CONCORD, N.C. — If you've watched a stock-car race during the past 15 years, you've seen the art of Sam Bass. In fact, if you've walked down the cereal aisle at your grocery store, you've probably seen at least one example of his work - a picture of the late NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt adorning a Wheaties box.
Which leaves just one question: Who is Sam Bass?
The answer is a little surprising to those who don't associate Hopper with horsepower: Bass is a NASCAR artist.
The racing aficionado has spent the past 22 years building a portfolio fueled by one of the nation's fastest-growing spectator sports.
Bass's career began long before NASCAR brushed up against mainstream popular culture. He's followed the sport and used it as an inspiration for drawing since childhood. Now those drawings of stock-car heroes and races often fetch $5,000 and $10,000.
Is it art? Bass thinks so, but few beyond racing agree. Which is fine by him. Frankly, extended debate on whether Goya and Goodyear can coexist doesn't interest him. "If you have people who only think Impressionist art is worth anything, they're probably not going to be real excited about my latest painting of Dale Earnhardt Jr.," he says.
The Earnhardts, considered racing royalty, are longtime fans. The elder Earnhardt bought numerous Bass works and even sold him the property that now houses his gallery.
Working 16-hour days at the 10,000-square-foot facility, located a couple hundred yards from Turn 2 at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Bass divides his time between corporate work and original paintings.
Sam Bass Illustration & Design Inc., formed in 1987, has gone from a home office to a $2 million-a-year business. All the while, the company's founder has spent most of his days staring at illustration paper, using water colors to capture a milieu drenched in oil.
He's designed dozens of paint schemes for the 3,600-pound stock cars, as well as the drivers' uniforms and helmets. Bass's corporate work also includes artwork for souvenir programs, packaging for promotional cereal boxes, toy cars, even camping equipment.
"I don't know that Sam ever had a clue where this would lead him," says Eddie Gossage, general manager at Texas Motor Speedway. "He basically created an industry that didn't exist."
Growing up in Hopewell, Va., Bass accompanied his uncles to local speedways most weekends. As a little boy, he met NASCAR star Bobby Allison in the garage and was instantly hooked. When his mom brought home Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars as presents, Bass would paint over them, choosing what he felt were cooler designs.
By the time he was majoring in art at Virginia Commonwealth University, Bass had begun taking his paintings of Allison and other drivers to tracks across the Southeast, hoping for an audience with his heroes.
In 1981, at a race in Talladega, Ala., he talked his way into the track's garage area and showed Allison one of his paintings. By the time he left, he had commissions from Allison and two more drivers, Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte, worth all of $225.
Bass's big break arrived in 1985, when Humpy Wheeler, president of the Charlotte track, agreed to let him create the program cover for the speedway's spring NASCAR race. Bass has designed every cover since.
After Allison won the 1988 Daytona 500 driving a car designed by Bass, the aspiring artist, who left behind a job as a buyer for the federal government, became a popular choice to design drivers' cars and uniforms.
"Sam exceeds expectations," says Sue Seaglund, manager of event marketing at General Motors, one of Bass's clients. "He understands what looks good going fast."
In 1992, Hendrick Motorsports, owner of several race teams, asked Bass for ideas on a new car design. The driver? An unknown by the name of Jeff Gordon. Bass's three designs, submitted among 45 entries, included one using day-glo colors. It won.
So did Gordon. Frequently. The flamboyant, rainbow-hued design, combined with Gordon's talent, gave the driver's team a new nickname, the Rainbow Warriors. They won 50 races and three championships, helping the car become one of the most-recognized in stock-car history.
"They complemented each other," says Edd Stonich, marketing manager of DuPont Motorsports.
Today, Bass's designs adorn 10 to 12 cars at each race. At his gallery, thousands of race fans pour in to see depictions of Earnhardt, Gordon, Richard Petty, and other top stars. Several years ago, NASCAR designated Bass as its first, and only, official artist. In return, he pays the drivers, sponsors, and league combined royalties of 15 to 20 percent.
Invoking the lengthy careers of Dali and others, Bass says he has no plans to hang up his brush anytime soon. And for those who scoff at the comparison, he says, "Painting a race car that can evoke emotion is no different than painting a landscape that evokes emotion.
"People ask me all the time, 'Don't you get tired painting race cars all the time?' Not at all. I paint things that I enjoy, just like I always have."