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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NASCAR America: Landon Cassill thinks he knows how to avoid the ‘Big One’

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It is natural to consider one’s involvement in a multi-car accident at Talladega SuperSpeedway as simple bad luck when a driver did not cause the incident, but over the course of his career, Landon Cassill learned it is not that simple.

“My first few races at Talladega in the Cup series, I got caught up in the ‘Big One’ over and over again,” Cassill said. “And you heard Kyle Busch say it’s a crapshoot and it’s kind of easy to leave after getting wrecked in the ‘Big One’ and say ‘it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t cause it; I was just collected and we’ll try again next time.’ And I looked back at the wrecks I was involved in and I started watching film and I thought I can create a strategy to get me out of these things.

It is the driver’s job to protect his equipment even when circumstances are out of his control.

“So, I started running a different line. I started favoring the bottom of the racetrack. I felt when the wrecks happened, they move up before they move back down and it started to help me.”

On Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America, Dale Earnhardt Jr. described what it takes to get to the lead and win at Talladega.

But an equally important part of the equation is how to position a car so that it does not sustain damage, and Cassill describes how that is done.

“I’m kind of on the back of the screen running the middle lane and there’s a gap at the bottom,” Cassill said. “I moved down to the bottom intentionally really to protect myself and it was just perfect timing because there is a wreck right here. Chase Elliott gets turned and you can see my car again. I’ve got lots of race track underneath me; lots of pavement to slow myself down. And now, I’m dodging racecars going 100 miles per hour, not 200 miles per hour. It’s a lot easier to drive through the wreck that way.

For more, watch the above video.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Talladega preview, Ryan Blaney interview

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and gives you one last preview of this weekend’s action at Talladega.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Parker Kligerman in Stamford. Dale Jarrett and Landon Cassill join them from Burton’s Garage.

What to expect from today’s show:

· After back-to-back short tracks, NASCAR switches gears this weekend at the biggest track on the schedule – the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway. What chaos can we expect on its 33-degree high banks? Jarrett, Kligerman and Landon weigh in. Plus, Parker jumps in the NBCSN iRacing Simulator for high-speed laps around NASCAR’s most unpredictable circuit.

· Following the news of Matt Kenseth’s return to racing, questions surround the long-term futures of both Kenseth and Trevor Bayne, the driver he’ll share the No. 6 car with. We’ll hear what Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to say about it during the NASCAR America Debrief Podcast.

· Dave and Ryan Blaney are just one of many father/son pairings that dot NASCAR’s history. Yesterday, Ryan revealed his Darlington throwback scheme that honors his Dad’s Cup Series career, and our Dave Burns got to speak with them about the opportunity.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Christian Eckes lands four-race deal with Kyle Busch Motorsports in Truck Series

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Christian Eckes, the most recent winner in the ARCA Racing Series, has landed a four-race deal with Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series.

Eckes, 17, won Sunday’s race at Salem Speedway while driving for Bill Venturini. The win came in his 16th start in the series.

The native of Middletown, New York, will make his Truck Series debut June 16 at Iowa Speedway in KBM’s No. 46 Toyota. He will drive it again on June 23 at Gateway Motorsports Park, Oct. 27 at Martinsville and Nov. 9 at ISM Raceway.

“The opportunity to compete for Kyle Busch Motorsports in my NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut is a dream come true — my first chance to get behind the wheel of the No. 46 Tundra can’t get here soon enough,” Eckes said in a press release. “I can’t thank everybody at Toyota Racing, Mobil 1 and all of my supporters enough for making this possible.”

In 2017, Eckes collected four top five and nine top-10 finishes in 10 ARCA events and four top five and five top-10 finishes in six CARS Super Late Model Tour starts.

In December 2016, Eckes won the Snowball Derby Super Late Model race at Five Flags Speedway in a narrow finish over John Hunter Nemechek.

Cody Glick, who oversees KBM’s Super Late Model program, will serve as Eckes’ crew chief in his four starts. Glick earned his first career Truck Series victory in Kyle Busch’s win from the pole at Bristol Motor Speedway last year.

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Xfinity Spotlight: Noah Gragson on impressive Xfinity debut, being Dale Jr. ‘fanboy’

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Noah Gragson admits he was a bit full of himself when he made his Camping World Truck Series debut in 2016 at ISM Raceway.

“I won a couple of K&N races, I thought I was going to be one of the top dogs and be competing for the win and that just didn’t happen,” Gragson told NBC Sports of the race where he started 14th and finished 16th.

Things started better for the 19-year-old driver in the Xfinity Series. The Las Vegas native, who competes full-time in the Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports, made his debut last weekend at Richmond Raceway with Joe Gibbs Racing.

As part of a three-race deal, which continues this weekend at Talladega, Gragson started 11th, led 10 laps and fought teammate Christopher Bell for the win before placing second.

“I told myself before this weekend, I said, ‘Listen, these guys are good, you’re stepping up a level,'” Gragson said. “I just tried to remind myself that, ‘Yeah, I’m not the top dog. I’m going to get my ass stomped out here.’ That’s how I felt. I felt it was going to be a rude awakening. It wasn’t. I don’t know what was different, but I just felt a lot more comfortable. … I just felt like it came to me a little bit more. I was on my game.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

Noah Gragson celebrates his first Truck win at Martinsville in 2017. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: When I last interviewed you two years ago, I asked how you viewed NASCAR growing up. You said you “didn’t respect” it because you “didn’t think it was hard.” Now that you’re more than a few years into your career, how hard is it? How easy is it compared to what you thought it would be?

Gragson: Like I said a couple of years ago, I thought NASCAR was just driving in circles, and not in a disrespectful way. I didn’t know, I wasn’t educated on the sport. It’s just what I figured. You never know until you try it. … Being in it now, understanding everything that goes into it, I didn’t know there was this much preparation that goes into a weekend. That’s what I’ve been really trying to focus on this last year, I’ve been trying to change up the way I prepare before I go the race track. Just being on top of it and not having to ask questions and already knowing the answer to those questions is the biggest thing I feel like. With enough preparation and the right preparation, you won’t have to ask any questions when you get to the race track. … It’s a lot tougher Monday through Friday than I ever figured it would be.

NBC SportsIf you could have picked any three tracks to get your Xfinity start at, would these (Richmond, Talladega, Dover) have been those tracks?

Gragson: Talladega I can assure you wouldn’t be. I’m still a little timid, a little nervous about going to Talladega. Richmond I really liked. I think I had a good idea that I would run somewhat decent just at Richmond. I really like that track, just on video games. I was hoping it would kind of translate to real life and I think it did. If I could build a top-three schedule, probably Richmond, Iowa and maybe like a road course. I also like Dover quite a bit. I feel like I run really good there on “NASCAR: Inside Line” in a Cup car on Xbox. Hopefully it’ll translate to real life.

NBC Sports: With the resources you have at Joe Gibbs Racing and Kyle Busch Motorsports who have you been talking to the most about what to expect this weekend at Talladega?

Gragson: I haven’t really talked to anybody pretty much yet. I was going to talk to Kyle Busch maybe a little bit. He hasn’t run the Xfinity cars in a while, so I might talk to him just about some small stuff, but also probably Joey Logano. I’m working with his management team, Clutch Studios and Clutch Management. They’ve been a help to me. Joey helped me a little bit before Richmond along with Kyle Busch. I would talk to those two guys and then Eric Phillips, my crew chief and what not, try to get a game plan before we go.

NBC Sports: In your pre-race interview at Richmond you said you were more nervous than the first time you leaned in to kiss a girl. Did you wake up with that feeling Friday or did it creep in over the course of the day?

Gragson: I think it just creeped in over the course of the day and then you walk over to driver intros and everything is going off and then it hits you when you’re walking back to you car and you’re like, ‘Damn. This is real. I’m going to be making my first Xfinity start. This is a pretty cool deal, this is a big opportunity.’ You’re standing there and you’ve got everybody around you. A lot more than a truck race for sure. Just all that hype and that pressure comes together and like I said, yeah, it hits you and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is big. I better go make something happen here.”

Noah Gragson drive his No. 18 Toyota in the Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: Who did you learn the most from just by racing around them over the course of the night?

Gragson: Probably Tyler Reddick. In practice I was following him. I wasn’t getting frustrated, but I was kind of at a road block where I just didn’t know where I needed to be on the race track and I went up behind him in practice and I followed him and I changed up my line a little bit closer to what he was doing and boom, I picked up a couple of tenths and we were back on pace. … I don’t think anybody knows that, but that’s probably the thing that helped me the most.

NBC Sports: Has anyone delivered you ice cream via Twitter lately?

Gragson: Breyers did. Breyers sent me some, which was really cool. … They sent me vanilla, a couple things of vanilla ice cream. Which was super cool. They saw my tweet and they said ‘We’ll get on it’ and they sent me some, which I didn’t actually think they were actually going to do, but I got a package. I was all fired up. I love some ice cream.

NBC Sports: What’s the coolest thing that’s happened to you because of social media?

Gragson: Probably getting followed by Dale Jr. After that whole wasabi deal last year. So I did that and he liked the tweet and retweeted it and he followed me and I was a total fanboy. … When he followed me I was losing it. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Dale Jr. just followed me.’ It was so awesome, so I took a screenshot. Just getting those guys to follow me is really, really cool.

NBC Sports: Which social media platform is your favorite?

Gragson: Probably Tinder. No, I’m just kidding. I’m kidding, I’m kidding, I’m kidding. JK on that one. I like Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Probably Instagram, then Twitter and Snapchat.

NBC Sports: Why that order?

Gragson: Snapchat use to be my favorite but it’s trash now. They messed up the whole story deal. You’d be better off trying to find a Wama on (video game) “Fortnite” than finding a story on Snapchat. … It’s really, really tough to navigate Snapchat now and I really do not enjoy it. I feel like it’s taken away a lot of my viewership, their new update.

(Writer’s Note: Earlier in the interview Gragson discussed his schedule for the week, which involved mailing merchandise purchased by fans).

NBC Sports: You talked about your new merchandise and selling it. Are your merchandise sells your primary way of measuring how large your fan base is? If not, what is?

Gragson: Probably the amount of likes I get on Instagram helps me kind of gauge. I really pay attention to the insights and data, the numbers and what not to my posts. I feel like with Instagram they have a really good way for people to see what their engagement is and other insights. I really pay a good amount of attention to that. I kind of notice when some posts get viewed more than others. Just the timing of it and what not. That’s really the biggest thing.

NBC Sports: At any point does it feel like social media is too controlling of your life, too overwhelming?

Gragson: No, I don’t feel that way. Some might not agree. It’s not bad.

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