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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Even in darkness at Indy, Kasey Kahne’s smile could not be dimmed

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INDIANAPOLIS — After six hours of stop-and-go racing, heart-pounding action at the end of regulation, overtime and a second overtime restart and his body cramping the longer the Brickyard 400 went toward nightfall, Kasey Kahne couldn’t stop smiling.

Winning can have that impact. Especially for a driver who last won 102 races ago at Atlanta in 2014, was eliminated by a crash in five of the eight previous races and faces speculation that he will lose his ride with Hendrick Motorsports after this season even though he has a contract through next year.

But all that didn’t matter after Kahne finally crossed the finish line about 10 minutes before sunset descended on a darkening Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday.

He just wanted to celebrate.

First, he had to cross the finish line, ending a race — stopped once by rain and twice by accidents — more than six hours after it started.

“I was actually emotional in the car,’’ Kahne told NBC Sports. “Was just thinking don’t do anything until this car makes it to the finish line because who knows what could happen.’’

He made it but his struggles weren’t over. His body cramped late in the race. Problems started with 10 laps left before the scheduled end when his left calf and leg cramped. After the race restarted, his right leg cramped, then his chest, left ribs and left arm.

The cramping made any type of celebration difficult after the second overtime restart ended in another crash and the end of the race.

“Every time I tried to yell and get excited, my body would cramp,’’ said Kahne, who went to the infield care center for IV fluids.

He felt well enough later that he said he was ready to go racing again that night.

More importantly, Kahne says that’s what he wants to take from this win is to be happy more.

“I love driving the cars,’’ he said. “I love racing. I go and race my sprint car when I have time because I enjoy that stuff. But just be a little more happy in doing it.

“There are a lot of reasons to be happy. After a win like this, hopefully that gets all of us just pointed in the right direction a little bit better, working for each other a little bit more, having faith in each other. I think all those things help.’’

This group needs it. While teammate Jimmie Johnson wins races and championships, Chase Elliott has had strong runs at times and focus on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final full-time Cup season, Kahne can be viewed by some as the other Hendrick driver.

He might not have that title for long. Speculation has been that 19-year-old Xfinity rookie William Byron, who won Saturday’s race at Indy, could move from JR Motorsports to take over the No. 5 car next year. A key could be sponsorship with Great Clips and Farmer’s Bank Insurance both leaving the team after this season.

“Our plans are not set for the 5 car,’’ car owner Rick Hendrick said after Sunday’s race. “We’ll see how things shake out, you know, the rest of the year. There’s a lot of things involved, sponsors and a lot of things we look at. We’re going to try hard.  But there’s no decisions made at this time.’’

Kahne said: “I have a deal with Hendrick through ’18 and we’re trying to figure out how to make all that stuff work.’’

He’s also focused on what more he and his team can do now that they’ll be one of the 16 playoff teams.

Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. again showed they were the class of the field — leading 95 of the first 111 laps — before they tangled on a restart and wrecked. Pit strategy by crew chief Keith Rodden put Kahne in a spot where he caught a break with a caution flag waving when he was on pit road. After the pit cycle under caution, Kahne moved to the lead.

It marked only the third race he’s led this year. He had led 19 laps this season before leading 12 Sunday. With track position critical at Indianapolis, Kahne took advantage to win.

“I think a win like (this) can give myself confidence and momentum, our whole team a boost, which is something that we need,’’ Kahne said. “We work hard, too. But the guys that are winning and running up front, their momentum, their confidence is tough to keep up with when it’s been a couple years.

“When you’re working as hard as you can every single week, putting in tons of hours, you’re away from your family, all this stuff’s going on, (and) you’re not getting results for two years, at some point, there’s no way me as a driver or my team guys are doing what some of the other teams are doing. I mean, it’s just the way that life is, I think. It’s the way that we work.

“So I would hope that this would give us all confidence and give us momentum and push us to, ‘yeah, we’ve been at the shop, giving 100 percent, but now we really are giving 100 percent.’ Now we’re really excited to go to the next race because we didn’t run 15th or 18th or crash today, we actually won the Brickyard 400.’’

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Wild Brickyard 400 helped underdogs shine

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Sunday’s Brickyard 400 wasn’t just a win for Kasey Kahne, it was also a win of sorts for several other drivers who enjoyed some of the best finishes of their season or careers.

With so many big names sidelined by mechanical failure or crashes, the 400 was a day for underdogs to shine.

Among the top underdog finishes:

* Matt DiBenedetto finished eighth, his best showing of the season (previous best was ninth in the Daytona 500). It was also his best non-restrictor plate finish since 19th at Bristol, and just two spots shy of his career-best showing of sixth at Bristol in April 2016.

“It’s pretty unreal what we’ve been able to accomplish this year,” said DiBenedetto, driver of the No. 32 Go Fas Racing Ford Fusion. “I’ve worked so dang hard the old-school way to get here, countless late nights for these guys working, many sleepless nights in my career thinking it was over about 30 to 40 times and that’s not even an exaggeration, and to have these kind of races this year is just unbelievable.”

Go Fas Racing is one of the smallest teams in the NASCAR Cup series. But DiBenedetto and his team get a lot of pleasure by doing more with less.

“Obviously, being a smaller team we just try and get a good handle on our cars,” DiBenedetto. “We come here and dial in our car the old-school way, through communication.

“We have no simulation or nothing. We just have 15 guys and we work our tails off. … Because we had a good handling car, we were able to take advantage of everybody else’s mistakes by being competitive and being in front of a lot the guys that were racing, and being in the right place at the right time there a lot of times at the end.  Don’t get me wrong, though, we had our share of close calls.”

But the key was avoiding all those close calls that helped DiBenedetto get such a good finish.

“Over-aggression is an understatement,” DiBenedetto said. “ I don’t know if it just got dark and nobody could see out their windshields or what, but the thing is restarts are so important.

“That’s where you make up all your spots, and once it gets single filed out, it’s really hard to pass. So unfortunately you’ve got to really go on the restarts, which makes it fun and makes it exciting for the fans, but you’re also just hanging on for dear life and hoping you’re in the right place at the right time.”

* JTG Daugherty’s two drivers, Chris Buescher (ninth) and AJ Allmendinger (10th), finished next to each other. It was the second time in the last four races and this season overall that both cars ended with top-10 finishes in the same race (Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Allmendinger was eighth, Buescher was 10th).

Buescher earned his best finish of the season in the Brickyard 400. But it wasn’t easy: his car looked more like it had just finished a beating and banging fest at Martinsville.

“It felt like a battle more than a race today,” Buescher said. “Just an excellent job by our team to stick with it today. We had damage throughout a lot of this race and this Clorox team, they worked really hard to make sure we got it back to where it needed to be to be able to get some drivability out of it.

“We were able to miss some of that craziness there at the end and got ourselves a good finish out of it.”

For Allmendinger, it was his second-best finish of the season after his third-place finish in the Daytona 500.

“(It was) just one of those days you’ve just got to keep fighting and get a little lucky, fortunately missing all the wrecks,” Allmendinger said. “We’ve got to keep working on trying to get better and trying new things for sure.”

The recent performance lifts Allmendinger’s confidence of making the playoffs, with his best chance next month at Watkins Glen. It was there in 2014 that Allmendinger won and qualified for the playoffs.

* Cole Whitt finished 12th, one spot shy of tying his career-best outing in July 2016 at Daytona. Coming into Sunday’s race, Whitt’s best finish was 16th at Talladega this spring and his best non-plate finish was 20th earlier this year at Atlanta.

* Rounding out the top underdog finishes was Timmy Hill, who earned a career-best finish of 14th. Hill’s previous career-best showing was 22nd at Kansas in October 2012. His best finish this season before the Brickyard was 28th.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. to join NBC Sports Group’s NASCAR coverage in 2018

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Dale Earnhardt Jr., the motorsports icon voted by fans as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for an unprecedented 14 consecutive years (2003-16), will join NBC Sports Group’s NASCAR coverage beginning in 2018, it was announced Monday. 

Earnhardt will be utilized in a number of capacities on NBC’s NASCAR coverage, with specifics to be announced in the coming months. In addition, the agreement with NBCUniversal allows Earnhardt a wide range of opportunities in the company’s media businesses, including movies, television, podcasts, and other areas.

“We are excited to welcome Dale Jr. to our team – both on and off the track,” said Mark Lazarus, Chairman, NBC Broadcasting and Sports. “As a company, NBCUniversal allows for talent to stretch themselves across not just their field of expertise, but across other areas of their interests in the media world.”

Dale Jr. brings credibility, personality, and popularity to our already winning NASCAR team,” said Sam Flood, Executive Producer and President of Production, NBC Sports. “Giving him a chance to spread further within other NBC Sports Group properties and throughout the company is an added bonus.”

“It is a tremendous honor not only to join NBC Sports next year but to begin a new career alongside people who love NASCAR as much as I do,” said Earnhardt. “To be reunited with Steve Letarte, to be able to call legends like Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty teammates rather than just friends, to be able to continue going to the track and connecting with race fans, it’s a privilege I don’t take lightly. I will devote my heart and soul to this broadcast team and pledge my very best to the millions who watch it.”

NBC is also partnering with Earnhardt on some of his other businesses, including Dirty Mo Media and Hammerhead Entertainment. 

Earnhardt is a third-generation driver in a family forever connected to the sport of stock-car racing. The native of Kannapolis, North Carolina, has amassed 26 career victories, including the 2004 and 2014 Daytona 500. His 26 victories tie him for 29th on NASCAR’s all-time race winners list. His father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., won seven Cup titles and 76 Cup races in his storied career.

Matt Kenseth: Brickyard 400 restarts ‘kind of ridiculous’

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Matt Kenseth came close to winning Sunday’s Brickyard 400, but ultimately finished fifth.

Kenseth called the race “kind of ridiculous” down the stretch because of the several restarts that brought about further havoc and wrecks.

Kenseth competed in his final Brickyard 400 for Joe Gibbs Racing. With his future uncertain and whether he’ll be able to continue racing in 2018, could Sunday have been the final Brickyard 400 of his career, much like good friend Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is retiring after this season?

Check out the video above for Kenseth’s comments on the race.