NASCAR artist Sam Bass back on track after scare with death

NASCAR artist Sam Bass was on track to to complete his 76th consecutive Charlotte Motor Speedway program cover, but a severe illness kept him from completing the project in time and nearly took his life. 

Devastated — that was the first thing that came to Sam Bass’ mind when asked about the October race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The first officially licensed NASCAR artist was slated to debut his 76th consecutive program cover for the Bank of America 500 Chase race. However, when the fans picked up their programs at the track, Bass’ art was missing.

"It was devastating to miss a record that I am so proud of. I’m still heartbroken by it," Bass told in an exclusive interview. "I can’t express it. It’s been the most painful thing that has ever happened to me in my career, other than losing my good friend Dale Earnhardt."

Ever since the 1985 Coca-Cola 600, Bass’ artwork has been a prominent display on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s program covers.

As a life-long race fan, Bass’ goal since he was seven years old was to become a NASCAR artist. His tenacity, impeccable skills as an artist, and happy-go-lucky personality helped propel him to the top of the NASCAR art world.

His programs were always elaborate and detailed, and behind the scenes he is responsible for some of the most widely recognized paint schemes in NASCAR history — including Jeff Gordon’s "Rainbow Warrior" car.

But last year, Bass was forced to turn his attention to something much more important than the job at hand. Bass began feeling ill in 2013 and the sickness progressively got worse.

Sam Bass explains how Jeff Gordon's iconic 'Rainbow Warrior' car barely made the cut

Bass marked the return of the famous No. 3 Chevrolet with a painting of Austin Dillon’s Richard Childress Racing car on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway with the reflection of Dale Earnhardt’s car mirroring Dillon’s on the speedway wall.

But when Dillon scored the Daytona 500 pole as a rookie in the No. 3 car’s return to NASCAR, Bass was laying in a hospital bed fighting for his life. It was the first Daytona race he had missed since 1986.

"I had been going to cardiologists, my primary care doctor, specialists, trying to figure out what in the world was wrong with me because I felt like I was dying," he said. "Finally, February 7 of last year I went to the ER, was admitted, and four hours later they were doing surgery on me. That’s how sick I was."

A severe diabetic, Bass lost the bottom half of his left leg in 2008 and was fitted with a prosthetic device. But Bass developed sepsis, a severe blood poisoning, when his device rubbed his leg raw and allowed bacteria to get into his system and — as he says — it "went crazy" due to his diabetes.

Bass credits OrthoCarolina and Dr. Carroll Jones, the lead foot and ankle physician for Hendrick Motorsports, for taking care of him during and after his surgery.

"Over the course of three weeks, he did four surgeries on me," Bass said. "I had not had a problem with my prosthetic or anything since that operation in 2008 up until last year."

During those surgeries, Dr. Jones and his team removed a third of Bass’ leg tissue.

"As I understand it, the statistics are that one out of four people that go into the hospital with sepsis doesn’t come out," Bass said. "I learned that after I was out, thank goodness. I was, to say the very least, was glad to be one of the survivors.

Sam Bass sits in front of his major 2014 projects in his Charlotte, N.C. studio. 

"In February of last year I came very close to dying twice," Bass said. "It definitely makes you appreciate things more and definitely makes you reprioritize."

Part of that new outlook on life focused on Bass slowing down and spending more attention to his health. In 2013, Bass attended 26 races, but due to his health issues last season, he was only able to attend six. On crutches for three months after his release from the hospital, he spent the majority of 2014 healing.

While recovering, Bass once again began to work. His first project was to commemorate Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 victory, and then he turned his attention to the Charlotte Motor Speedway program covers.

In September, Bass was hospitalized again for nearly a week. The timing could not have been worse, as he was nearly 80 percent finished with the Bank of America 500 program art.

The concept was simple in theory, but painstakingly involved in reality.

"This was going to be the mother of all programs," he said.

As the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup reached the Bank of America 500, 12 drivers were left in championship contention. To mark this, Bass painted a background that included the moon, the Bank of America 500 trophy and the Sprint Cup championship trophy.

Overlaid on top of that background were 24 individual drawings: 12 highly detailed cars and 12 pencil portraits of the remaining Chase drivers. The plan was to overlay the 12 cars and portraits onto the background image to produce the final product.

"The whole time I was in the hospital I was worried to death about meeting that cover deadline," he said. "I even told some of the nurses while I was in there that I was really nervous about missing my deadline."

Nearly finished with the project and finally out of the hospital, Bass needed about three days to complete the project, but the printer needed those three days to send the work off to print the cover.

Despite not appearing on the Bank of America 500 program cover, Sam Bass still completed the piece of art he was working on throughout. 

"It was that close, and they just couldn’t do anything," he said. "The speedway was upset because they knew how much it meant to me, but their hands were tied. I was upset, of course, because they have a ton of people at the printer’s office and I’m just one guy and got sick."

Bass finished the artwork, despite it not appearing on the program cover.

Bass found comfort in the "250-300 emails" from friends and fans asking what happened when they noticed his work was not on the cover, as well as when doctors and nurses followed up with him about the deadline.

"It was very humbling to have that many people pay that much attention," he said. "It was very motivating and uplifting. For as sad as I was, missing that cover, it gave me hope that this will pass and we’ll get back on board."

Despite the major health issues and his near brush with death, Bass remains upbeat.

"I look at this whole journey that has happened since 2008 — and OrthoCarolina has been a big part of that journey for me — as a blessing, if you can believe it," he said. "I hated to lose my lower left leg, but I’ve met so many people that I’ve been able to witness to."

The experience has allowed him to connect with military personnel that have lost limbs, describing his process of being fitted for the prosthetic and giving them the comfort of knowing they can do everything they did before the loss of their limbs.

Bass has also turned his attention towards charities focused on sepsis and those dealing with the life-threatening disease.

One of his next big projects is designing a guitar that Kid Rock will use during the season-opening Daytona 500.

"Compared to this time last year, when I felt like I was dying and didn’t know why, versus where I’m at this year, where I’ve been through all that … the Lord has blessed me and kept me here. I would like to think he has a reason for doing so," he said. "I’m looking forward to what the next chapter holds, and anxious to do some more work."