My First Impression of Cotton Owens

Dale Wilkerson                                          April 2011

You never forget the first time you meet a sports legend, and my first encounter with NASCAR Legend Cotton Owens is a day I will never forget.

I was a senior in high school, spring of 1983, and I had an old 1971 Plymouth Satellite. It wasn’t a sport edition; in fact it was a four door that had spent several years as a taxi. My Uncle, the late Howard Wilkerson, ran Inman Cab Company for many years, and he sold daddy, the late Willie Merle Wilkerson, this car pretty cheap.
It looked rough, but it ran well. In fact, that little 318-engine was rather peppy. After taking the taxi markings off the doors, hood and deck lid, there were several spots that had bare metal showing. Then one night, our border collie was in a fight with a possum. Daddy went out to take a shot at the possum and he winged the left rear door of the Plymouth in the process.

I used that bullet hole and the spots of bare metal to add to the legend of that car. I told a few classmates that the car was the same one that Daisy Duke shot while she was eluding Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane in one of the first episodes of the Dukes of Hazard. I told folks that the bare metal was where the Hazard County markings were removed, and even though this car was painted a pale shade of gold, a lot of people took the story hook, line and sinker.

That back left door had some other issues months later, as a door slamming shut one day after school resulted in a broken window. A classmate said to me, “You need to see Mr. Mopar, Cotton Owens. You might find that window there cheap.”
The next day, I set off after school to Cotton Owens Enterprises, which at that time was off Asheville Highway, not far from Heron Circle. I started getting a few butterflies because I had never met Cotton Owens. His name meant speed and horsepower to me. I knew of his accomplishments as a driver and owner in NASCAR and I was afraid he would just tell me to scram.

I parked my Plymouth near one of his garage bays because I thought it might help if Mr. Owens, or one of his crew members, saw me getting out of a Chrysler product. I really expected to talk to one of his employees, but much to my surprise, the first person that offered to help was Mr. Cotton Owens. As I stepped into the garage, I couldn’t help but notice a rather large engine on a stand, which had the spark plugs in a very usual place.

The conversation went something like this:
Cotton Owens: “Hello son. Can I help you?”
Me: (with a nervous stutter) “Yes sir, I am looking for a window for my Satellite.”
Cotton Owens: “What model is it and which window do you need?”
Me: “It’s a ‘71 model and it is for the back, left door sir.”
Cotton Owens: “I’m sorry; we don’t have any right now. We might get one in a few days, but you would be better off to go to a glass dealer. Could I do anything else for you?”
Me: “Yes sir, (turning toward that large engine) is that a hem..” (That was all I got out before he answered me.)
Cotton Owens: “Yes son, that right there is a 426-Hemi, just about the strongest engine ever made. It will make that ‘ole Satellite walk and talk, and I could sell it to you today for $5,000, installed.”
Me: “Wow!!! That would be nice, but I don’t have that much money right now.”
Cotton Owens: “Well, come on back when you do and we will fix that Plymouth up right for you!”

After thanking him for his time, I walked back to my car smiling from ear to ear. I had never seen a 426-Hemi before and it looked strong just sitting there waiting to be lowered into a car. Then to have Cotton Owens offer to sell it to me, I couldn’t help but imagine how my right foot would have felt dropping the hammer at Greer or Shadyside with that many horses at my beck and call.

Several years passed since that day but I found myself with the opportunity to speak with Cotton Owens again. Four years ago, when I started working with ESPN Radio here in Spartanburg, Bud Moore asked my brother Britt and I if we wanted to join him for lunch at the Peach Blossom. When we walked in, Bud introduced us to the folks at the table, including Cotton Owens.

I told him the story of the first time I had met him, and that I wished I could have bought that Hemi from him. Cotton laughed and replied, “For that price, I wish you had bought several from me, they would be worth a small mint today!”
I have had the opportunity to interview Cotton Owens several times on the show. He and his good friend Bud Moore have co-hosted the show with me on live remote broadcasts and both have made numerous trips to the studio, including last week’s episode.

Every time I speak with these two legends, I gain more respect for them not only for their work on the racetrack, but what they did as young men during World War II. I don’t have a vote for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, but if I did, the number one name on my ballot for 2012, would be Everett Cotton Owens.