(Lee Stalsworth)

If you think NASCAR crashes look brutal, you haven’t seen sprint cars in action. Fearless drivers in small towns across America race these ultra-lightweight vehicles at speeds approaching 140 miles per hour. If two sprint cars so much as brush their exposed wheels against each other, both vehicles go flying end-over-end in opposite directions. At least seven sprint car drivers died last year alone.

When sculptor Salvatore Scarpitta began watching sprint car racing while growing up in L.A. in the 1930s, the sport’s safety record was even worse.

“He was struck by the joyfulness with which the drivers risked their lives,” says Melissa Ho, curator of “Salvatore Scarpitta: Traveler,” which opens at the Hirshhorn on Thursday. “Scarpitta saw something life-affirming about voluntarily taking on that kind of risk.”

Scarpitta, who died in 2007, went on to become a famous artist, but the smell of burning rubber never left his nose. In 1964, he began building sprint cars in the style of the racers of his youth. In 1985, he bought a modern sprint car and gave it a pop-art paint job. The next year, with the help of gallery owner Leo Castelli, Scarpitta bought another car and started his own racing team.

Scarpitta was claiming sprint cars — and the experience of racing them — as art. Like painting, dance and music, “car racing has no utility beyond being an expression of human passion,” Ho says.

Two of Scarpitta’s cars are on view at the Hirshhorn alongside 17 other works. The two cars happen to be Scarpitta’s only full-sized race cars still in the U.S.

“Collectors in Europe went crazy for them,” Ho says. “We’re lucky to have any.”

— Curator Melissa Ho speculates that the senseless violence of the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in 1979 was meant to contrast with the calculated risk taken by race car drivers. “Car racing disasters are entirely different than the kind of disaster brought upon you by larger political or social forces.”

— Salvatore Scarpitta bought a Trevis-model sprint car in 1985, gave it a pop-art paint job and named it after himself. The “Trevis Race Car (Sal Gambler Special)” acted as a talisman for Scarpitta’s real-life racing team, Ho says. “The car in the gallery provided spiritual support for the cars out on the track.”

— Scarpitta enlisted Baltimore artist and sign-painter Larry Poncho Brown to add lettering and illustrations.

—Scarpitta may have painted this basketweave pattern himself. “Larry didn’t remember painting it,” Ho says.

— Sprint cars have asymmetrical back tires, since they are constantly turning left on tracks that are around a half-mile long.

— Scarpitta had Brown add the Bazooka logo to complement the candy logos on the wing, which remained from the car’s original sponsor, a candy distributor.

— Scarpitta brought a sketch of his beloved pitbull, Vito, for Brown to paint on the car.

— The 1,500-pound car was capable of sustained speeds of up to 130 miles per hour, thanks to a 670-horsepower alcohol-injected Chevrolet engine. Modern sprint cars go upward of 140 miles per hour and weigh as little as 1,400 pounds, including the driver.

— The Prime Rib steak house, which still has locations in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., sponsored Scarpitta’s team. On the other side of the car, gallery owner Leo Castelli and team engineer Walt Shriver receive shout-outs. “Scarpitta is very deliberately treating all those things on an even playing field,” Ho says. “He is not elevating Castelli over Shriver, even though they are people from completely different worlds.”

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW; through Jan. 11, free; 202-633-1000. (L’Enfant Plaza)

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