Photo Credit: Ryan Gillmore Photos
By: Toby Christie – Follow on Twitter @Tobalical
Greg Stumpff’s amazing art skills were spawned by his high school art teacher Matt Locke. Without valuable lessons from his teacher, this pupil would probably not be where he is today.
Since his early days painting in high school he has now moved on to being an up-and-coming helmet designer for NASCAR drivers, crew members as well as drivers in all forms of motorsports. His company is called Off Axis Paint, and there along with his friend and fellow artist Hunter Dodson (who also attended art class with Mr. Locke) are starting to make some waves in the NASCAR community.
Stumpff was gracious enough to take time out of his jam-packed schedule to do an exclusive interview, where he will get a chance to tell his story.
TC: How long have you been in the profession of helmet art?
GS: I’ve been airbrushing for about 12 years now, but we really started professionally with the helmets about three years ago.
TC: So you started by airbrushing on your own at a young age?
GS: Actually I learned when I was in high school. My high school art teacher [Matt Locke] really taught me how to do it. He’s the one that saw my talent when I was in a fundamentals class, I guess I exceeded the normal freshman art level.
He airbrushed in his free time and actually painted for a few local dirt track racers. Just basic helmet designs at the time, and I really took a liking to that. I started painting my first few, and they were just really really bad. But I quickly learned how to use an airbrush and got a lot better with every one I painted.
TC: You mentioned how your first few attempts at painting helmets didn’t go all that well; what are the unique challenges of having a spherical piece of plastic or fiberglass as your canvas?
GS: Not many challenges now, but back when we first started out it was the lines. They looked completely different on a flat surface, than when you put them on this basically globe shaped object. You can draw it one way, and when you start laying it out on the helmet, it’s completely different. You always have to figure stuff like that out.
TC: Now from airbrushing in high school, to where you’re at now. How did you stumble into painting NASCAR helmets?
GS: It’s actually a cool story. I feel I’ve worked my way up the ladder like any NASCAR driver would.
I grew up in Missouri going to dirt tacks on Saturday nights for as long as I can remember. After high school I started travelling with the Lucas Oil Dirt Series, I started getting a couple bigger national name drivers off of that. From there I painted for some ARCA drivers.
Probably two or three years ago, I was at Talladega and J.J. Yeley called me. He said he had seen some of my work and would I be interested in painting one of his. Now I’m in North Carolina just like anyone else who’s trying to make it in this business.
TC: As a young racing fan from Missouri, to be in North Carolina painting helmets, you’ve got to be like a kid in a candy store.
GS: Yea exactly how I feel sometimes. We just moved the shop out here last year. We’ve been looking at a few shops now for well over a year, but we’re here and settled in with all of these big race teams just down the road. Now we get to go to the shops and actually meet the drivers and crews were painting for instead of phone calls and emails half way across the country. It’s almost surreal when you think about where we were three or four years ago.
TC: Every design that you’ve made through your career is probably special, but what is your favorite helmet you’ve personally designed?
GS: That’s a good question, nobody has ever asked me that. I did a Where’s Waldo one for David Ragan last season for Martinsville. That was a really unique helmet and great working with them because they aren’t a normal NASCAR sponsor . Usually when I paint a helmet everyone likes at the shop we always want to keep it for a display piece. You spend a lot of time with these– 10-25 hours on each one so you’re almost sad to see one go after all that time detailing. especially the ones going to a dirt track driver since they take such a beating every week.
TC: The drivers themselves are huge on brand identity. A big part of their brand identity are their helmets, and you guys — the artists — aren’t talked about very often. Do you feel almost like an unsung hero of helping drivers become more recognizable?
GS: Yeah I do sometimes. You see some really good artwork on these. There’s some really great artists out there I didn’t even know until I started painting helmets and there’s tons of fans out there who don’t know any artists at all. That’s a big reason why we moved to North Carolina to brand ourselves and be seen face to face. A personal relationship with these guys is a much bigger deal than just painting helmets.
TC: Speaking of personal relationships, do you ever get starstruck when a driver comes to you to design his or her helmet?
GS: Sometimes. Is this only NASCAR stuff or anybody?
TC: It can be anybody.
GS: I’m not really starstruck anymore, but if I had to say one it would be the Gravedigger monster trucks. I used to be the biggest fan since probably three or four years old. So for them to call me and ask me to do the 30-year anniversary helmet and all of the replicas it was a cool feeling. It was a huge stepping stone for the businessas well because it was one of my first big projects. Every time I looked at them I thought, “man I can’t believe I’m painting helmets for one of my childhood heros.”
TC: Obviously in your field you’re going to see your competition’s work. Who is one driver that you think should reconsider their helmet design?
GS: Hmm. I don’t know, everyone who drives for NASCAR really has clean looking helmets now days. I guess the only ones I think should reconsider are those who show up with plain black or white helmets.
TC: Is there a community of people in your industry? Do you guys keep in touch and can you draw from each other, or is it more of a “this is my secret” kind of situation?
GS: Yes and no. You’re going to have some guys who keep their secrets, and “stay away from my customer” guys, but I would say we have a healthy rivalry with Ryan Young from Indocil. If I have questions I can email him and he will usually do his best to help us out. His shop does a lot NASCAR helmets as well so we try and keep the lines of communication open. It’s a rivalry, but there’s a level of respect between our shops. We don’t steal each other’s customers or designs anything like that we’re just constantly trying to impress one another.
TC: We’re roughly a week away from the start of the NASCAR season (You know that), explain the time crunch, and how feverishly you guys are working to get everything ready for the teams and drivers in Daytona.
GS: Next Monday I have to be on a flight to Florida for the start of Speedweeks. I’ll be down there for the dirt track races making sure all the helmets get delivered, and to make sure the pit crew helmets are ready to go before the shootout. Right now I’d say we probably have well over 50 helmets that have to be done by next week. We’re working at least 12 to 14 hours per day if not more and seven days a week. It’s just Hunter and I airbrushing and we have one other who does all of the prep work for us. It’s just three of us here, and we’re working non-stop to get all of these helmets done.
TC: In your years of painting helmets what’s the coolest moment or maybe perk or gift you’ve received for your hard work?
GS: Michael Waltrip Racing actually gave us one of the pit crew helmets back signed by all of the crew members because they are our first big Sprint Cup team to use us this year. That’s pretty cool of them, they didn’t have to do that. Definitely something to hold on to and look back later in our careers.
TC: And what a great time to latch on to Michael Waltrip Racing, they have become a power house.
GS: Yes they have. That team is probably one of the easiest ones to work with. I’ve been to about all of the NASCAR shops and they are the most fan-friendly and the nicest bunch of guys to hang out with. They definitely deserved their moment last year.
GS: We have David Ragan. Blake Koch he’s an upcoming driver who’s going to be full-time Nationwide Series. Mark Martin is back with us, we’ll be doing all of the Aaron’s helmets for him. Chris Buescher who won the ARCA Series championship last year, he’ll be racing in some of the Nationwide Series this year. Of course J.J. Yeley and Ken Schrader.
Also one of the bigger names in the Nationwide Series is Justin Allgaier. We just started doing his helmets towards the end of last year. Cool story about him, he actually comes to the shop to help us design these helmets and even sands them from time to time. I think he really enjoys working with us because he’s an artist as well. It’s always nice to paint for a driver who really appreciates all of the time involved.
TC: The fact that he has chosen you guys speaks volumes. I have been to Justin’s website he has a section dedicated to his helmets.
GS: He has a lot of helmets. We were actually at his house a couple of weeks ago and he was showing us his helmet collection, its huge. If he wasn’t racing, he’d be a rival helmet painter I can guarantee it. He’s extremely good at what he does with his art and he’s been a big help to us at the shop. We both come from midwest dirt tracks so he’s a perfect fit here. All and all I’m really glad we’ve got the opportunity to paint for a top notch driver like him.
TC: How can fans and our readers keep up with you?
We actually just got a couple go-pros and we’ve filmed for the last three weeks of all of the pitcrew helmets and other helmets we’ve done for Daytona, so we’ve got a lot of videos coming in the next few months.
TC: That sounds pretty awesome.
GS: We hope. It might be as boring as watching paint dry, but we hope to entertain some people.