Cotton Owens Hall of Fame: Driver and Mechanic
April 2009 Dale Wilkerson
A year after being inducted as a member of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, Cotton Owens soon will be inducted in the South Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. Owens had a Hall of Fame career as a race car driver, as well as a mechanic and crew chief.
Owens was known as the King of the Modifieds, winning more than 100 feature races. He battled back from injuries in 1951, to go on to win the NASCAR National Modified Championship in 1953 and 1954.
His first win in what is now known as the Sprint Cup Series came on the old Daytona Beach track in 1957. With this win, Owens scored the first ever win for Pontiac and he recorded the first ever average winning speed over 100mph for a NASCAR event. The old beach race used two miles of Daytona Beach and two miles of Highway A-1-A. Owens completed the race at an average speed of 101.541-mph.
“I would ease over to the edge of the water and some of the other teams thought I was running hot, but I realized that there was more traction on the wet sand, so I drove it over there ever chance I got. Now out on the road, the racing could get a little scary. That road wasn’t hardly wide enough for two trucks, so we all hoped we could do our passing on the beach,” said Owens.
When the Daytona International Speedway opened, Owens continued to set speed records. He turned the fast qualifying lap for the 1959 Daytona 500 at a speed of 143.198. He went back in 1960 and won the pole for the 500 at a speed of 149.892mph.
Owens finished second behind Lee Petty for the 1959 season. “Lee started a few more races than we did, but we had a good year,” said Owens.
In 1961, Owens had four wins in 17 starts, 11 of those 17 being top ten finishes. Because of that nagging injury, Owens decided to step away from driving and become a crew chief and team owner. He stepped away from driving, but he kept his helmet close by.
Owens started one race in 1963, and he finished in the top ten. The following year, he and driver David Pearson were talking before the Richmond race. “We kept going on at each other, I told him I might just get back in one a car another time. Jim Paschal, who drove the number five car for me couldn’t make the race, so I decided to run that race. Petty and Pearson found me on pit road and gave me a hard time because I wasn’t at the right place for driver’s meeting. I reminded them that I had qualified fourth and they were back in seventh and eighth, so I was already ahead of ‘em. The car ran good that day, and I beat Pearson and the rest of them,” said Owens.
Owens ran one more race during the 1964 season. He ran second at the Orange County Speedway, to Ned Jarrett, in his final start.
Pearson won eight races in 1964 and the Owens Racing Mopars looked poised for a strong run in 1965. But NASCAR outlawed the famous 426-HEMI. Owens and Pearson went drag racing.
“Several Chrysler teams went drag racing in 1965. Petty ran that Barracuda for a while and we put Pearson in a class that ran nitro and alcohol,” Owens said. “We built the Cotton Picker, it was a station wagon and we put the big hemi in the back of it, more less a direct drive. Pearson set a record at Bristol for the longest wheelie by a dragster.”
NASCAR welcomed the Hemi engines back late in 1965. Pearson won two races and Cotton Owens Enterprises was set for their best year. In 42 races, David Pearson won 15 times, finished in the top five 26 times and inside the top ten 33 times to lock up the 1966 NASCAR Championship. Pearson and Owens picked up two more wins in 1967 before splitting a couple months into the season.
Owens continued to field cars though 1973. Buddy Baker won the 1970 Southern 500 for Owens. Baker was known for a heavy foot as a driver and he stands about 6’5” so you would think special things would need to be done to make him comfortable inside a racecar.
“I found out early on, the best way to make Buddy Baker comfortable inside a racecar, was to make his right foot happy,’ said Owens with a chuckle on Droppin’ the Hammer last spring. When Bud Moore was asked the same question, he gave the same answer.
Owens cars won 41 races and 38 poles over 487 races. Owens also maintained cars for Marty Robbins, the Country Singer who, instead of playing golf on the weekends, Robbins would go drive a race.
In Spartanburg, anyone who has owned a Plymouth or Dodge new if they need parts, Cotton was the man to see. He has helped many folks restore cars by finding the right parts. He helped his grandsons during their dirt racing days and is more than happy to sign an autograph for race fans today.
I have had the opportunity to set down for lunch with Bud Moore and Cotton Owens. I should have carried a recorder with me. The stories that these men can tell about NASCAR is truly the history of the sport. Without Cotton Owens and Bud Moore, NASCAR would not be where it is today.
These men and their teams raised the bar higher with every lap. Their pit crews challenged their competitors to work harder and faster. Their never ending desire to make cars safer has paved the way for NASCAR to lead the racing industry in safety advances.
As members of the Greatest Generation, these men fought for our freedom. After they came home, the laid the foundation that helped the France Family establish NASCAR for many years to come.