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Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Life imitates art: Sam Bass was my hero, and friend

Editor’s note: Harris Lue is a graphic designer for NASCAR Digital and a friend of Sam Bass. These are his thoughts on the passing of his friend.

NASCAR’s first officially licensed artist. The first time I saw that tagline my mind was blown. You mean I could draw cars and make NASCAR artwork for a living? I knew my entire life I wanted to be a NASCAR artist like Sam Bass, and I did everything in my power to follow the track Sam paved for me and so many others.

Sam quickly became my hero at age 4 upon getting my first Charlotte Motor Speedway program at the 1997 All-Star Race. Already an avid NASCAR fan, I was on the edge of my seat, program in hand, eager to see my favorite drivers race. It turned out to be a-life changing evening.

Dale Earnhardt’s Wheaties car, Darrell Waltrip’s Chrome No. 17 and Jeff Gordon’s infamous “T-Rex” raced for all of the cash in a shootout that saw the T-Rex dominate the field (with a not-so-legal setup) and end up in Victory Lane. Little did I know the same man that made the artwork on that program cover also designed those breathtaking paint schemes I quickly fell in love with.

RELATED: Sam Bass dies following illness

In the years to come I always kept that program close. I spent afternoons trying to redraw the perspective of Dale Earnhardt’s car chasing the likes of Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, Michael Waltrip and Dale Jarrett coming out of Turn 4 in Charlotte. I tried to copy the illusion of fans in the stands holding up cards to make an IROC Firebird and Randy LaJoie’s No. 74 Xfinity Series car. And always saved the firework-filled sky with the portrait of Waltrip’s No. 17 for last.

Harris Lue Sam Bass 1
NASCAR designer Harris Lue, left, with Sam Bass.

Of course, I never once came close to matching the elegance of the original piece, but along the way I learned essential skills like lighting, reflection, perspective and how to balance all of those pieces to create one cohesive layout. The passion that stemmed from that first taste of NASCAR art led me to take every creative class I could and influenced my pursuit of a Graphic Design degree from the East Carolina University School of Art & Design. In 2016, my dream of becoming a NASCAR artist became reality when I accepted my current position as a member of NASCAR Creative Design.

In that moment, I was on top of the world.

After picking up my first Coca-Cola 600 credential at Charlotte as an employee, I happened to duck into the gallery of Sam Bass’ work. Being a huge fan, I wanted to bask in the sea of NASCAR art — but once I crossed the threshold, I was shocked to look over and see the man himself! I audibly made an exclamation I can’t publish here, clearly star-struck. I was embarrassed by the uncontrolled outburst, but Sam laughed, cracked his classic smile and invited me over to his autograph table.

He happened to be sitting directly below the painting of Dale’s Wheaties car from my first race 19 years prior. The meeting allowed me to tell Sam how much that night meant to me, how that paint scheme was my favorite and how the program cover was part of what led me to where I am today. He talked about the design process of “Champion’s Choice” and how he embellished the orange helmet and suit, and how Earnhardt loved it so much during the race that he wanted to keep the orange paint for the 600. When I told Sam I was a graphic designer, he hopped up from behind the table and took me through a full tour of his studio. He showed me his drawing board, his custom Van Halen refrigerators, his memorabilia stash, the guitar collection, the framed original Wheaties box and his pen and ink drawings of his first car — and his newest car that matched. Both of our first cars were Ford Mustangs.

RELATED: Remembering Sam Bass through his artwork

For both of us, our cars helped influence our art. Sam told the story of buying the ’05 model that matched his ’72, and I shared how I had an ’87 convertible to go along with my first ’93. In that moment, we were just car guys shooting the breeze.

Not long after the race I thanked Sam via text for the behind-the-scenes look at his workplace, and we began to build a friendship I never could have imagined. For the next three years I had the opportunity to ask my hero the hows, whens and whys of some of my favorite paint schemes and art pieces. I got to hear firsthand what it was like to work with icons like Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. I really got to get to know the man behind the paintings and picked his brain about anything and everything NASCAR art.

More recently, we began sending each other the pieces we were working on or getting ready to release. We’d text for hours. Whenever I employed some of his techniques, he noticed before anyone else, and his advice and critiques were always held with the highest regard. He trusted me as much as I trusted him and treated me like an old friend. No matter what was going on in his life, Sam was happy to drop everything and talk design for a bit. Eventually, after telling my girlfriend (and fellow NASCAR artist) Emily Butler the story of that first meeting in the gallery, she commissioned him to do pen and ink drawings of my Mustangs that matched his. They were a surprise birthday gift last year.

Sam Bass Drawing Main

No matter where Sam was in his health journey, he always made sure to ask how I was and how my life was going. He kept me informed on his condition, but never wanted it to seem like a burden. That’s who Sam was.

We were up late chatting in November about his Kannapolis Intimidators logo unveil. During the conversation, he sent me the picture of Dale grinning ear-to-ear and talked about how much this was a career highlight. Toward the later hours, he texted “I haven’t meant to keep you up all night. Sorry, I just really enjoy talking with you, and respect your opinions so much!” It was in that moment I let him know how much these conversations meant to me, and that I would’ve stayed up into the next week talking to Sam, my hero. I’m forever thankful for those conversations now. Knowing that he respected my opinions and valued my friendship as much as I valued his is more than I could’ve ever imagined.

When the news of Sam’s passing began to spread throughout the NASCAR community, the hole he left was immediately evident. The news was delivered to me by friend and fellow NASCAR artist Daylon Barr. I’ll be forever grateful for how he put his arm around me and comforted me on pit road in Daytona that Saturday. My whole world was a little darker that day. I had lost an amazing friend and mentor, the shooting star that I had chased for so long.

Harris Lue Sam Bass 2

Social media filled quickly with the bright colors and swift motion of Sam’s artwork in remembrance of his life. Each piece was carefully chosen from a body of work so big that I rarely saw the same thing twice. It’s comforting to know that a NASCAR fan doesn’t have to look too far to find a piece of his work, and I find hope in knowing that there are many others like me that hung on to every brush stroke and every air brush speckle as inspiration to make their own NASCAR art. It’s with that drive and mentality that we can all push the look of this sport in new directions while serving to honor our history through the preservation of Sam’s artwork and its presence in NASCAR culture.

I would like to end with a little note to Sam:

Your paint schemes are iconic, your artwork is forever and I know your influence will be felt as long as there are graphics on a race car. Thank you, Sam, for paving the way for us. More than anything, thank you for being a friend.

Talk to you soon, buddy.

Your friend,

Harris Lue