NASCAR artist expected back at the track after near-death experience

Years ago, racing great Dale Earnhardt Sr. sold a small plot of land in Concord to up-and-coming artist and illustrator Sam Bass.

Bass became NASCAR’s first officially licensed artist. As his friendship with Earnhardt evolved, so did their careers – and the sport. Earnhardt often gave a friendly slug to Bass’ shoulder to praise him on depicting decades of racing’s most spectacular moments.

Bass’ free, public gallery has sat across from Charlotte Motor Speedway off Morehead Road since 2000, but his 33-year career as an artist almost ended just months ago after he experienced complications from Type 1 diabetes.

Bass, 52, had himself admitted to the emergency room of CMC-Mercy in Charlotte on Feb. 10, about two weeks before the Daytona 500. The muscular, small-statured man with blond hair – normally full of energy with a big smile and welcoming blue eyes – spent weeks fighting for his life.

An undetected diabetic-related blood infection turned to septic shock, and he had four surgeries within 2 1/2 weeks.

He thought his hospital stay would be brief, but his doctor told him he’d be lucky to make it to the Sprint All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 this month at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I was honestly just freaking out,” he said. “I’ve been in business 33 years, and in that time, I probably haven’t missed what turned out to be a combined six weeks out of work.”

Back to the races

Since Bass was 7, he has never gone this far into the NASCAR season without attending a race. Bass, who has created 76 consecutive program covers for premier events at Charlotte Motor Speedway since 1985, said he’s thrilled his return to the sport will coincide with the 30th running of the Sprint All-Star Race and 55th running of the Coca-Cola 600.

This year’s program covers to those races combine to make one image. Bass did the same thing last year and said he repeated it because the fans liked the concept.

Each cover also stands alone as a complete work. They have a “blockbuster” theme, with historic scenes from each race embedded in filmstrip segments. When they’re put together, a driver silhouetted in moonlight is shown holding both trophies.

Humpy Wheeler, the former president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, called Bass a superb realist who has mastered the multicar front straightaway art that has become the cornerstone of a NASCAR artist.

“I know that unbounded by commercial interests, he can produce racing art with a different twist, and perhaps his best work is still ahead of him,” said Wheeler.

Bass will host public autograph sessions at his gallery 10:30-11:30 p.m. May 17, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. May 18, 11 a.m.-noon May 24 and 10-11 a.m. May 25.

An unknown history

Bass doesn’t shy away from talking about his diabetes – nor the fact that he’s an amputee – but he said much of the “NASCAR family” isn’t aware of the severity of his condition.

Bass had his left leg amputated from the knee down five years ago due to similar complications. Most recently, he had 30 percent of thigh tissue removed from the same leg.

“I’m a severe diabetic,” said Bass. “I’ve been Type 1 since birth, but they didn’t find out until I was 29.”

After the October 2013 Bank of America 500 race at Charlotte, Bass began to feel lethargic and went to the doctor. The blood work and other test results gathered by cardiologists and specialists didn’t lend any clues to the fatigue.

When he went to The Biltmore Estate’s New Year’s Eve party in Asheville, he became short of breath going up the estate’s many stairs. Bass, who usually runs about 3 miles a day, couldn’t run a half mile at that time.

The next month, he had his first operation, and his blood pressure dropped to an extremely low 60/30, he said. On Feb. 14, he had his third of four operations.

“I remember looking at the clock at quarter to 11, and I fell asleep,” he said. “At 2:30 in the morning, I had 20 people in my room. They were shaking me, I heard doctors, … and there was this nurse standing beside me holding my hand as tight as she could hold it, and she kept saying, ‘Just hang in there with me.’ ”

That nurse discovered a pool of blood under Bass’ bed. One of his stitches had come undone, he said.

“I was not out, so for two hours I saw everything that was happening … ,” said Bass. “I remember being there holding her hand and looking at the doctor and all the people in the room. But I also remember seeing it from a different perspective, where I was up above it, looking down on myself.”

It took him another three weeks to gain enough strength to visit his gallery.

“I cannot wait to get back to the track and traveling again, but I’ll be seeing all this with a brand new set of eyes,” said Bass, who walks with a slight limp that’s expected to go away as he heals and gets used to a new prosthetic limb.

Art history

The program cover of the 1993 Coca-Cola 600 program is Bass’ favorite. Titled “Sundown Showdown,” it depicts the first time the race started during the day and ran into the night.

“I had Earnhardt leading the pack of competitors through the middle of Davey Allison and Kyle Petty facing off, because they had the spectacular wreck the year before in The Winston (all-star race),” Bass said. “And in the visor of each of their helmets is a scene of that wreck. So they’re looking at each other like a boxing poster, and Earnhardt’s splitting the middle because he was the first person to drive on the track under the lights.”

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