Longtime NASCAR artist Garry Hill can’t remember his life without a race car in it.
Seems fitting, then, that Hill would evolve to become a “pioneer” credited with creating the first signed and numbered fine art print of stock-car racing.
As thousands of fans pour into the area for the 55th running of the Coca-Cola 600, Hill will be there, too, watching race history unfold, waiting for a memorable moment to use in a future collectible painting and prints.
Hill introduced two works to NASCAR following the 1987 All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The first painting depicts Dale Earnhardt ahead of Bill Elliott and Geoff Bodine, whose car is spinning after a collision, facing the opposite way of the other drivers.
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During that same race, as tempers flared, Earnhardt went on to win with a maneuver known as “The Pass in the Grass.” That race also established Earnhardt as “The Intimidator.”
Hill captured Earnhardt’s move on canvas, and he considers the “Pass in the Grass” painting to be the flagship of his 33-year career. His work can be seen in the Speedway Club at Charlotte Motor Speedway as part of a permanent display honoring the history of the All-Star Race.
Through his studio, Garry Hill Automotive Fine Art, Hill has re-created and painted some of the greatest moments in NASCAR history.
“The All-Star” series, which started in 1987, focuses on the annual All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The “Great Moments in Racing” series, which started in 1990, documents the entire history of the sport, from bootlegging moonshine to today.
A checkered past
One of Hill’s faded black-and-white photos from 1956 shows the 3-year-old and his dad in front of the Museum of Speed in Daytona Beach, Fla. Back then, cars used to race on Daytona Beach. Three years later, Daytona International Speedway would run its first Daytona 500.
Hill’s dad, Bobby, who worked on pit crews for Curtis Turner, Glen Wood and John Dodson Sr., will turn 80 in July. Originally from Danville, Va., Hill and his wife, Pam, have lived in Mooresville for 21 years.
Before that, Hill worked for a decade as the art director for Auto Sport Gallery in Raleigh. The gallery represented more than 70 artists internationally and had 300-plus works of art on display daily. Works ranged from street cars and hot rods to dragsters and Indy cars. Hill, an art and art history major, painted when he wasn’t working, and followed the NASCAR circuit on the weekends.
The 59-year-old still races for the Sports Car Club of America series. Only 140 of his 1978 Formula Ford Crossle 32F were made, he said. Hill and his team won five Southeast Division SCCA Championships in a row from 2007 to 2012. Hill was runner-up of the 2008 championship and has never finished worse than third in the championship.
For more than three decades, Hill has been known for re-creating moments from an angle not captured by a camera. However, his first signed print came from a photo he saw in the newspaper.
“Every painting has a story, and that makes picking a favorite hard,” said Hill. “Aside from that, the two that really put me on the map were the first print, ‘The Winston ‘87,’ and ‘The Pass in the Grass.’ There had not been fine art in NASCAR before that … nothing for collectors and home decor.”
As an artist, Hill said his job is to watch the race closely, gauge the crowd and, later, capture the emotion in a painting. Because the art carries so much emotion for fans, drivers and collectors, Hill strives to tug on the heart strings.
“A race is like a good novel,” said Hill. “You drop the green flag, start reading, then the excitement builds and you have the finish.
“Just like a musician, or a performing artist or a movie, you gotta touch the heart,” said Hill. “So I watch the race to try and get the emotion that the fans would get, that the driver would get or the crew chief would get, and then translate that emotion into the final product.”
A coffee table book may be on the near horizon, said Hill, and former NASCAR driver and current team owner Richard Childress has agreed to write the foreword.
“I have known Garry Hill for decades and not only consider him an excellent artist, but a great friend,” said Childress. “His artwork and attention to detail have impressed me and millions of race fans through the years. Every time he creates a work of his award-winning art, you can see the passion and love he has for our sport.”
A history with moonshine
Hill’s favorite project came out of researching a “moonshine study” with Junior Johnson.
In the painting “Moonshine,” Johnson’s 1940 Ford moonshine hauler is being chased by a 1949 Ford North Carolina Highway Patrol car under the full moon. “Still Life” depicts an autumn scene at the still as Johnson’s 1940 Ford is being prepared for the night’s moonshine run.
“That’s kind of the foundation of NASCAR,” said Hill. “I’ve drank my fair share, but I’ve never made any.”
Hill thought if he didn’t get Johnson involved, someone eventually would question the details – what kind of cars they used, the brand of jars, how the still looked.
If Johnson was on board, Hill could politely tell people, “Well, that’s how Junior Johnson did it.”
Where love began
Hill met his wife, Pam, in 1975 at Virginia International Raceway during a Sports Car Club of America Nationals road race. Both students at Averett University in Virginia, their first date was a dance at a place called the Thunderbird and they drove Hill’s blue, 1967 MGB British sports car.
Garry proposed to Pam at Road Atlanta during the International Motor Sports Association GTP Road Race.
To celebrate their 30th anniversary, Hill found the car they drove on their first date in a salvage yard, had the chrome badge crest removed then framed in a shadow box with an engraved plaque that reads, “Garry & Pam, Where Love Began.”
She also got a got a diamond bracelet.