All photos courtesy of Sam Bass

A simple blister devastated NASCAR artist Sam Bass’s life – but he’s fighting back

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A simple blister cost renowned NASCAR artist Sam Bass almost everything.

It took his lower left leg, put him through three episodes of near-fatal sepsis poisoning, led to bankruptcy, and now has him in dire need of a kidney and pancreas transplant.

Yet, Bass won’t let it stop him.

In the last two weeks, Bass watched as a Chapter 7 total liquidation auction forced the sale of more than 500 items he either created or were sentimental artifacts given to him by NASCAR luminaries such as Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and others.

Everything is gone, sold to the highest bidder as mandated by a North Carolina bankruptcy court in an attempt to satisfy creditors for more than $500,000 in medical bills that his insurance didn’t cover, as well as over $70,000 in federal and state taxes and penalties.

“That’s a lot of $10 dollar poster sales,” Bass said, reverting to humor, which has helped get him through all of the challenges he’s faced.

And it’s all because of that damn blister.

In 2005, while at Daytona for Speedweeks, Bass discovered a small blister on his left foot following a jog along the beach. But as he’s done for nearly all of his 55 years, his work ethic overruled his common sense.

“In hindsight, I should have taken a week to 10 days off and laid in bed or sat around and let that blister heal,” Bass said. “But I didn’t, I kept going after my deadlines and keep all my commitments and travel.

“That blister became infected, which led to having four bones in my foot removed over the next three years. Then in 2008, that infection in my foot cost me my lower left leg, a below-knee amputation on Thanksgiving in 2008.

“I went to Homestead, made it home, went into the hospital on Wednesday, had the amputation, spent Thursday in the hospital recovering – my mom made Thanksgiving dinner for the nurses – and I was discharged Friday and did Dave Moody’s (SiriusXM Radio) show that afternoon, talking about my amputation.”

Although doctors told him he’d need at least two months to heal from the amputation, he was back on the road and at a presentation in Nashville, Tennessee, five weeks later, wearing a prosthetic lower leg.

One of the many paintings Bass made of the late Dale Earnhardt during his celebrated career.

But the damage that began with the blister came back with a vengeance four years later when he went through his first bout of sepsis. Bass was preparing to leave for Speedweeks when he didn’t feel right and took himself to the hospital.

“Four hours later, they were operating on me,” he said. “I was told if I would have waited 24 more hours, I would never have made it out of surgery.”

The sepsis had occurred because of an irritation and rub from where the prosthetic leg attached to behind his knee. Bacteria had seeped into his bloodstream and doctors had to remove one-third of the tissue from his upper left leg.

“One out of four people that get sepsis dies,” Bass said. “And then I got it two more times where I had it three times in 2 ½ years. I also had it in my upper right arm and again in my chest, right above my heart.”

That Bass defied the odds is virtually unheard of. But the greatest battle of his life still lay ahead.

Bass did this rendering to honor what was intended to be Jeff Gordon’s last appearance at Bristol in 2015.

Bass also has been a Type 1 diabetic for nearly half his life, being diagnosed with the disease when he was 29. Which led him to remark rather firmly:

“People always want to say I lost my lower left leg to diabetes. But I didn’t lose my lower left leg to diabetes, I lost it to stupidity. If I had been smarter about taking care of myself and gotten some antibiotics when that infection started with that blister, I probably would have my lower left leg today.

“Sam just didn’t take time for Sam and it cost me dearly.”

A CHILDHOOD DREAM COME TRUE

While many young kids grew up dreaming about becoming NASCAR drivers like Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, Bass didn’t want to drive race cars, he wanted to draw them. Following his first NASCAR race at Southside Speedway in suburban Richmond, Virginia at 7 years old, Bass quickly realized his calling.

“I remember leaving that racetrack that night and telling my uncles that I wanted to be a NASCAR artist,” Bass said. “I was so amazed that night not only by the excitement and watching those cars run around and beat and bang on each other, but also the color – how all the cars were painted so many different colors. I was like, how cool is this? I couldn’t wait to get home to pull out my markers.”

His mother was his biggest supporter growing up – but she also wondered about her son at times.

“My mom used to bring home brand new Hot Wheels or Matchbox cars from the store,” Bass said. “The first thing I did was whip out my spray paint cans and model paints and paint over them on the table.

Bass has done a number of specially designed guitars for races.

“She’d always say, ‘They’re brand new cars, why are you painting them?’ And I’d tell her that I wanted them to look the way I envisioned them looking. Then I’d build model car kits, but I never put the kits together the way they were supposed to be. My mom still has all the Hot Wheels cars and model cars that I painted over growing up. That’s where the designer in me came about.”

The more Bass drew over the years, the better he got, leading to a chance meeting with a driver that would forever change his life.

“When Bobby Allison would come into Richmond to race at the Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway, he would always visit Southside Speedway and race the Late Model show there,” Bass said. “I got to meet him at a very early age and he just became my hero.”

A few years after meeting Allison for the first time, Bass – then a college freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University – presented a framed portrait of his favorite driver in the infamous “Tuf-Lon Pontiac” at a fan gathering that drew over 300 people.

“The look on his face and the way the crowd stood up and applauded the presentation, I knew at that moment that was what I wanted to do with the rest of my career,” Bass said.

Allison still has that drawing, more than 35 years later.

The 65th consecutive program cover Bass has painted for Charlotte Motor Speedway for this and next week..

Seven years later, Allison unexpectedly called Bass one day, commissioning him to design Allison’s Miller High Life car for the 1988 Winston Cup season, as well as design Allison’s Piper Aircraft-sponsored Busch Series car.

A few weeks later at Daytona, Allison would win the season-opening Busch race and go on to earn his third Daytona 500 the following day — in the same cars Bass designed for him.

“To this day, I don’t know if I’ve ever been more excited about anything I’ve ever done,” Bass said. “It was a great way to begin a career.”

Soon after, Bass – seven years into a federal government career as a graphics designer and contract specialist – quit his job and went into business for himself.

Bass also designed the program cover for the 1985 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and has designed every race program for the track since. This week’s program, encapsulating the All-Star Race, the All-Star Open and the Coca-Cola 600, will be the 65th consecutive program cover he’s drawn.

Bass has gone on to design hundreds of cars in NASCAR, IndyCar, NHRA for more than 150 drivers, including the first Cup car designs for Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“That’s a pretty solid foundation right there,” Bass said with a laugh.

But two of his designs will forever be the highlights of Bass’s career:

* He came up with the original “Rainbow Warriors” design for Gordon’s car in 1992 and continued to design it through several updates until Gordon retired.

* After designing Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Busch Series championship-winning cars in 1998 and 1999, he created the design for Junior’s first Budweiser-sponsored No. 8 Winston Cup car. Bass also designed the Axalta-sponsored car Earnhardt will drive in his final NASCAR Cup race at the end of this season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “I’ve gotten to bookend Junior’s career,” Bass said. “That’s amazing and special to me.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will drive this Sam Bass-designed car in his final career NASCAR Cup race in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Bass’s artwork currently breaks down to about 50 percent paintings, 30 percent car designs, and 20 percent guitars, race programs and other things.

The creative process varies from as little as a few hours to as much as nine months. His longest project was the redesign of Jeff Gordon’s car for the 2001 season. It featured flames on the side and went through 78 iterations before the finished project appeared.

“You can only imagine the amount of pressure on me because we were replacing such an iconic looking race car,” Bass said. “I was a nervous wreck because I didn’t want to be known as the guy who killed the rainbow.”

IN THE BIGGEST FIGHT OF HIS LIFE

Over time, the sepsis battles deteriorated Bass’s kidney to where he says he is “in dire need of a kidney and pancreas transplant.”

He is in Stage 5 kidney failure – the worst there is – and has just seven percent of kidney function left. He recently started dialysis and is on a number of donor transplant lists.

Yet, Bass once again leans on his humor to help him cope.

“There is so much information to absorb to be a good dialysis and diabetes patient,” he said. “There’s classes, books, studying and learning to be informed about all this stuff.”

Then he quips: “Hopefully, at the end of this whole thing, not only will I be healthy but I’ll also have my doctor’s degree so I can make a little more money.”

And then there’s the bankruptcy that saw virtually everything he ever created (and still retained) in his career auctioned, many for pennies on the dollar of their worth.

Bass painted this to commemorate Dale Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 win in 1998.

For example, some auctioned artwork that retailed for up to $10,000 sold for as little as a few hundred bucks.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Bass said. “People are coming to my gallery every day to pick up what they bought in the auction.”

Bass hopes to emerge from bankruptcy in about two months, but will never forget the agony he’s gone through.

“I keep asking myself, ‘How did I get here?’ ” he said.

REBOUNDING AND REBUILDING

The toll of physical and financial calamity has been hard on Bass, wife Denise and their children, daughter Kendyl and son Mark. But his family has also been the rock that Bass has leaned upon to get through everything.

He’s also grateful for the support he’s received from the NASCAR community and fans as he begins to rebuild.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes, I’ve learned a lot of lessons,” Bass said. “But I firmly believe the reason I’ve been left here is for a purpose — to hopefully continue being a good NASCAR artist, for sure, but the real purpose is to help and educate and be a positive inspiration for other diabetics and people going through hardships I’ve gone through and pass on the knowledge I’ve learned to help make their life easier.”

Bass could have given up at any point, but he didn’t. When he came into his gallery, about a mile north of Charlotte Motor Speedway, last Monday, 36 years of his life may have been gone, but he believes there’s another 36 more years of success to come.

“I sent out a tweet the other day that this is Day 1 of the rebuilding,” Bass said. “I’m committed to restore everything back to bigger and better than it’s ever been.

“I’ve always operated under two principles: treat people the absolute best way I could and do the best work I could possibly do. At the end of the day, I’m extremely blessed that I’m still here because it very easily could have gone the other way. I’m not going to give up.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Three drivers who have played significant parts of Bass’s career talked about their relationship with Sam to NBC Sports:

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “My father and Sam were great friends. They both worked together to enhance each other’s careers. On top of that, Sam is just one of the nicest guys you will meet in the industry. He always has a smile on his face. I felt like helping Sam would certainly be my father’s first reaction. So I wanted to honor my own father’s friendship with Sam and also let Sam know that he has a lot of people that care about him.”

Jeff Gordon: “Sam is such a great guy, and I hate that he is going through these health issues right now. He puts his heart into his work and takes a lot of pride in it. He was instrumental in helping design the original iconic No. 24 paint scheme and had a hand in the design of many No. 24 paint schemes through the years – including the one we ran at Atlanta a few years back that (Gordon’s daughter) Ella ‘designed.’”

Jimmie Johnson: “It’s hard to see Sam going through so much right now as he has done so much for so many throughout his career. His friendship over the years has meant a lot to me. He designed my Lowe’s car for my rookie season in 2002 and we had a lot of great memories with that car. As one of the original artists in the sport, he is so talented and we are all praying for him.”

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Ron Hornaday Jr. kept up a cold tradition with Hall of Fame induction

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – The call came “out of the blue” in November.

The name “Horny” flashed on Wayne Auton’s phone.

The nickname belonged to Ron Hornaday Jr., four-time Camping World Truck Series champion and one of Auton’s closet friends.

Earlier in the year, the former Truck Series director and current manager of the Xfinity Series had been the one to call Hornaday and let Hornaday know he was one of the nominees for the 2018 class in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“Hey, buddy, I need you to do something for me,” Hornaday said. “I want you to induct me into the Hall of Fame.”

Auton needed a moment.

“Ron, did you just say what I thought you said?” He eventually responded.

“Yeah.”

“Damn man, you need to let somebody in your family do that.”

“No, you are my family.”

Auton began crying.

For two days Hornaday couldn’t sleep.

The 59-year-old native of Palmdale, California, fretted over the speech he’d give Friday night at the Charlotte Convention Center as the first Truck Series champion to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“This is really the crown jewel of everything he’s done,” Hornaday’s wife, Lindy Hornaday told NBC Sports. “He was scared he was going to forget somebody and I said, ‘Everybody knows you and they know that you’re thankful to everybody. So don’t thank anybody specifically. Just thank them all.'”

Friday morning, Hornaday woke up without a speech set in stone.

“I got up at 9 o’clock this morning and it was like *makes gagging noises*,” Hornaday said. “I walked away, took a deep breath, come back and I couldn’t do it again. And I said to hell with it. When I started seeing my friends and family, something will come to me instead of trying to read this speech off that prompter. I got back to the room and I’ve never had an anger deal, I don’t know what it’s called in your stomach, but my stomach was turning over so bad. I was regurgitating air for about four hours. I finally fell asleep for a little while. My wife wanted to go to lunch. I sent her with all the family to lunch. I finally thought about thinking about what this really means and still didn’t know what it meant until I started seeing friends, family, peers, the Hall of Famers. They really just got me into a different mood. I did that one sober. Usually I get a couple of beers in me before I speak.

“Everybody’s telling me, ‘be yourself, take your time.’ How can you do that? It’s the freakin’ Hall of Fame!”

Those are the same words Hornaday bellowed at the beginning of his unscripted speech, with both arms raised high.

“That was the best part about the whole thing,” Hornaday said. “Had to break the ice, just to get somebody to giggle. And I knew I could get on a roll.”

Hornaday said he only forgot to mention Chevrolet, the manufacturer he earned all 55 of his NASCAR wins with.

Wayne Auton, left, poses with Lindy Hornaday and Ron Hornaday Jr. (Photo: Daniel McFadin)

During the two days Hornaday fretted over his speech, Auton was with him.

The two first encountered each other in 1995, the inaugural season of the Truck Series.

“He was there at every one of my wins,” Hornaday told NBC Sports. “He’s the one that gave me the words of wisdom, he’s the one that pulled me down and closed doors and told me what I had done wrong on the race track. He’s the one that chewed my butt out, he’s the one that when he got all done and said I’d chew his butt out. We got all done and said and we’d get a beer together.”

For 18 years, the two were “friends, enemies and warriors,” said Auton.

“Whether he won, whether he lost … when we were inside the gate we had a job to do,” Auton said. “When we walked outside the gate we were very good friends. We had to have a beer together. Cold beverage. We knew each other’s family like they were our own.”

Leading up to the ceremony, the two pestered each other about what the other would say when the time came.

“I said, ‘Ron, I just hope I don’t pee in my pants,'” Auton said.

“When he was up there speaking, I seen him shaking pretty good,” Hornaday said. “I’m glad I got back to him and made him as nervous as I was.”

Standing on the auditorium floor afterward, Auton described the moment as “the biggest honor” he could ask for.

“I’ll never top that.”

When they left the stage, it took them awhile to get back to their seats.

Auton said they stopped to have a cold Coors Light.

Toyota executive calls Truck Series ‘critical step’ in developing drivers

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A Toyota Racing Development executive says that the manufacturer would accept a spec engine in the Camping World Truck Series, noting how valuable that series is for the development of drivers.

David Wilson, president of TRD, made the comments Friday on “Tradin’ Paint” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

NASCAR tested a spec engine for the Truck series multiple times last year and it is expected to be optional this season.

Wilson admits the spec engine idea has raised concerns among manufacturers.

“It is a little bit of a sensitive issue with all the manufactures,’’ Wilson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Arguably the biggest single piece of (intellectual property) in any car or truck is the engine, so certainly that’s important to us.

“By the same token we understand the bigger picture. We have been working with NASCAR, all the (manufacturers) have been working with NASCAR to make sure that we keep this series going because here’s the bottom line — while our motivation to run in Trucks has changed over the years, it remains an absolute critical step in how we as an industry develop drivers.

“The leap from ARCA or K&N or Super Late Models straight to Xfinity, that’s too big of a leap. You need a step and that Truck Series is a very important step. You look the drivers that have come through just in our camp — Erik Jones, Christopher Bell, Daniel Suarez — that experience in the Truck garage has been absolutely critical in preparing them to be successful in Xfinity and ultimately in Cup. We’re going to continue to take a big picture approach with the Truck Series and work with our friends at NASCAR. If there are some spec engines that have to be under a Tundra hood, so be it, we’ll be OK.’’

Last year’s Xfinity champion and rookie of the year, William Byron, ran a full season in Trucks in 2016. Erik Jones, the 2016 Xfinity rookie of the year, ran 17 Truck races before his Xfinity debut. Daniel Suarez, the 2017 Xfinity rookie of the year, had run only one Truck race before his Xfinity rookie season but he also ran 13 Truck races while competing in Xfinity that first year.

Those young drivers also illustrate Toyota’s emphasis on new talent. But with only five seats — four with Joe Gibbs Racing and one with Furniture Row Racing —  with Cup teams partnered with TRD, Toyota is having a hard time finding spots for all its drivers.

Wilson said the manufacturer remains committed to developing drivers.

“It’s a commitment that Toyota has made to NASCAR and to motorsports,’’ he said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We enjoy a tremendous amount of value. NASCAR is simply a phenomenal place for us to race. This is part of our payback.

“We feel like we have the social responsibility to give back to the series. We know we’ll lose as many of these young guys and gals as we’ll be able to keep because we simply won’t have enough seats for them. That’s just simple math. It’s already been proven out by William Byron (who raced for Kyle Busch Motorsports in Trucks before moving to Chevrolet in Xfinity and now Cup). We’ll be racing against William, who used to be in a Toyota.

“Bottom line this sport still benefits. As I’ve said before, getting to know these young kids and getting to know their parents at a young age and as they’re coming up in the sport, I believe that will pay dividends. These kids can have a career that spans decades. Who’s to say that we won’t cross paths again? By us building that relationship early on, showing them who we are … the responsibly we have to their well-being, I think it’s a sound investment.’’

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WATCH: Sneak preview of the Hall of Fame induction at 8 p.m. on NBCSN

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The NASCAR Hall of Fame’s ninth class of inductees won’t be remembered so much for the imprint left on the record books as on the revolutions in stock-car racing.

In a video essay that will be shown during tonight’s induction ceremony (which will begin at 8 p.m. on NBCSN), Robert Yates, Ray Evernham, Red Byron, Ken Squier and Ron Hornaday Jr. are saluted as much for what they achieved as how they accomplished it – and their lasting effects on the machines and people that they touched.

–Yates’ ingenuity with engines ranked him among the greatest engine builders. But along with the wins and championships, he also imparted life lessons and knowledge to the apt pupils who are carrying on his successful legacy.

— A crew chief with three Cup championships and 47 wins, Evernham transformed how races and teams were managed, from innovative car designs to clever tire strategies to finely tuned pit crews.

–As the premier series’ first champion, Byron raced with a special brace connecting his leg (which was injured in World War II) to the clutch pedal, embodying the self-determination and grit of NASAR.

–“The Great American Race” was coined by Squier, whose pitch-perfect wordsmithing helped make him a broadcasting legend whose dulcet tones described some watershed moments in evocative and remarkable detail.

–Four championships made Hornaday synonymous with the truck series, but he indirectly played a role in eight Cup titles, turning his couch into “Camp Hornaday” for fellow California natives and budding stars Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson.

You can watch the video essay above or by clicking here.

 

The moral choice that Kyle Larson made in the closing laps at Miami

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CHARLOTTE – Every NASCAR driver has a code of ethics, and the closing laps of last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway presented a quandary for Kyle Larson.

If you can’t pass two title contenders with a championship on the line, does discretion become the better part of valor in choosing to pass neither?

It did for Larson, who reflected on his most recent Cup race this week.

With eventual champion Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch dueling ahead of him in the final 20 laps, Larson elected to stay in third place and let them settle the title instead of passing Busch and then taking a shot at Truex with his No. 42 Chevrolet, which led a race-high 145 laps.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who has led the most laps at Miami the past two years, said his only option in vying for a victory would have been having the consistent speed to assure he could overtake Truex and Busch.

“I think there were some laps I was faster than them,” he told NBC Sports during a Tuesday announcement to announce DC Solar as an expanded primary sponsor in Cup for 2018. “I obviously didn’t want to affect the outcome of the race. The only negative part of the (playoff) format is when you’re not in the final four, you can’t race your hardest.

“I don’t know if I would have won. I think I could have got to second and potentially the lead. I wanted to pass both of them quickly. I didn’t want to pass Kyle and then stall out for three laps and have him be upset or whatever.”

Indeed, Busch was upset with another driver, expressing frustration that he believed Joey Logano blocked him while trying to take fourth after the final restart.

Though Larson made a conscious choice to avoid separating Truex and Busch, he also dispelled the notion that he still wasn’t trying to muster the speed to win.

“I was driving my ass off,” Larson said. “Obviously, I ran into the wall a few times trying to pass them or get the run to pass both of them quickly, but I could never get it going. So no, I didn’t let (Truex) win or whatever. I was still racing hard.”

Larson, who scored a career-best four wins last year, seemed a good bet to be racing for a title until an engine failure at Kansas Speedway. After a busy offseason of racing sprint cars around the world, a refreshed Larson returned to his team’s NASCAR shop this week and ready to reset his focus.

“I don’t even think about NASCAR until now,” he said. “I feel like today is Day 2 of my offseason. I’m just now getting back into the swing of things.

Larson is enthused about a Jan. 31-Feb. 1 test of Chevrolet’s new Camaro at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (“You can kind of get an idea of how the start of your season will be there.”) before heading to Daytona International Speedway for Speedweeks.

“Last year, I didn’t know we were going to be that good, and then we started the year off really good, and we maintained that consistency and competitiveness,” said Larson, who led the points standings after the fourth through 11th races of the 2017 schedule. “I hope that we can do that again. I feel like when you get close like we did last year, it pushes everybody to be as good or better than what we were.

“I expect that we’ll be contenders again, but it’s hard saying with the new body and stuff like that. I’m sure there’ll be growing pains throughout it, but I definitely feel we have an extremely smart group of people who can do what it takes to get our cars better every week to have a shot.”