artwork but not nearly enough to turn down the full-time job he was offered to be a buyer for the military.
“I was disappointed that the government art job didn’t materialize,” Sam said. “I had just graduated with a degree in fine arts, and I thought, ‘There goes my big chance to draw and paint for a living.’”
That same year, Sam paid a visit to Richmond International Raceway’s Paul Sawyer, with his portfolio in hand. Sam’s unique style and obvious enthusiasm for the subject won the artist his first garage pass and an invitation to display his work in the track’s media center.
At the start of the following season, Sam put the Richmond pass to good use when he approached driver Dale Earnhardt to show him a painting Earnhardt’s sponsor had commissioned. The meeting led to a lifelong friendship built on respect and appreciation, serving as the cornerstone for Sam to become NASCAR’s first officially licensed artist.
In 1985, with confidence bolstered by an ever-growing list of clients and an impressive body of work, Sam visited Charlotte Motor Speedway and achieved similar success. Sam’s proposal to create an original piece for the speedway’s souvenir race program cover met with such approval that it began an uninterrupted chain of more than 60 covers and a rewarding relationship. With two racetracks and numerous race teams behind Sam and his work, Sam cut the safety line that had kept him attached to a predictable income by leaving his government procurement job.
Almost immediately, Sam’s boyhood hero, Bobby Allison, opened another door for his career by commissioning a paint scheme for his race car.
“Both cars I designed for Bobby won the weekend of the ’88 Daytona 500,” Sam said. “His Busch car won on Saturday; the Cup car won Sunday. Denise and I were there as sponsor guests. It was the most rewarding moment of my career to that point. I didn’t think it could ever get any better, frankly.”
In 1990, the Basses moved to Concord, N.C., to be closer to the racing industry and a year later set up shop on the corner of Charlotte Motor Speedway property. As Sam’s reputation spread through the racing industry, the list of drivers taking advantage of the artist’s talents increased. Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, a new kid named Jeff Gordon, and many others requested and got more colorful paint schemes for their cars, helmets, uniforms, and transporters. Team sponsors realized that race fans recognized and appreciated Sam’s style.
During its nine years next to Smith Tower, Sam’s gallery staff grew from two to 10 full-time employees, and the combination studio/gallery went from spacious to claustrophobic. The crowning achievement of Sam’s career came in 2000 when Sam built his own gallery across the street from Charlotte Motor Speedway—giving him the opportunity to share with the world hundreds of original paintings, prints, and items of memorabilia. There was also an area featuring Sam’s philanthropic work as well as his personal collection that reflected his passion for not only art but music, nostalgia, and superheroes.
Sam was an accomplished and passionate musician, which was often reflected by his choice of song titles for his artwork. He played guitar actively since high school and attended rock and country music concerts all over the United States. Sam also enjoyed visiting with fans of his work, many of whom were aware of his contagious laughter and how much he enjoyed telling and hearing a good story. It was a pleasure to make Sam laugh.
Although he gained fame as an artist and a recognized leader in the field of graphic design, Sam’s enduring love was always for his family. He attributed his artistic genes to his mother, Peggy, from whom he inherited his lifelong affection for the Christmas season. He and his younger brother, Rick, competed continually to see who could top the other with a quick wit and sense of humor. In June 2000, his family grew when he and Denise welcomed their daughter Kendyl and again in November 2003 with the arrival of their son Mark.
The racing community, friends, and family will celebrate Sam Bass’ life with a memorial service on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, in Concord, N.C.